Impossible victory

It’s always a pleasure to read the words of former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, so imagine my joy at breakfast this morning when I opened up the Globe and Mail and found his latest article, entitled “Peace in Ukraine requires a carrot and stick approach.” You get a sense of where it’s going from the very first sentence, which says: “I just returned from the contact line in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, which separates free Ukraine from the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbass region.” I suspect that a lot of Irrussianality readers would have stopped right there and turned instead to the sports section, but it’s my job to read this guff, so I ploughed on. And what great reading it made!

It’s pretty clear how Rasmussen sees the war in Donbass: Ukraine v. Russia, not Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians. “Nearly three million Ukrainians in the Donbass region live in fear,” writes our friend Fogh. True enough, perhaps, but I don’t think that for most of them its Russian artillery that they’re afraid of. But Rasmussen doesn’t let such little details bother him. Apart from spelling Donbass with two s’s, what follows in his article could pretty much have been written by the president of “free” Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, as if Rasmussen had just jotted down some Kiev briefing notes and recycled them for the Canadian press.

The core of the article is Rasmussen’s proposals for a “political solution” to the war. This involves “providing defensive equipment to the Ukrainian soldiers,” and “deploying a robust United Nations peacekeeping force to the Donbass region.” The former should include “night-vision goggles, signal-jamming equipment and radar to detect enemy firing positions.” Quite why this is purely “defensive” military equipment, Rasmussen doesn’t explain. It can just as easily be used for offensive purposes. As for his peacekeeping proposal, it fits exactly with what Kiev has been suggesting – not a mere protection force for OSCE monitors, as Russia has proposed, and not a larger force to separate the sides and patrol the area between them, but a mission which “stretches all the way to the Ukraine-Russia border to avoid turning the contact line into a de facto new border,” and which should also “protect the population and the infrastructure.” In short, it would be a UN occupation force, a bit like the one NATO sent to Kosovo in 1999. We all know how that ended up. In essence, this is a proposal for the Donbass rebels’ surrender. It’s also contrary to the Minsk Agreements, which stipulate that Ukraine should regain control of its border only after it has granted special status to Donbass and carried out local elections.

But good old Anders has some carrots to offer as well – “full sanctions relief”, when and if “Russia delivers on the withdrawal of troops [who these are he doesn’t say] and the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty … when all of Russia’s obligations are met.” No mention here of Ukraine’s obligations under Minsk, you will note. It’s not much of a carrot. “Give in to all our demands and then we’ll be nice to you,” is what it amounts to.

For that reason, Rasmussen’s proposal doesn’t have a chance of succeeding. When a war reaches stalemate, you can’t get peace by demanding that one side makes all the concessions. It won’t agree to it, and because the war is stalemated, you can’t force it to do so. In such a situation, the only way forward is something which takes both sides interests into consideration. Rasmussen seems utterly uninterested in that.

So what’s the alternative?

Continue reading Impossible victory


Centering the Russian Slav by destroying Russian culture

As regular readers will know, I’m not much of a fan of the Soviet Union, but whatever my political biases, as a professional historian I’m above all in favour of historical accuracy. If historical accuracy requires me occasionally to come to the Soviets’ defence, then so be it. So, here goes.

The Washington Post published an op-ed yesterday by Terrell Jermaine Starr which drew parallels between Soviet nationalities policy and alleged attempts by modern-day Russia to stir up racial tensions in America. The message was pretty clear: the Soviets were not just racists, but specifically Russian racists. So you shouldn’t be surprised that modern day Russians are too. Let’s look at this in detail.

Starr begins saying that “The Washington Post reported recently that Russia-backed entities spent at least $100,000 on Facebooks ads designed to pit white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general. … We still don’t know exactly how any of these social media efforts informed American voting choices in 2016.” Here we run into an immediate problem: $100,000 is the total allegedly spent on Facebook ads, most of which had nothing to with pitting “white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general,” but involved things like a dog lovers site, and one of which – the “Blacktivist” account – supposedly actually complained about white racism against blacks (all part of “sowing divisions”, as is said). And over half the money was spent after the 2016 election, and so can’t have been about influencing the election at all.

