Musical fight club

Last week, Pussy Riot issued a new musical video, attacking the Prosecutor General of Russia, Iurii Chaika, for alleged corruption. This got me thinking about whether musical quality is correlated with political success.

As I mentioned elsewhere recently, N.E. Andreev, a Russian émigré in inter-war Czechoslovakia, remarked in his memoirs that the White veterans he met in Prague lamented that the Reds had had much better songs than them. ‘No wonder we lost’, one of them said. What I wonder is whether this experience can be universalized. Do winners always have better songs than losers?

Having established the research question, like all good political scientists I will now propose a hypothesis, namely:

In any political conflict, the side with the better songs will win.

If validated, this theory will constitute a massive breakthrough in political science. So let us test the hypothesis by looking at the war in Donbass.

Militarily, the rebels have done better than the Ukrainian Army. If the hypothesis is correct, then the rebels ought to have better songs. Do they?

To answer that, let us examine a large sample – two songs (one on each side).

On the Ukrainian side, we have Vitalii Telezin’s 100 Biitsiv (100 Soldiers).

And on the rebel side, we have Kuba’s Vstavai Donbass (Arise Donbass) (not to be confused with another song with the same name by punk rock group Day of the Triffids, which has been adopted as the national anthem of the Donetsk People’s Republic)

To avoid any accusations of political bias, I played these songs to a highly scientific sample of one Canadian teenager, who declared Kuba’s rebel tune the clear winner. The hypothesis has been validated. Victory is indeed correlated with better music.

This is a satisfactory conclusion, but if any political theory is to have real value it must do more than explain the past; it must also be able to predict the future. So what does the theory suggest about the future of Russian politics? Will the ‘Putin regime’ survive, or will its political opponents succeed in destroying it. Let us look at what the music tells us:

On the side of the regime: rapper Timati and his October 2015 hit, Moi luchii drug – eto President Putin (My best friend is President Putin – currently at 8.6 million hits on YouTube).

And against the regime: Pussy Riot’s latest, Chaika (1.68 million hits).

The teenager’s verdict: Timati knows how to rap, whereas all Pussy Riot can do is talk over the beat. Timati wins hands down.

If, as the evidence suggests, my theory is correct, this result means that Putin has no reason to fear for his political future. The music doesn’t lie.

Friday book #5: The Whisperers

This week’s book is a somewhat tattered copy of The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by controversial British historian Orlando Figes. Figes’s work has produced extreme reactions, both positive and negative, and The Whisperers is no exception. The back cover cites Oxford University’s Noel Malcom in The Sunday Times as calling the book ‘extraordinary … authoritative, vivid, precise and, in places, almost unbearably moving’. But in The Nation magazine two other prominent scholars, Peter Reddaway and Stephen Cohen, pointed to ‘ numerous errors and misrepresentations’ and claimed that ‘Figes’s work cannot be read without considerable caution. Historians are obliged to be especially meticulous in using generally inaccessible archive materials, but Figes cannot be fully trusted even with open sources.’

Personally, I was somewhat disappointed by The Whisperers. Its subtitle ‘Personal Life in Stalin’s Russia’ had led me to expect a broad sociological study of the lives of ordinary Russians, whereas in fact the book focuses overwhelmingly on one aspect of those lives – Stalinist repression. While repression was an important part of Stalin’s Russia, there was surely more to private life than that.


Patriotism is enough

As regular readers will have divined, I have a particular interest in the ideological underpinnings of the modern Russian state and its leaders, including President Vladimir Putin. Western analysts often mistakenly describe the people now governing Russia as nostalgic for the Soviet Union, an idea which Putin’s recent statements about Lenin should surely discredit. But if it’s easy enough to say what Putin is not, ideologically speaking, it is much harder to say what he is. Judging by a comment he made on Wednesday, the man himself might tell me that I am wasting my time trying to work it out.  At a meeting of the Leaders’ Club business association, Putin responded to a remark that Russia needs some unifying ‘national idea’ in the following way:

We do not have and cannot have any unifying idea other than patriotism. … You said that public servants and business and all citizens in general work to make the country stronger. Because if that is the case, then each of us, each citizen will live better, and have higher incomes and be more comfortable, and so on. And that is the national idea. It isn’t ideological, it isn’t connected with any party or any stratum of society. It is connected to a general, unifying principle. If we want to live better, then the country must become more attractive for all citizens, more effective, and the public service and state apparatus and business must all become more effective. As you said, we work for the country, not understanding it in an amorphous way, like in Soviet times … when the country came first and then there was who knows what. The country is people, that’s what working ‘for the country’ means.

I consider it interesting that Putin picked on ‘patriotism’ as his key word, and not something like liberty or equality or some concept of national greatness. But his definition of patriotism is a surprisingly tame and individualistic one, and also fairly materialistic. Despite all the talk of Putin’s promotion of traditional conservative values, here his objectives are limited to people living better, having ‘higher incomes’, and being ‘more comfortable’. Although it may be wrong to draw too much from one remark, this does not accord with much recent commentary about Putin installing a scary new nationalistic ideology in Russia.

That doesn’t mean that Putin lacks personal beliefs. It’s just that he appears to draw a distinction between what he believes and what he thinks should be the ideology of the state. Take Lenin, for instance. Putin doesn’t like him. But he’s made it clear that that is his personal opinion. If other people happen to like Lenin and want to have a statue of him in their city, or name their town square after him, then Putin isn’t going to stop them .

In fact, Putin’s position corresponds with Article 13 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation which states that, ‘Ideological plurality shall be recognized in the Russian Federation’, and that, ‘No ideology may be instituted as a state-sponsored or mandatory ideology.’ Putin’s statement represents adherence to the limits of his constitutional powers. Given that he is often described as an all-powerful dictator, that recognition is worthy of note.