Book review: Between two fires

I’ve been reading a lot recently – let’s face it, apart from watching TV and working out on the basement exercise machines, there isn’t much else to do during the coronavirus lockdown. And one of the things I’ve been reading a lot about is the Constitutional Democratic (or Kadet) Party, which was Russia’s leading liberal political organization in the early years of the twentieth century. The Kadets have long since been consigned to Trotsky’s infamous dustbin of history, but my reading has turned out to be surprisingly relevant to the book I’m reviewing today – Joshua Yaffe’s Between Two Fires. It’s all a matter of political compromise.

The thing you have to grasp about the Kadets is that they were often rather dogmatic. As one Russian historian puts it, ‘The Russian liberal of the early twentieth century wasn’t able to abandon the role of idealistic oppositionist and recognize realities and the necessity of compromise’. Looking back on events, one Kadet, Prince V.A. Obolenskii, summed up the prevailing attitude in this way:

We thought the following: the authorities were hostile to the people. Thus, any official in state service, however useful, was in the final analysis harming the people as he was strengthening the power of the government. Besides which, we saw before us a whole series of people of very left wing convictions who had entered government service and gradually got accustomed to compromise and lost their oppositional zeal.

Between 1905 and 1917, the refusal to compromise with the Russian state had catastrophic consequences. On various occasions in 1905 and 1906, the Kadets were offered a role in government under first Sergei Witte and then Pyotr Stolypin, but always refused the offer, preferring instead to seek the complete destruction of the autocracy. Likewise, instead of using Russia’s new parliament, created in 1905, to propose constructive reform measures, they chose instead to block Stolypin’s reform program and use the parliament as a soap box for denouncing the government. Eventually, in 1917 they got their wish and saw the hated autocracy destroyed. But it didn’t do them any good, as they themselves were swept away by the tide of revolution just a few months later.

The more sensible of the Kadets understood that they were making a huge mistake, that compromising with the state, however much you dislike it, is often a much better option than seeking its overthrow. As shown in another book I’ve just finished reading – a biography of the prominent Kadet jurist and politician Vasily Maklakov – Maklakov repeatedly urged his colleagues to understand that democracy would never be possible in Russia unless people learned the art of compromise. But his fellow Kadets paid no attention. They paid for it dearly.

The lesson of all this is pretty clear, but reading Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, it seems that there are some who would prefer that Russians again adopted the principles of the Kadets. For the theme of the book is the moral dangers of compromising with the Russian state (thus the subtitle ‘Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia’), and while Yaffa states that he doesn’t condemn those who choose to cooperate with the ‘Putin regime’, it’s pretty obvious that he thinks that it’s not a good thing.


Continue reading Book review: Between two fires

Memory politics

The Russian-language version of the journal ‘Russia in Global Affairs’ has published a section in which various commentators say 500 words or so about the conflicts over historical memory which have become prominent in recent times (e.g. the spat between the presidents of Russia and Poland about the origins of the Second World War). You can find them all on the journal’s website here, and among them is a piece by my good self. In case you don’t speak Russian and want to read what I have to say, an English version is below. This is what I had to say:


History is a political tool. It is through references to the past that we legitimize or delegitimize our political and social systems. It is no surprise, therefore, that different groups compete to control their society’s historical memory. Where competing narratives are incompatible, this competition can be quite bitter in nature, as can be seen, for instance, in the dispute in the American south over Confederate monuments, and by that  in Ukraine over the memory of the Second World War.

The logical way to resolve such issues is through objective historical research (insofar as such a thing is possible). In the 1980s, there were sharp disagreements among historians about the number of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror. In the context of the Cold War, some historians regarded it as important to keep the numbers high in order to delegitimize the Soviet Union, and so resisted attempts to revise the numbers downwards. In the end, however, the dispute was settled in favour of the revisionists. For once the Soviet archives were opened, it became possible to adjudicate the dispute on the grounds of firm evidence.

Unfortunately, the power of history is such that politicians are all too often not content to leave it to the historians. This can be seen, for instance, in legislation passed in various countries declaring certain atrocities to be ‘genocide’ (for instance the Armenian genocide and the Ukrainian Holodomor). The selective nature of such declarations as well as the often disputable nature of the judgements, points to these being essentially political statements, designed to enforce one form of historical memory over another.

