Garbage in, Garbage out, again

I’ve complained before about the habit of the intelligence community of inviting evidence from a very narrow group of experts, occupying what can only be called an extreme position. Well, here we go again.

The long awaited report on the Russian ‘threat’ by the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has finally come out. Having downloaded it, I immediately turned to the back page to see where the committee had got its information, on the principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out’. Having done so, I am afraid that I let out an expletive so loud that people from the other side of the house ran over to see what was wrong. For this is what I saw:

Oh, FFS. Applebaum, Browder, Donnelly, Lucas, and Steele. Really??? I’m assuming that most readers know these names, but just in case you don’t, it’s like they’ve pulled in all the most discredited, Russophobic ‘experts’ they can find, and ignored everybody else who has any sort of knowledge of the subject. This is not a representative sample of expert opinion about Russia.

I have no objection to one or two such people being summoned as witnesses, but when all you have is representatives of the most extreme wing of the Russia-watching community, some of whom, most notably Christopher Steele, have been thoroughly discredited, then what you are not getting is a balanced, all-round picture of what you are studying.

The report thanks these witnesses for the fact that ‘they provided us with an invaluable foundation for the classified evidence sessions’. In short, the five external witnesses mattered. The picture of Russia provided by these people is the ideological rock on which the rest of the report is built.

Such an extreme, one-sided set of external witnesses not only casts doubt on the value of the information provided to the committee, but also on the impartiality of the committee itself. It speaks to extreme lack of an open mind, as if experts were chosen because they conformed to a strong predisposition which the committee was not interested in challenging.

Intelligence work requires a willingness to consider multiple competing hypotheses. Looking at the list of ‘experts’ makes it clear that this committee has only been exposed to variations of one – ‘Russia is evil’, ‘Russia is out to get us’, ‘Russia is inherently aggressive and dictatorial’. This is no way to do intelligence work.

I’ll write something about the content of the report in my next post. But as I said, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

Of Mosques and Churches

A few years ago, our local church closed down. Since then, a local group has bought the building and turned it into a successful business, renting out for the space for meetings, and opening up a café in the basement. Still, I can’t walk by it without a sense of loss. It was one of the most significant religious buildings in town, with some striking stained glass windows, including one dedicated to Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden, and another, very unusual one, in memory of the dead of the First World War. Borden’s funeral took place there, as did the only royal wedding ever to happen on North American soil. No doubt those who use it now will appreciate it, but something has been lost. Stripped of its religious function, it will never quite be what it once was.

Things are created for a purpose. To be all they can be, they have to fulfill it. Take it away, and they can remain beautiful, magnificent, awesome, but yet will still be incomplete. I feel this way, for instance, about British stately homes. It’s all very well and good to open them up to the public, so that all and sundry can see what lies within, but unless someone lives there too, they are no longer homes, just empty shells. The same could be said for the rooms. Is a dining room really a dining room if nobody ever dines there? Its true splendour can only be realized in the course of a meal. Likewise, a library is just books just gathering dust unless somebody comes in sometimes, picks one out of the shelf, and does some reading. A house needs to be lived in. A church needs to be worshipped in. And so on. Otherwise, they are mere husks.

For this reason, I never understood the fuss a couple of years ago about St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, when citizens of that city protested against plans to restore control of the Cathedral – which the Soviets had turned into a museum in 1931 – to the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s a cathedral after all. It was designed as a place of worship, not as a cold, dead museum, and however much visitors may like gazing at it, its fully glory can only be understood during the act of worship. To insist that a church should not be a church strikes me not only as absurd but as contrary to the natural order.

Following the same logic, I likewise find myself unable to join in the general hysteria regarding the decision last week by Turkish president Recep Erdogan to turn Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Completed in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia was perhaps the most important cathedral of the Orthodox religion until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when it was turned into a mosque. In 1935, in act strikingly similar to what the Soviets did with St Isaac’s, it was turned into a museum as part of Ataturk’s campaign of secularization. It is, I think, rather ironic that the prelates of the Russian Orthodox Church are now complaining about the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque at a time when they themselves are doing all they can to restore their own country’s religious sites to their original usage. What suits one should suit the other, it seems to me.

The outrage seems to reflect a fear of Islam, its growing strength in Europe, and the concomitant decline in Christian belief in the Western world. It is as if Erdogan is rubbing the ex-Christian world’s face in its own loss of faith and declining international power. But truly, there is no reason to be outraged. Hagia Sophia was a mosque from 1453 to 1935 – that’s almost five hundred years. Its architecture contains numerous Islamic elements, including four tall minarets. Most of its Christian imagery was removed centuries ago. It is a mosque. Pretending otherwise is silly.

