Looking for better in 2016

In Western countries the end of the Cold War led to a huge decline in interest in Russia. Russian studies departments at universities shut down in droves. Fewer and fewer people studied Russia’s history, language, and politics. In the years since, Russia has repeatedly surprised the West, most specifically in the past two years by annexing Crimea and intervening militarily in Syria, but more generally by not putting good relations with the Western world at the top of its priorities. Flabbergasted by what is seen as Russian ‘unpredictability’, ‘aggression’, and ‘authoritarianism’, some people are beginning to think that perhaps cutting back on Russian studies wasn’t such a good idea.

In February 2015, the European Union Committee of the British House of Lords asserted that the UK had badly misread Russian intentions, and ‘blamed Foreign Office cuts, which it said led to fewer Russian experts working there.’ A few days later, the UK’s House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee also ‘concluded a lack of Russian speakers in the Foreign Office left Britain’s diplomats ill-equipped to anticipate the events in Ukraine.’ And yesterday (30 December), the Washington Post reported that in the United States:

Experts, lawmakers and former administration officials describe a national security apparatus that, once teeming with experienced Russia specialists, including at the highest levels of decision-making, now relies on [a] looser regime of more junior experts who lack the reach to directly influence policy. The result, they say, is a series of missed opportunities to anticipate Moscow’s recent moves in areas such as Ukraine and Syria, even when clues were readily available. … experts point to a lack of funds for foreign language instruction at universities, a reduction in funding for cultural exchange programs with former Soviet states and the recent evisceration of a grant program for advanced research on Russia and its neighbors as signs of why the government is having trouble developing a corps of Russia specialists.

One can easily understand why people might think that the lack of understanding of Russia stems from a penury of Russian ‘experts’, and that investing more resources into Russian studies might solve the problem. Yet there is, in fact, no shortage of ‘experts’ currently carrying out analysis of Russian affairs. In the past year, I have drawn readers’ attention to a considerable number of books, articles, reports, and speeches about Russia. I have reviewed books by Garry Kasparov, Marvin Kalb, Walter Laqueur, Oleg Khlevniuk, Richard Sakwa, and Peter Pomerantsev; looked at reports and articles produced by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and prominent think tanks like the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and examined articles in both academic and non-academic journals, such as Foreign Policy and Slavic Review. The problem is not one of quantity. It is one of quality. Although once in a while I have found something to praise – such as Richard Sakwa’s book Frontline Ukraine – a lot of the time it has been my opinion that what I have read is of very low quality.

There are, of course, many scholars doing excellent research on various aspects of Russian history, politics, and philosophy, but relatively little of this research reaches the general public. In mass media and think tanks, the past 12 months have seen much more bad analysis than good. Since starting this blog, I have concentrated on critiquing the former rather than praising the latter. In the year to come, I will try to change tack a bit, and seek out more of the better stuff as well.

Happy New Year!


22 thoughts on “Looking for better in 2016”

  1. “One can easily understand why people might think that the lack of understanding of Russia stems from a penury of Russian ‘experts’, and that investing more resources into Russian studies might solve the problem.”

    Well, this suggestion itself, imho, stems from the lack of understanding of the west, western system of ideological control.

    Not a bug, it’s a feature; there is no ‘problem’. Indeed, there are good experts; Stephen Cohen, for example. They are bullied and ridiculed, silenced, attacked, and suppressed (see here, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-B1vWFdPXo). The way to ‘analyze’ official enemies in the media is Two Minutes Hate, and that’s all there is to it.


  2. Dear Paul:

    Well, the shutting down of Russian Studies Departments can’t be all a bad thing, really. For starters, less competition for professors like yourself – having destroyed the rest of the field, you can march on to become, like a super-Dean. Or something.

    Joking aside, Russia is probably better off without so many well-informed enemies. It’s like that old joke about the progress of medical science just producing stronger and better rats!

    To prove my point: Is it just a coincidence that Russia is doing a lot better internationally now than it did when there were so many “Russia experts” in the West? I think not!


    P.S. – Happy New Year!


