Drifting towards authoritarianism, or not

Remember the news stories and op-eds a month ago saying that Vladimir Putin was about to ‘recreate the KGB’ by merging Russia’s various intelligence and security agencies into one super-agency, to be called the Ministry of State Security, MGB? The story originally appeared in Kommersant, and then spread far and wide. ‘If true’, wrote Mark Galeotti, ‘it suggests Putin is seriously worried about his future. … Besides this fits a wider picture of a drift toward authoritarianism’. The creation of the new agency, added Galeotti, ‘would allow even more intensive and aggressive espionage overseas. … That should send alarm bells ringing across the West.’

RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore agreed: ‘I think the low turnout in the election, the supermajority that United Russia secured, and the specter of a revival of the KGB are related,’ he wrote, ‘Vladimir Putin appears to be moving away from electoral authoritarianism and toward plain old authoritarianism.’

Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph sought to scare readers by noting that the title MGB was the same as that used by the Soviet security services under Stalin (at least part of the time). According to the Telegraph, ‘Kremlin critics were horrified by the possible rebirth of an organisation synonymous in Russia with political oppression. “It’s time to get out [of the country],” wrote Elshad Babaev, a Twitter user. “Anyone who can should take the opportunity”.’

Since then, the much touted new super-agency has mysteriously failed to materialize. On Monday, Komsomolskaia Pravda published an interview with Putin’s former chief of staff Sergey Ivanov, in which Ivanov was asked whether it was true that he was going to head this agency. Ivanov replied:

This is one hundred percent fake! No Ministry of State Security has been considered or will be considered. I can confidently say that. It’s a classic example of somebody thinking up a fake, throwing it out, and then people commenting on it for a long time. It’s the production of news in the absence of real news.

Where does that leave the ‘drift toward authoritarianism’, I wonder?

Book Review: The New Politics of Russia

Given the hyperbolic hysteria which characterizes so much analysis of Russia, it is good to come across a book which studiously avoids all that and instead calls for ‘a sophisticated, empathetic understanding of Russia and how it works.’ In The New Politics of Russia: Interpreting Change, published this year by Manchester University Press, Andrew Monaghan of St Antony’s College, Oxford, denounces what he calls ‘the mainstream view of Russia in the West’, which he calls ‘narrow, simplistic, and repetitive.’ He analyzes the reasons why Western observers have continually been surprised by Russian actions and finishes by laying out his own model of how the Russian political system works. His book challenges Russian ‘experts’ to reconsider their assumptions.


Continue reading Book Review: The New Politics of Russia

Friday book # 39: Victims of Yalta

This week’s volume covers very similar subject matter to a previous Friday book – Nicholas Bethell’s The Last Secret – namely the forcible repatriation of Soviet citizens and Russian emigres at the end of the Second World War. Author Nikolai Tolstoy subsequently lost a famous libel case against Lord Aldington (Toby Law), who had been a brigadier in the British Army at the time of the repatriations. Tolstoy and co-defendant Nigel Watts were ordered to pay £1.5 million in damages.


Double standards again

One of the interesting aspects of the research I am conducting into the history of Russian conservatism is the contemporary resonance of texts written 100, 150, or even 200 years ago. My point here is not to express approval or support of what was written, merely to say that, if you change a few names, much of it could be written today. As a means of understanding contemporary Russian thinking, some of these older texts are quite insightful.

Take for instance Nikolai Danilevskii’s 1869 book Russia and Europe, the 2013 translation of which by Stephen Woodburn I have just started reading. As early as page one I could not but notice the contemporary relevance. Danilevskii complains of Europe’s double standards. Why, he asks, did Prussia’s and Austria’s flagrant aggression against Denmark in 1864 fail to arouse any sense of indignation among Europeans, whereas Russia’s earlier war against Turkey (notionally in defence of Christians) generated immense moral outrage and the creation of the coalition which defeated Russia in the Crimean War. Substitute the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (or any other example of American or British aggression) for the Prussia/Austrian invasion of Denmark, and substitute Russia’s current war in Syria for its earlier war against Turkey, and you can see that, in Russian eyes at least, not much has changed in the past 150 years. For some reason, a double standard applies when moral judgements are made about Russia and the West.

To illustrate the point, here are some key excerpts from Chapter 1 of Russia and Europe, starting on page one.

[P.S. I am thinking of starting a regular feature which would involve the weekly publication of extracts from other Russian conservative texts chosen for their contemporary relevance (and, I stress, not as a mark of approval). I think this could be educationally useful as well as providing a good springboard for political discussion and getting feedback on my research. My previous translation and publication of Ivan Ilyin’s ‘Against Russia’ got a lot of readers, so maybe these would too. It would be good to know if there is any interest.]

  Continue reading Double standards again

Foreign education

According to the website Znak, a strong recommendation has been issued to Russian state officials to bring home any children who are studying abroad. Strictly speaking, this is not mandatory, but ‘One of the sources said that anyone who fails to act, will find such non-compliance to be a “complicating factor in the furtherance of their public sector career”.’ This follows instructions issued several years ago prohibiting public officials from holding financial assets abroad.

This issue is not a new one. Russians have been debating the pros and cons of foreign education for several centuries. Sometimes the state has encouraged it; other times it has done its best to suppress it.

It is Peter the Great who is most often celebrated for opening Russia up to the West, but he wasn’t the first Tsar to send young Russians abroad to study: Boris Godunov had already done so about 100 years previously. But the scale of foreign education certainly increased dramatically following Peter’s reign. Travelling abroad became common for members of the Russian elite.

Under Alexander I, however, the situation changed. The liberalism which marked the early years of Alexander’s reign vanished following the war against Napoleon. In its place came a form of religious obscurantism which regarded higher education with immense suspicion. Fearing that Russian students would be infected with rationalism, atheism, and nihilism, the government ordered that they be prohibited from studying in foreign universities.

Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I, was in some respects even more reactionary, and had a similarly negative view of foreign education. But his long-standing education minister, Count S.S. Uvarov, was rather more enlightened. Under his guidance, Russian universities underwent a major expansion, the quality of teaching greatly improved, and the flow of students abroad began again. Only after the European revolutions of 1848 and Uvarov’s dismissal did the regime again clamp down on foreign study.

The retrenchment which followed 1848 did not last long, however, as Nicholas I died in 1855. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Russia once more opened up the world. The revolution of 1917 then changed everything. For the next 70 years, access to foreign education remained very restricted. By the Brezhnev era, there were exchange programs between many Soviet and Western universities, but the total number of Soviet students able to study in the West was always fairly limited. Any advantages which the Soviet state might accrue from having a better educated population was outweighed by fear that Soviet youth might imbibe Western liberalism or would come to realize how poor and inefficient their own country was with comparison with the West, and thus come to doubt the validity of communist doctrines.

In the 1990s, the collapse of communism permitted Russian students to study abroad in massive numbers. The new prohibition will not entirely stop this, as it applies only to the children of public officials. It is also somewhat different to past efforts to restrict foreign education. In Muscovite Russia, under Alexander I, and then in Soviet times, the primary motive for such restrictions appears to have been fear of ideological contamination. This is not the case today. The exact reasons for the prohibition have not been made public, but a couple have been suggested.

First, ‘It appears that the underlying reason behind the command is that the Russian government is concerned about the optics of having children of the Russian political elite being educated abroad, while their parents appear on television talking about patriotism and being “surrounded by enemies”.’ Viewed this way, the decision is driven by internal Russian politics and a desire to appease nationalist sentiment.

Second, the decision can be seen as a continuation of the policy of isolating Russia’s elites from the West so that they cannot be pressured by Western governments. Just as officials have had to remove their financial assets from the Wests, so they now have to remove their children also, lest they be in effect held hostage.

Either way, as a professional educator, I don’t think it is a good idea. There is a reason why rulers such as Peter I encouraged study abroad – the knowledge young Russians acquired brought benefits to Russia as a whole. Furthermore, it is unwise to have an elite which is entirely isolated from foreign business and intellectual currents. If Russia and the West are to overcome their current difficulties, they need more interaction not less. As one commentator remarks, the measure ‘underscores the severity of the ongoing diplomatic crisis and just how significant the upcoming isolation between Russia and the West is likely to become in the coming months.’ As such, it is not a move we should welcome.

Update: It turns out that this story is probably false (see comments section). An unfortunate aspect of modern media is the tendency to leap upon unsubstantiated stories and make more out of them than they deserve. In this case, I plead guilty!

Update 2: Maybe I apologised too quickly. Vzgliad.ru writes that while there has been no official circular making such a recommendation (that officials bring their children home), in practice ‘officials, who intend to climb up the service ladder, or simply to join the state service, are asked where their relatives live. And if it turns out that they study in London or Paris, and their parents live in the USA, then this is grounds for an explanation of why those close to them have chosen to do so.’ Vzgliad defends this practice, saying that it is necessary to ‘liberate the nomenklatura from the West’, although it also says that this is just part of what needs to be done to improve the public service. From the available evidence, I can’t say whether officials are really being pressured in the way described, but what is clear from the Vzgliad article is some Russians consider it a good idea. It’s therefore worth commenting on regardless.


Russia, the West, and the world