If the complaint is that religious sites of one faith should not be usurped by another, then the outrage is nearly six hundred years too late. Besides which, the conversion of places of worship is a two-way process, from Christian to Muslim, but also vice versa. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Cordoba was once the Grand Mosque, and is considered one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in Spain. Should the Catholic Church shut it down, and turn it into a museum? I don’t see anybody arguing that.

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

Like the churches the Soviets shut down in Russia, for the past 85 years Hagia Sophia has been a mere shell of its former self, an inert simulacrum rather than a living being. Now, it will be filled with the sounds of worship; it will once again become what it was meant to be; at last it will be alive. I find no reason to object.

Afghan tales

I’ve said before, and no doubt will say again, that depictions of Russia often have little to do with Russia itself and are more about those doing the depiction. For many in the Western world, Russia is, and long has been, a significant ‘other’, comparison with which serves a useful purpose in the creation of self-identity. Beyond that, negative (and on occasion even positive) portrayals of Russia feed into domestic political struggles and help legitimize one side or other in whatever argument people are having. Whether these portrayals of Russia are accurate is neither here nor there. What matters is their impact on domestic politics.

Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but historians who have looked at how Westerners have viewed Russia over the course of time have amassed enough evidence to show that it’s often the case. If you doubt it, then you have merely to look at what has happened in the United States in the past four years, during which time Russia has been elevated into enemy number one, an allegedly existential threat which is on the cusp of destroying American democracy and plunging the country into civil strife. The point of the Russiagate hysteria has never been Russia itself. Rather it has been to delegitimize the election of Donald Trump as American president by portraying him as, in effect, a traitor, who has sold out his country to a foreign enemy. This narrative, of course, presupposes a foreign enemy, for which purpose one has had to be created, and Russia has proven a convenient candidate for the role.

It is this, I think, which explains the latest Russia scandal to strike the United States – the claim this week in the New York Times that Russian military intelligence has been paying the Taleban in Afghanistan to kill Americans. I am, of course, not in a position to testify as to the accuracy of the complaint, but like others am deeply sceptical of anything that is based solely on the testimony of anonymous intelligence officials and that lacks any supporting evidence. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times’s story has led to much derision, being interpreted as a sign once again of the deeply Russophobic nature of the American press. I think, though, that that interpretation may miss the point, which is that the story, like so many others, is not really about Russia but rather yet another effort to discredit Donald Trump as a puppet in the control of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

This is because a key aspect of the story was an allegation that Trump had been briefed about Russia’s nefarious activity but had done nothing in response. As might be expected, Trump’s enemies in the media were quick to exploit the story to attack the president. For instance, MSNBC’s prime Russiagate cheerleader Rachel Maddow had this to say:

Not only does the president know … there was that unexpected and friendly conversation he had with Putin. … President Trump got off that call with Putin and immediately began calling for Russia to be allowed back into the G7. … That’s how Trump is standing up for Americans being killed for rubles paid by Putin’s government.

Maddow’s colleague, MSNBC morning news host Joe Scarborough, followed suit. ‘Donald Trump has known about Putin killing Americans for months and has refused even to condemn Russia diplomatically. What Republican senator will speak out against this shocking dereliction of duty?’ he tweeted. Other journalists were equally outright in their condemnation. ‘While Trump was cozying up to Putin, Russia was paying the Taleban to kill American troops in Afghanistan,’ said GQ’s Laura Bassett on Twitter; and so on.

Whether any of this was true was something that none of these journalists bothered to ask. They simply assumed that it was, for the obvious reason that always assuming the worst about Russia suits their political agenda. Most notably, Trump’s electoral rival, Joe Biden, said this about the president:

Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin. … His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.

The problem with all this is that, as with so much of Russiagate, it appears to be entirely false. The White House immediately denied any knowledge of the Afghanistan story, and the Director of National Intelligence backed up Trump by confirming that, indeed, the president had never been informed about the alleged Russian activity. As so often, The New York Times appears to have been peddling ‘fake news’. None of this, however, has stopped Trump’s opponents from seizing on the story as further evidence of the president’s treachery.

The question in my mind is what will happen should Trump lose the presidential election in November, an outcome that now seems likely. It strikes me that there are two possibilities. The first is that the Democratic Party and its supporters will lose interest in stories of alleged Russian malevolence, as they will no longer be needed. A Biden victory in November could, therefore, lead to a lessening in the current rhetorical tension. The second possibility is that nothing will change. Democrats, I fear, have come to believe the nonsense that they have been peddling, to the extent that it’s become part and parcel of who they are. They are therefore incapable of altering course, and will govern on the basis of the prejudices they have generated in themselves over the past few years. I would like to think that the first possibility will come to pass, but I have to say that I’m not too optimistic. As for what will happen in the event that Trump is re-elected, I dread to think. But at that point, America might well be engulfed in flames, and Russia will be the least of anybody’s problems.

They need great upheavals – we need a great Russia!

As I continue my research into Russian liberalism, today I took another look at a famous speech to the Russian parliament by Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin in May 1907. In contrast to the ‘street’ and ‘opposition’ liberals noted by Boris Chicherin in a piece I translated earlier on this blog, Stolypin was an exemplar of what Chicherin called okhranitel’nyi liberalism – supporting liberal measures and a strong state. Thus, he sought to restore stability to Russia following the troubles of the 1905 revolution by a combination of tough law and order on the one hand and liberal reform on the other.

Stolypin’s program included legislation to expand civil rights and an agrarian reform designed to turn peasants into individual property owners. Unfortunately, Stolypin’s program ran into opposition both from the reactionary right and the liberals and radicals on the left. Stolypin argued for giving peasants the right to exit the communes to which they belonged and turn the land they tilled into their own private property. The left instead insisted on keeping the commune, expropriating private and state land, and redistributing that land to peasants, but not as their private property. It was against this opposition that Stolypin delivered his speech of May 1907 in support of his agrarian reforms. I thought it worth publishing excerpts of it (the whole is too long), since, as far I can tell, it isn’t available online in English. So here it is.

Although the speech is more than 100 years old, if you want to understand the mentality of modern Russia’s ruling class, it’s not a bad place to start. Indeed, it is noticeable that Russian president Vladimir Putin has both quoted this speech and said that Stolypin is among the historical leaders that he most admires. Beyond that, it is, I think, an excellent speech for its statesmanlike qualities.

Excerpts from a speech by Pyotr Stolypin to the 2nd Duma, 10 May 1907 (From Thomas Riha ed., ‘Readings in Russian Civilization’)

Members of the State Duma … I think that all Russians who long for peace in their land desire a speedy solution to the problem which undoubtedly contributes to the growth of sedition and rebellion. Thus I will ignore all those insults and accusations which have been made here against the Government. Nor will I stop to discuss attacks which resembled hostile pressure on the regime. Nor will I discuss the principle of class revenge … which some here have advanced. Rather, I will try to take a statesman-like point of view, and will try to handle this question completely objectively, and even dispassionately.

Continue reading They need great upheavals – we need a great Russia!

No enemies to the left

‘Only when a genuine, complete un-freedom arrived – absolute and deadly – only then did we understand how free we had really been in Imperial Russia.’ (Ivan Ilyin)

Before 1917, Russian liberals believed that they were not free, and that they lived in an oppressive state which needed sweeping away. To this end, they adopted the slogan ‘No enemies to the left!’ While not engaging in political violence themselves, they refused ever to condemn it, except when carried out by the state or the political right. Regular readers will remember that I recently wrote a piece in which I mentioned the refusal of the leading liberal party of late Imperial Russia (the Kadets) to cooperate with the Tsarist government, a refusal which arguably led to their own destruction. I got a bit of pushback on this from a very eminent scholar, who with some justification noted that the Kadets were in a difficult position and that the primary reason for the disaster which eventually struck Russia was the reactionary stubbornness of the Tsarist authorities. That’s fair enough – there was blame enough all around. But as I continue reading about the era, I’m struck by the liberals’ attitude to revolutionary violence and so, having read an academic article today which touches on the subject, it is to that topic that I now turn.

The article in question, by Israeli scholar Shmuel Galai, calls the liberals’ refusal to condemn revolutionary violence ‘neither a very logical nor a defensible position.’ As Galai notes, the Kadets argued that ‘while they themselves did not subscribe to violence as a means of struggle, it was not the business of a political party to pass moral judgement on the actions of other parties or movements. They also argued that the savage policies of the government were responsible for the revolutionary violence.’ This was, of course, nonsensical – passing moral judgements on other political parties and movements is very much politicians’ business. Furthermore, the idea that you can criticize the government, but not revolutionary mobs, is simply preposterous. So what led to this absurd, and ultimately self-destructive, proposition (which the Kadets in any case didn’t respect, since they were more than happy to morally condemn the violence of right wing groups)?

Roughly speaking, one can divide the reasons into two categories: tactical/political and ideological. Let’s look at each in turn.

The liberals’ primary aim was to coerce the state into making sweeping political concessions. Peaceful measures having failed to get the government to compromise, the political violence of the revolutionaries was seen as useful, even necessary. As one leading liberal philosopher and political activist, Pyotr Struve, wrote: ‘when it comes to national liberation, both the revolutionary struggle and peaceful and moderate opposition cannot do without one another’. The Kadets’ leader Pavel Miliukov was equally clear, declaring that ‘Until political freedom comes [all the opposition] will make common front against the common enemy [i.e. the state]’. ‘We must act,’ he said, ‘each as he can and according to his own political convictions. Do as you like, but act! All means are now legitimate against the terrible threat latent in the very fact of the continued existence of the present government.’

‘We are for revolution as long as it serves the aims of political liberation and social reform, but we are against those who support permanent revolution,’ Miliukov said. In other words, the liberals hoped to use to revolutionary violence to force concessions from the state, at which point they imagined that they could jettison the revolutionaries as having served their purpose. This was, of course, extraordinarily naïve. The revolutionaries had absolutely no intention of being so jettisoned. And while the liberals felt that they needed the radicals, the reverse was far from being true.

Still, the liberals felt that to condemn revolutionary terror would not only weaken the struggle against the state but also undermine their own electoral prospects. Simply put, liberals and revolutionaries were competing for the same constituency. As historian William Rosenberg notes, the Kadets had to maintain their own internal cohesion and ‘maintain their electoral following and cater to popular militance.’ According to Rosenberg, therefore, ‘politics superseded ideology’ in determining the Kadets’ position.

This does not mean, however, that ideology played no role. Russian liberals were, by European standards, rather left-wing. Leftist revolutionaries might have been seen as mistaken in their choice of tactics, but they were regarded as wanting more or less the same things at the end of the day. In other words, their methods might have been wrong, but their hearts were in the right place. By contrast, the heart of the government was viewed as entirely rotten. For Russian liberals, therefore, the revolutionaries were not the enemy. The state was.

Few liberals had any doubts that Russia’s troubles were the government’s fault. Revolutionary violence was a symptom not a cause. Eliminate the cause (the government) and the symptom (the violence) would vanish also. What had to be condemned, therefore, was not the violence of the mob, but the violence of the state. Thus in a debate in the Russian parliament (the State Duma), Kadet deputy Vasily Maklakov argued that terror from above was more dangerous than terror from below, while another Kadet, Sergei Bulgakov, pronounced ‘that he abhorred violence from whichever side it came, but on the issue of terror, the government was mainly to blame. The moment it stopped wielding terror from above, the revolutionaries would cease their terror campaign from below.’

With hindsight, one shudders at the foolishness of Bulgakov’s words (to be fair to Bulgakov, like Struve, he later repented). In 1917, the liberals got their wish. The hated autocracy was overthrown. The ‘terror from above’ ceased. Civil liberties were granted. The prisons were emptied. The gendarmerie and other repressive organs of the state were abolished. And did the ‘terror campaign from below’ come to an end? No, not a bit – once the constraints were relaxed, the revolutionaries proved to have a will of their own, and rather than giving up and going home pressed forever onward. At that point, many liberals suddenly changed direction and swung to the right, looking for a strong man, such as General Kornilov, who could save them. But it was too late. Law and order, once hated and undermined, proved impossible to restore when its value became obvious, and the liberals and all they cherished were swept away, as Trotsky said, into the ‘dustbin of history’.

Reminiscences of Soviet history

When my time is up, will anybody be interested in what I did as an academic studying Russia? Off the bat, it doesn’t seem like a gripping subject for a memoir – ‘And then I wrote this article, and then I wrote that one.’ One can’t imagine it being a great page turner. But it might be useful nonetheless, at least if other examples are anything to go by. Two recent memoirs by Anglo-American scholars provide an interesting comparison of how Cold War era Western academics sought to make sense of the Soviet Union, as well as the manner in which Soviet studies were never purely an academic phenomenon but always inherently political.

The authors could not be more dissimilar. Peter Reddaway, author of The Dissidents: A Memoir of Working with the Resistance in Russia, 1960-1990, is something of a Cold Warrior. By contrast, Lewis Siegelbaum, author of Stuck on Communism: Memoir of a Russian Historian is red through and through, while sensibly avoiding being a Soviet apologist. Reddaway’s view of the Soviet system is top-down, sharing the views of his supervisor at LSE, Leonid Schapiro, whose book on the Russian revolution, according to Reddaway, described it as the work of a small group of people who ‘enjoyed but little popular support’ but ‘seized power for themselves … and kept others from sharing it.’ Siegelbaum, on the other hand, views the Soviet Union from the bottom up, concentrating on labour and cultural history, trying to work out, among other things, what made Soviet workers tick. The two scholars’ attitude to the firmly anti-Soviet (and some would say, Russophobic) historian Richard Pipes strikingly illustrates their varying views of Russia. Seigelbaum notes that Pipes’ ‘representations of the patrimonial/totalitarian/garrison state remain a distorting lens through which to view Russia’s history, [and] crowded out social forces among other things.’ Reddaway’s take is very different. ‘Over time,’ he says, ‘I moved toward the camp of the [Patricia] Blakes and the [Richard] Pipeses in my view that all things Soviet were fair game for analysts in the West’.

Both Reddaway and Siegelbaum benefitted from the opening up of the Soviet Union in the Khrushchev era to make trips there. Reddaway remarks of his first visit that, ‘I embarked on the trip as someone with a critical view of Soviet Communism’. Nothing he saw in Russia ever changed his mind. Instead, it reinforced it, and for a while he assisted the Russian émigré organization NTS by editing its magazine. The NTS was founded in the 1920s by young officers of the anti-Bolshevik White armies, and in the Second World War was associated with the collaborationist Vlasov movement, so you get a sense of the circles in which the young Reddaway moved. Later, as a student at Moscow State University (MGU) his only contact with ‘ordinary’ Russians seems to have been conversations with taxi drivers. Otherwise, he spent all his time in the company of what he calls ‘liberal’ intellectuals. His ability to mix and mingle in Moscow literary circles appears to have been quite remarkable, soon acquiring a large circle of friends among disaffected elements of the Soviet intelligentsia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this eventually resulted in him being expelled from the country.

reddaway

Continue reading Reminiscences of Soviet history

Marching into oblivion

I’m not one of those people who look back on the Cold War with nostalgia. Whatever our current problems, they’re relatively mild to the threat of global nuclear war which used to seriously worry people back in the day. ‘When I were young’, as the saying goes, two massive armed blocs – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – stood face to face, ready to roll at a moment’s notice, while much of the developing world was wracked with proxy wars. It wasn’t a good time. But the very danger of it did have one positive effect – it concentrated minds and made the more sensible of them realize that ‘jaw, jaw is better than war, war’ and that it would really be to everybody’s benefit if agreement was reached to limit the upwards spiral of the arms race.

Continue reading Marching into oblivion

Wishful democratic thinking

‘How coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings in the former Soviet Union’, says a headline in this week’s New Statesman, followed by the subheading ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’. That pretty much tells you the message that author Felix Light wants you to take on board – when it comes to dealing with the COVID crisis: ‘democracy good, authoritarianism bad’. It sounds nice. I’m a democrat. So are most of you, I imagine. We’d like to think that democracy works better than the alternative. But is it true?

‘In the former Soviet Union … if dictatorship is fumbling the coronavirus test, then democracy is passing with flying colours’, writes Light, contrasting the low infection and death rates in the ‘democratic’ Baltic states and Georgia with the higher rates in ‘dictatorial’ Russia, Belarus, and Central Asia (Ukraine doesn’t get a mention – perhaps Light can’t work out where to put it on the democracy-authoritarian spectrum, or perhaps it fails to fit his model). The reason, he says, is that ‘post-Soviet authoritarianism tends to mask relatively weak states. Even without a deadly viral pandemic, these regimes often find it difficult to perform bread-and-butter functions.’

There’s some truth to this, in that state capacity in many former Soviet states is relatively weak compared to, say, Western Europe or North America. But state capacity and democracy are not directly correlated. China has quite substantial state capacity, but isn’t democratic. Ukraine is considered more democratic than many other post-Soviet states but has perhaps the weakest state capacity of them all. Moreover, capacity is one thing; having the will to use it is another. When it comes to COVID-19, China has shown that it has both capacity and will; the United States, by contrast, has the capacity, but has shown relatively little will. Overall, looking at the data on which states have fared well and which states have fared badly during the COVID crisis, it’s very hard to see any correlation between success or failure on the one hand and state capacity on the other.

So let’s look at those statistics. Comparing them is difficult because some states do a lot more coronavirus tests than others, and so their higher infection rates may simply be a reflection of detecting a lot more asymptomatic cases. Also problematic is the fact that different countries use different criteria to classify the cause of death, with some putting the cause down as coronavirus if there’s even a suspicion that it might be, and others saying that it’s not an official coronavirus death if the deceased had the virus but actually died of something else. This produces wide differences in death rates from country to country. In the case of Russia, there are suspicions that the official death rate underestimates reality, perhaps by a factor of 2 to 3. There is some evidence to support this claim, based on the number of ‘excess deaths’ this year as opposed to last. However, this is hardly unique to Russia. According to the BBC today, the number of excess deaths in the past few weeks in the UK is around 50,000, whereas the official COVID death toll is about 28,000, suggesting that the official toll underestimates reality by a factor of 2. Given all these problems, the best we can do is accept that official statistics are questionable, but also recognize that the same errors arise across the board, and so take the data as a more or less accurate representation of comparative levels of infection and death.

And so what does the data tell us (focusing on death rates, as ultimately that’s what really matters)? Latvia has experienced just 19 coronavirus deaths, Estonia 61, and Lithuania 54. These seem like tiny numbers, but the population of these countries is very small too (Estonia being just 1.3 million). The death rates per million of population in these three countries are 8.3, 46.9, and 19.3 respectively, indicating quite a variation between them (Latvia doing quite well, but Estonia not so much).

Russia, meanwhile, has officially declared 2,305 coronavirus deaths, which equates to 16.5 per million inhabitants, a higher rate than Latvia, but much lower than Estonia, and a little lower than Lithuania. Belarus has declared 151 deaths, a rate of 15.9 per million – very similar to Russia, so again lower than Estonia and Lithuania. In Ukraine, there are 456 deaths, a rate of 10.1 per million. Kazakhstan claims only to have suffered 32 deaths, giving it a remarkably low rate of 1.74 per million. Uzbekistan says only 11 Uzbeks have died from coronavirus, despite a population of nearly 33 million, a death rate of 0.33 per million. And so on.

You can, of course, take the Central Asian results with a pinch of salt, if you want, but even if they are a substantial underestimate, there’s no evidence to suggest that the death rate there is any worse than in the Baltic States. Likewise, if you accept the claim that Russia’s official statistics underestimate reality by an order of 2-3, and simultaneously believe that the Baltic figures are 100% correct, then Russia’s true death rate ends up being pretty much identical to that of Estonia. And if on top of all that, you accept the classification of the Baltic States as ‘democracies’ and the other post-Soviet states as ‘authoritarian’, then Light’s claim that democracy is coping with the virus crisis better than authoritarianism simply isn’t borne out by the data.

And this isn’t the case only in the post-Soviet space. Let’s say that the Russian and Belarussian statistics underestimate reality by 200%, so that there are actually about 6,000 coronavirus deaths in Russia, and let’s also say (which, as we’ve seen, we probably shouldn’t) that official statistics in Western democratic states don’t underestimate at all. That would give Russia and Belarus a death rate of around 50 per million, while giving Western states the following rates: United States – 258; United Kingdom – 495; Canada – 141; Spain – 580; Italy – 499; France – 403; Belgium – 777; Germany (considered a European success story) – 94; and so on. The picture is pretty clear: while the situation is far from universally rosy and there are certainly no grounds for complacency, compared with the democratic ‘West’, all states in the former Soviet Union have fared reasonably well. Why that is the case is an open question, but regime type appears to have nothing to do with it.

The COVID pandemic, says Felix Light, has ‘underlined democracy’s public health advantages’, and ‘has simply incentivised governments to make sound pandemic policy decisions’. For simplicity’s sake, let’s put aside the somewhat unsophisticated division of states into categories of ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’, and similarly for simplicity’s sake let’s accept Light’s formula for which states fit into which box (the West, the Baltics & the Georgia – democratic; the rest – authoritarian). Is it true, as Light claims, that ‘coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings’ and that ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’? As I said, it’s a nice story, and the democrat in me would love to believe it. But, unfortunately for Mr Light, the stats say otherwise. It’s just another case of wishful democratic thinking.

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