Inevitably, the political nature of such acts is evident to those who feel that their own historical memory is being traduced. Politicized historical memory thus often backfires. This is true on the international as well as the national level. As Robert Jervis has pointed out, states often fail to realize that other states perceive things differently. This applies to the field of historical memory as much as any other, as we can see in the recent argument between Poland and the Russian Federation about the Second World War. The Poles’ belief that the Soviets, in liberating them from the Nazis, subjected them to a new form of occupation is perceived in Russia as an attack on the legitimacy of the Russian Federation. But the Russians’ insistence that that the Soviets were liberators, not occupiers, is perceived in Poland as a sign of unwillingness to repent of past sins, and thus also as an indicator of possible future aggressive intent. The more each side insists on its righteousness, the less it convinces the other.

Disputes over historical memory are part and parcel of political competition. It is no surprise, therefore, that the debate about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War should have become so sharp at a time of rising East-West tension. When that tension subsides, the historical disputes will probably become less tense too. In this sense, they are perhaps more a symptom than they are a cause of conflict.

Beware Russians on campus

My university has pretty much shut down this week due to coronavirus, which gives me an opportunity to talk about some non-virus-related stuff to provide readers with a bit of a distraction. Among these is a newly issued report by the Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose contents make me think that closing down our universities may be a good thing as it will safeguard national security against the rampant ‘ foreign interference’ apparently prevalent on campus. Every cloud, and all that!

Continue reading Beware Russians on campus

Putin 2036?

Russian politics keeps turning up surprises, and you have to think that some of them surprise even those at the top of the Russian power system themselves.

When Vladimir Putin proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few weeks ago, the general reaction of the Western press was to declare the act as a ‘power grab’ and proof that Putin intended to remain in power beyond the end of his last constitutionally permitted term as president in 2024. This narrative had a number of problems. First, since the press had been telling us for years that Putin already had absolute power, it was hard to see how he could be ‘grabbing’ it. Second, once the exact wording of the proposed amendments was announced, it was obvious that far from permitting Putin to stay in office, they guaranteed the opposite. Furthermore, Putin specifically ruled out taking a job other than president, such as head of the State Council, thereby undercutting all the speculation that he was jiggling the system in such a way as to allow himself to continue to be in charge even while not being president. For a while it really did look like Putin would be well and truly gone in 2024.

Until today.

In a completely unexpected development, Valentina Tereshkova, best known for having been the first woman in space but now a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, proposed to the Duma that once the new constitutional amendments come into force, the count of how many times somebody can be president be reset to zero. This would allow Putin to stand once again for president in the election of 2024, and to serve two more terms as far as 2036.

Tereshkova’s proposal seems to have taken the Duma completely by surprise. Worse, nobody knew what to do with it. The idea hadn’t come from the Kremlin – at least not directly – but deputies couldn’t be certain that Tereshkova wasn’t acting as a conduit for Putin, and they didn’t want to vote her idea down just in case she was. What to do? The answer was temporary paralysis, as the Duma tried to find out what Putin really thought, a problem which was resolved only by an emergency meeting attended by the president himself, who turned up at the Duma a short while after Tereshkova made her proposal to make an unscheduled speech. In this, Putin said ,

The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the Constitutional Court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the Constitution.

In short, Putin gave his consent to the idea, subject to a ruling from the Constitutional Court.

Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?

It’s next to impossible to know what’s actually going on here. For the past few weeks, Putin’s been sending strong signals that he really does plan to leave in 2024. So this is quite a reversal. The cynic in me imagines that in a political system as tightly controlled as Russia’s, today’s events can’t have been a surprise to the president. But the way it happened – the temporary paralysis in the Duma, and Putin’s sudden, unscheduled speech – suggest something rather more spontaneous. I pronounce myself flummoxed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean for certain that Putin will stay on as president post-2024. It’s possible that even if permitted to stand again, he’ll decide not to. Nor does it mean, as the Daily Telegraph immediately announced, that Putin would now be president ‘for life’. But it certainly opens up the possibility that he’ll be hanging around in power for a lot longer yet. Having said that the proposed amendments precluded that (as indeed they did before today), I find myself once again contemplating the wisdom of avoiding making firm predictions while engaging in punditry. What’s going to happen next? I don’t know. All we can do is sit back and see how things unfold.