But all that is by the by. What really interests me is what Starr gets onto next: a discussion of Soviet nationalities policy. “None of us should be surprised” by Russia’s Facebook shenanigans, Starr says, because:

As a Russian supremacist state, the former USSR understood very well how to weaponize racism. It wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities during its 70-plus years of existence.  … [the 15 Soviet republics] were nothing more than colonies of Moscow. One of the first things a colonizer does is center its ethnic superiority over the peoples it rules. During the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin waged “Holodomor” (or Holocaust) against Ukraine … The best numbers  have the death figure ta 4 million people, but some estimates have that figure upwards of 10 million. … Stalin … presided over a USSR that centered Russians as the leading ethnic group. … Soviet childrens books depicted African children in blackface and Africa as an uncivilized continent … In 1927 the Soviet Union engaged in a campaign demanding that women in Uzbekistan unveil. … the real motivation was to homogenize the population, which the Kremlin viewed as primitive and backwards, with Russian values. Soviet propaganda from the time depicts clerics in Uzbekistan as menacing and primitive in a clear case of Islamophobia. … Whether it was killing Ukrainians, “civilizing” Central Asian peoples or disparaging black peoples while pretending to treat them as equals, the USSR always centered the Russian slav. The Russian Federation is no different.

Let’s unpack this.

First, is it true that the USSR “wielded Russian homogeneity” against minority nations and “centered its [Russian] ethnic superiority” over them? Note how Starr’s examples are taken almost entirely from the Stalin era. Nationalities policy did indeed take a Great Russian turn at that time, but it was a relatively short-lived one. In the 1920s, and then from the 1950s onwards, the Soviet policy was one of “indigenization” (korenizatsiia). This encouraged the use of local languages and the development of a local national elite. In fact, the Soviets were responsible for spreading mass education in non-Russian languages, and in various cases of actually standardizing and creating a literary language for local peoples, precisely so that mass education in the local language could become possible. It is generally accepted by scholars of Soviet nationalities policy that the Soviet Union established the conditions for its own eventual collapse by in effect creating nationalities, national institutions, and national elites where none existed before.

Outside of the Stalin period, Great Russian nationalism had some supporters within the party leadership, but was generally frowned upon. In 1970, the Politburo itself stepped in to purge the editorial board of the journal Molodaia Gvardiia because it had overstepped the mark in promoting Russian nationalism. Party ideology chief Mikhail Suslov was a firm opponent of Russian nationalism, as was KGB head and later General Secretary of the Communist Party Yuri Andropov. And while the party purged the Russian nationalists, it provided a degree of protection for Lev Gumilev to publish his Eurasianist tracts which went out of their way to praise the qualities of the steppe peoples of the Soviet Union, such as the Tatars, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, tracts which earned Gumilev the insult “Tatar lover” from the nationalists. Soviet policy was far from promoting racism, let alone Russian nationalism.

Second, when it comes to the Holodomor, it’s interesting that Starr, after admitting that most historians assess the number of deaths as about 4 million, throws in the figure of 10 million as well, as if there is some justification for this much higher number. He also fails to mention the many Russians and Kazakhs who died at the same time.  The result is a distorted picture of reality.

Third, Starr may well be quite right about Soviet depictions of black people. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But it would hardly have made the Soviets uniquely racist, compared with how blacks were depicted in other countries.

Fourth, it makes no sense to describe the Soviets’ campaigns against Islamic traditions in Uzbekistan as an attempt to homogenize the Central Asian peoples “with Russian values.” The aim was to homogenize them with “Soviet values.” That isn’t the same thing at all. Yes, Soviet propaganda showed Muslim clerics as “menacing and primitive.” And yes, if you like, you can call that “Islamophobia.” But at the same time, Soviet propaganda was every bit as disparaging of Orthodox clerics. In 1916 there were 66,000 priests in Russia. In 1940, only 6,000. In 1916, there were 33,000 Orthodox parishes in Russia. In 1940, just 950. The Soviets practically wiped Orthodoxy out as a formal institution. If they were “Islamophobic”, they were “Orthodoxophobic” too.

That mattered because Orthodoxy was, and is, a central part of Russian national identity. In assaulting the Church, the Soviets assaulted the very core of Russia. They smashed up its historical heritage, tearing down monuments and destroying churches. Starr should look up “village prose” or read some of those Molodaia Gvardiia articles from the late 1960s, to get a sense of what many Russians felt the Soviet Union was doing to their heritage. When sculptor Sergei Konenkov, artist Pavel Korin, and writer Leonid Leonov, penned an article entitled “Guard our sacred objects!” denouncing Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign and demanding the preservation of Russian historical monuments, they didn’t do it because they felt that Russia was in charge of the Soviet Union and “centering its ethnic superiority over the people it ruled.” They did it because they understood very well that the Soviet regime was a threat to Russian culture. And when Vladimir Soloukhin wrote his “Visit to the Russian Museum,” and complained of the destruction of Russian culture, he wasn’t doing so he thought that the Soviet Union “wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities,” but because he realized that traditional Russia was under threat.

The Soviet Union, then, didn’t always “center the Russian slav.” Its objective was the “merging” (sliianie) of the Soviet peoples into one common, Soviet, nationality, an objective which was as threatening to Russian national identity as to the identity of other peoples.

As for Starr’s idea that modern Russia follows a similar, racist, anti-non-Russian policy, it’s worth noting that when one examines the current situation, one finds that Russian nationalists don’t like the policies of the current Russian government at all. They don’t like that the government preaches that Russia is a multinational state, Rossiiskaia not Russkaia; they don’t like the freedom given to national regions within the Russian Federation to educate children in local languages; and they really don’t like the government’s policy of relatively open borders encouraging large scale immigration from Central Asia. From the nationalists’ perspective, the state doesn’t “center the Russian slav” at all.

Starr finishes his article with the following gem:

While I was visiting the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, in 2010, a man who appeared to be at least 80-years-old approached me on a busy downtown street and asked me if I knew the history of Ukraine. It was a broad question, but I welcome his insight. “Ukraine is a colony of Moscow and Russia wants to take it back.”

So this is Starr’s evidence – the word of one old man in Lviv. I guess it must be true then.


Yesterday the Canadian Senate passed the lengthily-titled Act to provide for the taking of restrictive measures in respect of foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights and to make related amendments to the Special Economic Measures Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, more commonly known by its ‘short title’, Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act (Sergei Magnitsky Law).

The Act gives the government of Canada the authority to seize, freeze, or sequestrate the property of a foreign national in the event that the said foreign national does any of the following things:

(a) is responsible for, or complicit in, extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights …

(b) … acts as an agent of or on behalf of a foreign state in a matter relating to an activity described in paragraph (a);

(c) … is responsible for, or complicit in, ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, acts of significant corruption. …; or

(d) … has materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, an activity described in paragraph (c).

On the face of it, this is all very fine. If people are responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” or for “acts of significant corruption,” then why should Canadians tolerate them? Aren’t sanctions against them a perfectly reasonable response?

It’s hard to argue against that. If one does, one appears to be saying that “gross human rights violations” and “significant corruption” are perfectly fine, which of course they’re not. So what could possibly be wrong with this Act?

Continue reading Grandstanding

Russia fails to remember Stalin’s victims

‘Fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ gets a lot of attention nowadays. But the thing about propaganda is that it’s best when it’s true. Likewise, media bias doesn’t normally consist of publishing identifiably false information. It more normally consists of slanted analysis and a confusion of fact and comment, combined with a highly selective choice of stories – it’s not that the stories are untrue, it’s just that one chooses only to publish those stories which support one’s political line while ignoring others which don’t.

Let’s take the example of the Russian state and its alleged rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin. In June of this year, the Western press seized upon a statement by Vladimir Putin during an interview with film director Oliver Stone in which he said that Russia’s enemies were using ‘excessive demonization’ of Stalin to attack Russia. The Times of London reported this, as did The Washington Post, the New York Times and, it goes without saying, RFE/RL. The story was in many cases combined with coverage of a Russian opinion poll which listed Stalin as the greatest person in Russian history to generate headlines like that of a photoessay in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Russia’s Reembrace of Josef Stalin.’

Now, it is of course true that Putin did tell Oliver Stone what was reported. And it is true that Stalin topped a poll of greatest Russians. But how many reporters covered other stories which pointed in a direction other than ‘Putin and the Russian people are reembracing Stalin’? Take, for instance, Putin’s attendance at the opening of the Sretenskii monastery, which I mentioned in a previous post, and which given the monastery’s dedication to the ‘New Martyrs’ had considerable symbolic significance? How many Western media outlets covered that story? According to Google: the BBC – no; The Guardian – no; The New York Times – no; The Los Angeles Times – no; The Washington Post – no; and RFE/RL – well, do I really need to say?

So what about the big Stalin remembrance story this week? You haven’t heard about it? Don’t be surprised. It didn’t feature in the English-speaking press. On 27 September, a new Garden of Memory opened at the former Butovo firing range to commemorate the 20,000 people executed there during the Great Terror of 1937-1938. There has been a memorial at Butovo since 2007, but it has now been expanded and a wall has been added listing the names of all the 20,000 known victims. But you wouldn’t know about it if you relied on the BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, and all the rest of them, none of whom uttered so much as a word about it as far as I can tell. (Nor for that matter did RT, apparently. Make of that what you will.) The New Times instead chose to publish a long piece about how the people of Crimea were coming to regret their decision to reunite with Russia. For all I know, everything the New York Times chose to say about Crimea is true but, like I said, it’s what stories you choose to publish.

Priests bless the memorial to the victims of the Great Terror at Butovo

Continue reading Russia fails to remember Stalin’s victims

October Calendar – Death to World Imperialism!

I’m suffering from a bit of writer’s block when it comes to the blog. The deluge of Russia-related nonsense elsewhere continues, but there’s so much of it that it’s hard to know where to start in tackling it, and it gets a little boring pointing out again and again what’s wrong with this stuff. Besides which, other people are doing so. It would be nice to find something really good to comment on, but where is it to be found? Or perhaps there’s a whole new angle to consider, but it’s hard to think what it might be.

So, in lieu of a larger post, and as it’s the first day of the month, here’s the next poster in my Soviet calendar. ‘Death to World Imperialism’ it says. No doubt some readers will sympathize.


Cunning troll

I once read that the founders of the website, which translates articles from the Western mass media into Russia, had hoped that by giving Russians access to Western journalism they would be able to convince them of the rightness of Western ways and of the values of liberal-democracy more generally, and thus rid them of their nationalist and anti-democratic urges. Unfortunately, said the article, Inosmi had had the opposite effect. Once non-English speaking Russians finally got the opportunity to read the over-the-top nonsense about Russia that passes for journalism in the Western press, they became more convinced than ever that the Western world was out to get them. It has thus been suggested that the very best thing that the Russian authorities can do to counter Western propaganda is to spread it as widely as possible among the Russian population. Appalled by what they see and hear, the Russian people will rally around the authorities with great aplomb.

The Kremlin, it seems, has learnt the lesson. If the latest stories in the Western press are to be believed, those dastardly Russians are responsible for turning a piece of anti-Russian propaganda into a viral video on social media. Curse them for their cunning! The video in question, of course, is that by American actor Morgan Freeman recently published by the creepily titled ‘Committee to Investigate Russia’, in which Freeman declared that Russia was at ‘war’ with America. No doubt, many of you have already seen it. If so, it’s quite probably because you are a victim of a Kremlin troll. You see, Kremlin trolls have been spreading the video all over the internet and social media, in order to have a good laugh at it and show how ridiculous anti-Russian propaganda is. My goodness, they’re cunning, ‘as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University,’ as the great Blackadder said.

Don’t take my word for it. According to that well-known bastion of non-propagandistic, 100% totally objective news reporting, RFE/RL, ‘A top NATO adviser on Russian Internet propaganda and disinformation campaigns says U.S. actor Morgan Freeman appears to have been targeted by “coordinated, pro-Kremlin social-media attacks”.’ Actually, Rolf Fredheim, the alleged ‘top NATO advisor’, is just a ‘data analyst’, and at the Riga-based NATO Strategic Communications Centre for Excellence, not at NATO. The Centre is just ‘accredited by NATO’, which according to the Centre’s website means simply that it’s one of several facilities ‘recognized by the Alliance for their expertise’. But let’s put that to one side for the moment. It’s RFE/RL, after all. Details, details. What matters is what Herr Fredheim has to say, which is the following:

Fredheim told RFE/RL on September 21 that he could not say whether the avalanche of recent English-language attacks against Freeman on Twitter, YouTube, and other social media were directly coordinated by the Kremlin. But he said the timing and similarity of many of the initial attacks suggest an army of pro-Kremlin, online trolls may have taken a cue from the criticism of Freeman by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on September 20, one day after the Freeman video’s release. ‘It does look very highly coordinated, because you’re seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message,’ Fredheim said. ‘It’s more than just a teenager in the basement. It could be many teenagers in many basements. But it could also be something more sophisticated than that…the St. Petersburg troll factories, for instance. It could be an example of some kind of Russian troll-farm output.’

So, our ‘top NATO advisor’ admits that he has no evidence that the flood of articles, blog posts, and Twitter and Facebook messages linking to Freeman’s video and poking fun at it, are ‘coordinated by the Kremlin’, but he feels confident enough nonetheless to say that it’s likely the case, because it involves multiple messages on multiple platforms, something which could only be achieved by a coordinating centre, and couldn’t possibly be the result of lots of individuals deciding that this was such blithering nonsense that they really ought to comment on it on whatever type of media they happen to choose. Take  for example, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, who wrote a scathing article about the video a couple of days ago.  Kremlin troll, obviously! And Fox New’s Tucker Carson, who tackled the issue on his talk show. Troll, too. Must be. And myself … Well, you all know that I’m taking payment from the Kremlin; it’s how I bought my Ferrari.


The funny thing is that the ‘Freeman is a victim of Kremlin trolls’ story has itself gone sort of viral, as other Western media outlets pick it up, and Tweeters and Facebookers spread the word. ‘The legendary American actor is a pariah in Russia,’ says the Washington Post, ‘with Kremlin officials, Russian talking heads and pro-Putin social media trolls ganging up to denounce Freeman. The all-hands-on-deck response suggests a concerted Russian effort to discredit the actor via social media.’ ‘Russian trolls are waging war on Morgan Freeman,’ shouts Viceciting RFE/RL. ‘Russia has aimed its entire media arsenal at the veteran Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman,’ proclaims the BBC.  Blogs are getting in on the act. ‘Is nothing sacred?’ asks the Codebringer, complaining about the Russian trolls’ attacks on Mr Freeman. It’s just one of many such complaints one can find in a couple of seconds through a Google search. And it’s on Twitter and Facebook too, as people share the stories from RFE/RL, the BBC, Vice, and so on. In short, the story’s spreading far and wide.

Well, golly gosh. It seems that we are ‘seeing something on multiple platforms at the same time communicating the same message.’ Very suspicious. This phenomenon can’t be spontaneous, can it, Mr Fredheim? You’ve said so. Somebody must be coordinating it. A NATO troll factory, maybe? I demand we be told the truth.

Autumn schedule

Blogging has been light since my return from Moscow as I not only have classes to teach and a book to write, but I also have to prepare for a bunch of talks and conferences to which I have (over-)committed myself during the next couple of months. Here are the details:

29 September – I’ll be giving a talk entitled ‘Russia and Ukraine’ at the annual symposium of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies in Ottawa. Details here.

19 October – I’ll be participating in a roundtable on the subject of the Russian Revolution at McGill University, 3.30-5.30 pm.

25-27 October – Conference, University of Victoria, BC, on subject of ‘1917 and Today: Putin, Russia, and the Legacy of Revolution.’ My presentation will be on the subject, ‘Revolution, Emigration, and Post-communist Russia.’ Details here.

31 October – Group of 78 luncheon talk, Ottawa. I’ll be speaking on the topic ‘Do we still need NATO?’

9/10 November – I’ll be in Cobourg, Ontario, to give a lecture and run a seminar as part of the Northumberland Learning Connection program on ‘Russia 2017: 100 Years after the Revolution’. Details here.

16-18 November – Finally, it’s off to Ditchley Park, England, for a conference on ‘Russia’s Role in the World, Today and Tomorrow.’

I’ll try to fit some blogging in amongst all that.

Russia, the West, and the world

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