  3. And, as for my first post in this Brand New Year of Flaming Monkey… a bit of talk about the terminilogy.

    Mister Robinson, in your post you put Russian ‘unpredictability’, ‘aggression’, and ‘authoritarianism’ as if you don’t quite believe that these claims are entirely true (correct me, if I’m wrong). You didn’t however put any “scary quotes” around such terms like Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s intervention in Syria. And I wonder – why?

    If we are not talking about a form of psychological counseling by a bunch of of yor friends and/or relatives, then the term military intervention means:


    (from lat. “interventio”) – military, political, informational or economic involvement of one or more States in the internal affairs of another country that violates its sovereignty.

    UN’s General Assembly adopted a resolution 36/103 (Dec 9 1981) which condemns and prohibits interventions. A plethora of various other international laws also stipulate that any sort of intervention – not sanctioned by the UN – is illegal. Mr. Robinson, are you saying here that Russia at this very moment commits the international crime, by “intervening in Syria”?

    Probably, you didn’t mean that. You just used this term subconsciously, because ot became a forced meme of the Free and Independent ™ Western Press, dictating the general narrative for the Free World ™. Why pay attention to such sordid things like “facts” and “details” – that Russia has been invited by the internationally recognized government of Syria to do what it does now. Such things couldn’t be said about the so-called “Coalition” supposedly lead by the US, which didn’t even bothered to ask for permission to violate (repeatedly) Syrian sovereingty. Strangely enough, we won’t here and read about “American intervention” in Syria. Only Evil Ruskies do this, right?

    Next, let’s look up the definition of the word annexation:


    (from lat. annexus – attached) – the forcible unilateral incorporation of the entire State or just the part of it’s territory into another State.

    Once again – how does it apply to Crimea? Mr. Robinson, are you going to claim, that Crimeans were “annexed” unilaterally? Or that this whole process was against their will? Or you don’t believe that Crimean referendum actually represented the will of Crimean people?

    Then why not talk about Ukrainian SSR annexation of the Republican City of Sevastopol, which could not be legally transferred with the entire Crimea in 1954, because it was administered separately, and the whole mess was against the USSR constitution of 1948? Or remember how the Ukraine proclaimed its independence in 1991 while committing gross violation of the USSR’s constitution and other laws, while denying Crimea the right for self determination?

    Once again, because the term “annexation of Crimea” is the one and only “politically correct” term permissible by the Western Narrative, you ought to use it. Or your level of handshakability could fall dangerously to the level of “zaputinets” and “Kremlin’s useful idiot”. And that’s bad for one’s career.


    1. Re: “such terms like Russia’s annexation of Crimea” – the problem is, “annexation” is the usual term in English to cover this situation. It’s still annexation even when it’s popular and voluntary.

      Russian has a word аннексия to cover forced annexation or incorporation. This becomes a false cognate when referring to peaceful or voluntary annexation. Then, the more precise term is присоединение. Here’s how they translate “Annexation of Texas”, the usual term in English, into Russian:


      And from the English Wikipedia link:

      “After declaring their independence from the Republic of Mexico in 1836, the vast majority of Texas citizens favored the annexation of the Lone Star Republic by the United States” – i.e., much like the situation in Crimea.


      1. Interesting comment, thanks.

        However: while the Texas annexation situation is similar, there are important differences: Crimea had been part of Russia before (and recently, and for a long time). And also (and more importantly), Texas didn’t ask to be accepted; it was initiative of the US (which, I think, what justifies the term ‘annexation’ here), with Texas consequently accepting the offer.


      2. No, there is a perfect English-language term to describe the situation – “Crimea’s reunion with Russia”, i.e. “воссоединение”, which is like “присоединение”, but only of a part that had been previously Russian.


  4. I suspect Mao Cheng Ji is correct.

    It’s really a financial-ideological nexus. For instance, apart from their direct funding, Khodorkovsky’s goons have pretty much takes over the premier American organization devoted to studying Russia.

    Ivan Katchanovski has been systemically denied a prominent platform to publish his (one might think not unimportant) findings on who carried out the Maidan massacre.

    With money and influence like this sloshing about what can anybody do? No Russian oligarch is willing to step up to the plate to provide serious funding for Russia analysis. This is ultimately a function of the apatride nature of the Russian oligarchy – most of them don’t fundamentally care about it (even if they don’t want to overthrow Putin and seize power themselves), and even those who do are deterred by the West denying them visas or seizing their assets or whatever.


    1. I dunno if it’s really financial-ideological. Had it been a matter of spending a couple million bucks, we would’ve seen a variety of views, I’m sure.

      Think of Palestine in the western media, for example. Nauseating, even worse than coverage of all things Russian (although it’s getting close). And yet, are there not enough rich Arabs in the world?

      No, this is not financial-ideological, it’s not the money. Rather, it’s some sort of institutional totalitarianism. Any deviation from the party line is punishable, damaging to one’s career and social standing, dangerous. You’ll be smeared as an anti-semite, kremlin stooge, and what-not. Adhering to the party line is profitable.

      The exact mechanics are not obvious to me; naked Mccarthyism doesn’t appear, but a more sophisticated version of it has to be there, I don’t see any other explanation to the observable phenomenon. Now, that would be interesting to study.


      1. I’m inclined to agree with Mao Cheng Ji and to suggest the problem isn’t one of quantity or even quality but of a deliberate shaping of cultural institutions like universities, think-tanks and media (including the news media and book publishing) to conform to a narrative to serve an agenda or agendas that meet the interests of a few individuals or organisations in positions of political influence. And as MCJ says, this sort of thing has been done with the reporting of events in Palestine in the Western MSM since 1948, to the extent that all Arab peoples and their cultures have ended up suffering similar treatment, regardless of whether they or their cultural products and achievements actually deserve such treatment.

        Flinging more money at universities to teach Russian history, language, culture and politics to more people won’t help if the topics taught and the research that is encouraged are framed and directed in such a way as to misrepresent the country, even when those directly involved in the research are sincere about their work (but are unaware of how they have been manipulated and brainwashed). You can graduate 100 students who have studied the country’s politics according to the views of people like Gessen, Kasparov, Latynina and Khodorkovsky and who are feted by the Western MSM and governments; or you can have 10 people who have studied Russian politics in a way that includes a mix of alternative POVs, and some or much of that study done away from academia through direct contacts or other means, and all 10 of these people ignored by the MSM, governments and other influential agencies: which of these two groups would be more likely to produce research that accurately reflects the reality of Russia consistently and in bulk?

        On that note, I wish everyone here a Happy New Year and a productive year for Irrussianality!


  5. You pick out Sakwa’s book as praiseworthy, yet it is demonstrably full of basic errors and shows a poor understanding of Ukrainian history, society and politics. Interesting in a blog post on expertise. . .


      1. Putting aside the numerous interpretative errors I think he makes, there are three basic areas in which Sakwa’s book does not meet the basic demands of scholarship:

        1) There are too many inaccurate names and numbers. This is particularly bad when it comes to history. In one sentence on p. 17 alone he mistakenly identities the Nachtigall and Roland battalions as divisions, incorrectly claims they were created after Stepan Bandera’s incarceration by the Nazis, wrongly ascribes them SS rather than Abwehr connections and absurdly maintains that they were, alongside the Waffen SS Galicia responsible for 500,000 deaths (the battalions were involved in the summer 1941 pogroms, which claimed up to 35,000 victims). However, he also has problems with the present. He claims that “surveys” – none of which are referred to in a footnote – reveal that 80% of Ukraine’s population described Russian as their primary language of communication in the 1990s (pp. 58-59), although the figure was closer to 50-55% (Andrew Wilson, “Elements of a Theory of Ukrainian Ethno-National Identities”, Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 8, 2002, No. 1, pp. 31-54, here p. 35). Sakwa seems to have mixed up the number of Ukrainian citizens who could speak Russian fluently, which was about 80% (Wilson, “Elements”, p. 34), with the number that put it as their first language preference.

        2) Ignorance of the secondary literature. Although much of his argument is based on the belief that Russian speakers in Ukraine have faced relentless repression, he does not cite a single published study on language policy or use in Ukraine to substantiate this picture. Unsurprisingly, one finds in Sakwa’s bibliography many of the unscholarly Russian-language works that appeared in 2014 on Ukraine bearing revealingly lurid titles (e.g. Evromaidan imeni stepana bandera and Igor Strel’kov: uzhas banderovskoi khunty), but only one Ukrainian-language monograph. Studies which give a much more complex picture, for example that of Volodymuyr Kulyk (Language identity, linguistic diversity and political cleavages: evidence from Ukraine, Nations and Nationalism. 2011. Vol. 17. No. 3), which argues that many Ukrainians who use Russian as their main language of communication actually support granting Ukrainian a priviliged position, are thus entirely ignored. One has the same problem with his claims about “Ukrainist monism” and “Little Russian pluralism”. None of the studies of Ukrainophile and Little Russian concepts of Ukrainian identity are cited (e.g. by Aleksei Miller and Faith Hillis), leading to the historically inaccurate association of the former with monism and the latter with pluralism (which anyway is a somewhat anachronistic approach).

        3) Misrepresentation of sources. Even where Sakwa does footnote his arguments, one sometimes finds discrepancies between his claims and the sources. To give but one example, on p. 247, he maintains that a majority of Ukrainians opposed joining NATO in 2014. However, even the accompanying footnote on p. 280 admits that the evidence for this is a poll conducted solely in the cities of Kharkiv and Odesa. When one reads the source itself, one finds that other areas of Ukraine did support NATO membership.


      2. Wow. Perhaps Paul could reply to this; I’m certainly not qualified.

        On the last point, I’m pretty sure that public support for joining NATO was below 50% in 2014, even on the Kiev-controlled territory. And since, as you admit, the source addresses different areas (not just Kharkov and Odessa), there’s probably a ‘national’ (depending on the definition of ‘national’) number there somewhere; perhaps you missed it? It would be odd if it wasn’t there…


    1. But even if what you describe (in regards to his characterization of the pro/anti-NATO sentiment) is completely accurate, it still doesn’t sound like “misrepresentation” to me. Wrong footnote – a minor mistake, perhaps. It would’ve been misrepresentation if he used this footnote to declare something that is not true, and that doesn’t appear to be the case here. That’s what I’m saying.


      1. My claims are easily verifiable. Sakwa’s error may be a product of poor memory, writing too quickly and not checking his sources. However, in this case, the source is easily available online; it’s not as if he couldn’t recheck it because it was in an archive in a different country: he has no excuse. The mistake is also evdience that he has ignored or is unaware of sources, like the one I mention, that go against his argument. Whether the misrepresentation is intentional or not, it is an example of sloppy scholarship.


      2. “It would’ve been misrepresentation if he used this footnote to declare something that is not true, and that doesn’t appear to be the case here”.

        Just to clarity: I don’t think that what he wrote in the footnote is wrong. Rather, the text says one thing, the footnote says another, and the source has extra information which would indicate that the claim in the text is incorrect; on top of that, there are other sources, ignored by Sakwa, that also suggest that what he has written in the text is inaccurate.


  6. Annexation of Crimea? Please. Try invasion. Have we forgotten about the ‘Little Green Men’? This was an outright invasion and violation of international law. The voting was, ahem…controlled, better yet: rigged. Have you heard a peep about any Ukrainians (especially those who speak Ukrainian openly), or Tatars recently in Crimea? Please let us incorporate history books on Ukraine and the Crimean Tatars–as we further along our Russian education.


    1. But the ‘little green men’ were local militias, volunteers from the Crimean self-defense forces…

      Also, ~90% of the Ukrainian troops stationed in Crimea chose to stay and become citizens of RF.

      Also, there’s been plenty of independent (western!) opinion polls fully confirming the result of the referendum.

      Interesting thing: I read somewhere recently of the Ukrainian village near the Crimean border, where, at the time of the reunification, the villagers tried to move the border posts farther inland, to make it look like their village belongs to Crimea… Alas, unsuccessfully…


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