Toronto for Putin!

The more Russophile elements of the online universe are up in arms today about the latest attempt to smear presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as some sort of Kremlin agent. This follows an article in the New York Times describing how as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders endeavoured to find a ‘sister city’ in the Soviet Union, eventually signing a twinning agreement with the town of Yaroslavl. No matter that the twinning program in question was approved by no less a person than Republic president Ronald Reagan, there was obviously something dodgy about it, the Times implies. Vote for Bernie at your peril!

This kind of Russia-related scaremongering has become commonplace in the United States since late 2016, when the Democratic Party decided to make Russia the central point of Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Donald Trump. Fortunately, we’ve been relatively free of it up here in the frozen north, but only relatively. For every now and again somebody pops out of the woodwork to strike fear in Canadians about their Arctic neighbour, Russia.

And so it was that on Wednesday, the Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, General Jonathan Vance, told a conference in Ottawa that, ‘the most immediate state-sponsored military threat, if I could caveat it that way, that we face right now and today in physical space is Russia’. Others piled on. Lieutenant General Christopher Coates, deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, remarked that ‘Russia today represents the greatest short-term threat to North America’. And American writer Frederick Kagan, invited to Ottawa for who knows what reason, told the conference that, ‘We are collectively … standing around waiting for the next play to start while the ball is actually live and the Russians are running back toward our goal. This is not an interwar period. The war is on.’

I’ve somehow missed the fact that my country is at war. I really ought to wake up. For while we sleep, the Russians are taking us over. They’ve even managed to capture our largest city.  Or at least, that’s what the Toronto Sun thinks, judging by an article published yesterday, headlined ‘Is Toronto under the sway of Russian propaganda?’ Clearly, the Sun wants its readers to think that the answer is yes. Author Marcus Kolga who, on behalf of the Baltic diaspora, has undertaken heroic efforts to enlighten Canadians about the Russian threat, laments that ‘the City of Toronto Parks department cynically rejected a proposal’ to rename a ‘small street inside Earl Bales park’ after murdered Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. Note how they didn’t just reject this proposal, they rejected it ‘cynically’. What moral turpitude has infected our municipal leaders!

Apparently there was an online public consultation about the renaming, and it would appear that it didn’t go too well for the proposal. Kolga suspects Kremlin manipulation of the results. ‘It would not have taken much effort by staff at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the St. Petersburg troll factory, to undertake such an effort,’ he says. Forget about the war in Syria and the like. Toronto Street names are clearly top priority back in Russia.

The failure to honour Nemtsov is the least of our problems, though. Even more exasperating from Kolga’s point of view is the atrocious fact that last month Toronto city council allowed the Russian consulate to use the foyer of city hall to put up an exhibition about the Second World War. This included displays on outrageous topics such as ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’, ‘The Siege of Leningrad’, and ‘The Holocaust: Annihilation, Liberation, Rescue.’ City council had allowed the Russian consulate ‘to post historical propaganda posters’, complained Kolga on Twitter, linking to a message from the consulate which included the following shocking example.


It’s ‘outrageous’ that this happened, said Kolga on Twitter. I’m sure, dear readers, that you share his outrage. This cannot be tolerated. As Kolga said in the Toronto Sun:

It is difficult to comprehend how the Nemtsov street naming project … was rejected while a Russian Government initiated and sponsored historical propaganda exhibit … was allowed to proceed. … The Mayor and Council should immediately revisit the decision to reject the naming of a street … in honour of this great Russian hero … The City must immediately review policies and reject all attempts by malign foreign states to hijack public spaces in our city to advance their own false narratives in order to manipulate our citizens.

God forbid that Torontonians learn about the Second World War or the Holocaust. They might, for instance, conclude that Baltic collaborators were on the wrong side of history. We must prevent this ‘malign’ attempt to ‘manipulate our citizens’. But Kolga got one thing wrong. It isn’t ‘difficult to comprehend’ how this happened. The answer is obvious. Toronto is ‘under the sway of the Kremlin.’ What other answer could there be?

%d bloggers like this: