Book review: Journey to Ararat

In the early 19th century, many people considered Armenia’s Mount Ararat to be unclimbable, in part because of its height (16,854 feet), and in part because it was considered sacred ground due to the fact that it was supposedly where Noah’s Ark had come to rest. Until 1828, Ararat lay in Persian territory, but that year it was ceded by Persia to Russia in the Treaty of Turkmenchai. The very next year (1829), Friedrich Parrot, a doctor and professor of physics at the University of Dorpat (then part of the Russian Empire, but now in Estonia) led an expedition to Ararat and successfully reached its summit, accompanied several others including the ‘father of Armenian literature’, Khachatur Abovian. Parrot’s account of his journey was translated into English and published in the United States in 1846. Now it has been reproduced in a new edition with a critical introduction by Pietro A. Shakarian, a PhD student at Ohio State University.


Parrot was not engaged in tourism, but in serious scientific research. He observed everything in minute detail and took regular measurements of distances, heights, and everything else possible. His story of his journey to Ararat contains descriptions of flora and fauna, types of rocks, geological formations, animals, human habitations and customs, and much more besides. I wonder if some readers might not feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of detail. But as a scientific record, Parrot’s observations are certainly of value and it is impossible to read this text without learning a lot about the early-19th century Caucasus.

Personally, one of the things I found most interesting was the character of Parrot himself – the possessor of an extraordinarily curious mind, determined to classify and measure everything he encountered, using what were then the most modern scientific techniques; and yet also a man of his times, quite capable of seriously considering the possibility that rock formations on Ararat were the product of the Great Flood and that the Ark might still be buried under Ararat’s ice. I was also intrigued by some of his anthropological observations. Anyone wanting to know about the social history of the Caucasus will find much in this book which is illuminating about the homes, customs, and agricultural techniques of the region in this era.

Shakarian’s introduction does an excellent job of summarizing Parrot’s book and putting it into context. Shakarian concludes, ‘Parrot’s account of his expedition to Mount Ararat is perhaps one of the great 19th century travel memoirs of Transcaucasia. It is an invaluable work, filled with fascinating and important historical information on the Caucasus, Armenia, and the Russian Empire in the late 1820s.’

Not so doomed: Russia in 2018

‘Russia is doomed’ is a common refrain of newspaper articles and think tank reports. It is quite refreshing, therefore, to read something which while not entirely optimistic about Russia’s immediate future is nonetheless a little more circumspect. A new report issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), entitled 2018 Security Outlook: Risks and Threats, aims ‘to explore the drivers influencing the security risks and potential threats related to specific regions of the world and themes by the year 2018.’ According to the introduction, ‘five leading global thinkers were commissioned’ to write about China, the Middle East, Russia, weapons of mass destruction, and ‘state power and cyber power’. CSIS doesn’t reveal who these ‘leading global thinkers’ are, but the one responsible for the chapter on Russia has produced 15 pages of sober analysis without any of the hyperbole normally associated with the subject.

The chapter begins by noting that ‘Pessimism characterises much Western analysis of Russian futures,’ and states that ‘the consensus appears to be that the future is alarming.’ However, it then lays out a far less negative picture, stating at the end of the introductory segment that ‘the [Russian] government’s long term family development and transport policies have shown some sign of success … Serious health problems … have substantially declined … [and immigration] is likely to sustain Russian population growth.’

After this, the chapter discusses three so-called ‘mega-trends’ which will determine Russia’s condition in 2018.

The first mega-trend is the economy. The chapter states that Russia ‘faces a wide range of problems’, and that security concerns are having an ever greater influence on economic policy. This is resulting in greater defence spending, import substitution, and increased Kremlin ‘control over macroeconomic policy.’ The chapter suggests that there is considerable ‘potential for at least the partial reversal of either liberalisation [or] international integration.’ Nevertheless, it concludes that these factors are unlikely to substantially alter the trajectory of the Russian economy, which ‘is more likely to slowly adapt to the adverse environment.’ The economy will probably move ‘firmly into positive territory in 2017 with growth of 1.7 per cent to 2.5 per cent in 2018.’

The second mega-trend is Russian domestic politics. The report says that the ruling United Russia party will probably do well in the forthcoming Duma elections. Although minor changes in personnel in the government are likely in the next two years, major changes in Russian politics are not. Theoretically, terrorism and social protest could produce significant changes in the political environment, but in practice are most unlikely to do so. The chapter therefore concludes that, ‘despite potential influences, the push and shove of political life, and some contradictions within the system, the main trend in Russian domestic politics is one of evolving consolidation.’

The third mega-trend is ‘Russia on the world stage.’ The chapter notes that Russia would like to improve its relations with the West and ‘there are strong lobbies, particularly in continental Europe, who seek to stabilise relations with Russia.’ But there are too many points of contention between Russia and the West to permit the two sides to draw closer together in the near future. In the face of ‘considerable turbulence and insecurity’ brought about by ‘Western regime change operations’ and ‘increasing competition between states over resources and values’, Russia will continue to act assertively to defend its interests. The chapter concludes that ‘the Russian leadership shows little sign of softening its position, even under economic duress. Quite to the contrary … Russia responded not by changing course, but by reinforcing it.’

Since 2014, Western policy has been to sanction Russia in an effort to undermine its economy, weaken its political leadership, and encourage a change in Russian foreign policy. If the analysis in the CSIS report is correct, none of these objectives are likely to be achieved. By 2018, the Russian economy will once again be growing; the ‘Putin regime’ will have further consolidated its power; and Russia will still be pursuing an independent line in defence of its interests. The CSIS report does not draw any policy conclusions – that is not the role of intelligence agencies – but the conclusions seem fairly clear: current Western policy is failing and will probably continue to fail; a new policy is needed.

Book review: The invention of Russia

‘Old fashioned nationalism in neo-Stalinist garb has become the most powerful force in Russian society,’ writes The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky in his new book The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, adding that ‘In this book I have sought an answer to the question of how Russia got here.’

Ostrovsky’s answer is to blame ‘Russian propaganda’. This he does by means of a survey of the Russian media from the 1970s through to the current day. He focuses on those whom he regards as the key media figures who shaped modern Russia. As he says, ‘My main characters are not politicians or economists but those who generated the “meaning” of the country, who composed the storyline and broadcast it … ideologists, journalists editors, television executives: people in charge of the message and the media.’ Readers meet characters such as Gorbachev’s ideology chief Alexander Yakovlev; prominent newspaper editor Yegor Yakovlev and his son Vladimir, founder of Kommersant newspaper; television journalist Evgeny Kisilev; NTV general director Igor Malashenko; and Channel One TV chief Konstantin Ernst. The general story Ostrovsky describes is fairly well known, but the depictions of these characters are lively, and the book is an easy read and on occasion quite revealing.

Ostrovsky is very much a member of Russia’s liberal ‘creative classes’, as becomes clear at the start of the book, when he remarks that, ‘As a drama student in Moscow at the time [of the collapse of communism], I remember that feeling of hope. It was one of the happiest periods of my life. … For me, the shortages of food in the shops were fully compensated by this exhilarating new sense of possibility.’ Later he quotes Yegor Yakovlev saying, ‘Yegor’s heart swelled with pride and hope. “I am certain that Soviet workers value democracy over goods”.’ And later still, he claims that, ‘The people who sold bread and butter on the street [in the 1990s] did so not because they were broke but because they were allowed to trade.’ I can’t prove that Ostrovsky is wrong on that, but when I bought bread from little old ladies outside Moscow metro stations in the mid-90s, they looked pretty broke to me.

Running through Ostrovsky’s book is a strong sense of the superiority of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia over the bulk of Russia’s more primitive people. Eastern Ukrainian rebels, for instance, are described as a ‘ragtag army of thugs, opportunists and the unemployed.’ ‘Russian television’, says Ostrovsky, ‘exploited their weaknesses and lured them into a fight. … Russia’s “hybrid war” lifted them from their miserable, anonymous and hopeless existence.’

Rather than pandering to the masses’ basest instincts and trying to entertain them, Ostrovsky seems to feel that the media should be educating them in liberalism. Consequently, he treats liberal media bias far more forgivingly than bias in favour of the current Russian state. In the early stages of the book, Ostrovsky describes the efforts by liberal, pro-Western journalists who came of age in the 1960s to make communism more humane. Yegor Yakovlev, for instance, founded the magazine ‘Zhurnalist’ which ‘caught the attention of the urban intelligentsia who dreamed of the West, idealized it.’ He and other members of the 60s generation ‘came to vindicate their fathers’ ideas and uphold a purer version of socialism.’ Gorbachev then gave them an opportunity to advance their ideas. As Ostrovsky describes it, glasnost’ was not meant to destroy communism. Rather, ‘limited license [was] issued to a select few who could target the social groups that were most receptive to perestroika – students, young professionals and the urban intelligentsia.’ In short, glasnost’ was a plaything for the Soviet Union’s relatively small band of liberal intellectuals, who imagined that it was possible to build ‘communism with a human face’. As Ostrovsky points out, this belief was naïve, and it brought both communism and the Union tumbling down.

Moving forward in time, Ostrovsky then notes that ‘in the 1990s television and newspapers were in the hands of pro-Western liberals who set out to project a new reality by means of the media.’ The media elites exploited their position to discredit the opposition to President Boris Yeltsin in his fight against the Russian Supreme Soviet in 1993, and then again to ensure Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996. Ostrovsky notes that ‘Television played a crucial role in mobilizing people to support Yeltsin. It ran a relentless campaign. … There was no distance or etiquette between the Kremlin and the liberal journalists at the time.’ The head of NTV, Igor Malashenko, was actually a member of Yeltsin’s campaign team. When Yeltsin had a heart attack shortly before the election, Malashenko helped to cover it up. When it became necessary to finally put the extremely sick Yeltsin in front of the cameras, ‘The tape had to be heavily doctored, retouched and edited to make Yeltsin look less wooden and sick.’ When Yeltsin was filmed voting, ‘The two doctors in white coats behind him were edited out of the picture.’ Ostrovsky notes that, ‘Malashenko had a low opinion of the masses. Liberalism and democracy were not synonyms to him but antonyms.’

Ostrovsky does a good job in showing just how one-sided the Russian media was in the Yeltsin era. But he is very forgiving of this. He writes: ‘What gave Malashenko and his journalists confidence was the knowledge that they were on the right side of history. They were clever, skillful and Westernized. They held out the promise of a normal life that most people craved.’ ‘The Yeltsin coverage was clearly biased,’ says Ostrovsky, ‘Yet by the standards of Russian television in the late 2000s, it was an example of restraint and moderation.’ It lobbied ‘not just for Yeltsin per se but for a Yeltsin who would end the war in Chechnya, carry on with reforms and bring Russia closer to the West.’ The ends, it seems, justified the means.

The year after Yeltsin’s re-election, a bitter dispute broke out between oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of NTV, and the Russian government, after Gusinsky failed to win a privatization auction to buy shares in the communications firm Sviazinvest. Ostrovsky describes the ‘media war’ which then erupted as Gusinsky turned NTV against the government, while another oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, used Channel One, which he controlled, to attack Gusinsky. Russian television channels had by this stage clearly become pawns for oligarchic interests. Yet, having made that point very clear, Ostrovsky remarks that, ‘The idea that the national channel had been hijacked by Berezovsky and turned into a tool of personal influence was nonsense.’

With Putin’s arrival in 1999, things changed very rapidly. The state reasserted control over the media, and drove out the oligarchs. Putin defended his actions in a speech on 27 October 2000, saying, ‘During the revolutionary period of the 90s, two or three people managed somehow to get control of the national mass media. They turned these mass media into means of promoting their own influence. … Can one still talk of a free press?’ Ostrovsky views things very differently. He argues that the restoration of state control of the media was a turning point which allowed Putin to manipulate the Russian people in favour of aggressive, nationalistic policies designed to deflect attention from domestic failures. The media became little more than outlets of Kremlin propaganda, spreading a virulent anti-Western message. This reached its culmination in the wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, which Ostrovsky describes in one-sided terms, saying for instance that, ‘The Ukrainian fascists were a phantom created by Russian television.  Even though nobody saw them in reality.’

Ostrovsky notes that some of those who worked for NTV in the 1990s, when the television station had a reputation for independence and critical commentary, have become among the most vigorous defenders of Putin’s policies. How is that Putin managed to get Russian journalists to change their attitude? Ostrovsky’s answer is careerism. ’ ‘Those who produce Russian propaganda … act not out of conviction but out of cynicism,’ he writes, saying also that, ‘The attraction of highly paid jobs, celebrity status and influence turned out to be stronger than the desire for free expression.’

Yet there are hints in Ostrovsky’s book that there is more to it than that. Charting the rise of Soviet nostalgia on Russian television in the 1990s, he makes it clear that this responded to a genuine public demand. Similarly, he cites journalist Oleg Dobrodeev saying, ‘public opinion was against NATO’s airstrikes [in Yugoslavia] and we had to reflect that change or be left behind.’ Discussing Channel One chief Konstantin Ernst, Ostrovsky writes, ‘Ernst mostly made his own decisions. “Nobody calls me and orders me to do anything”.’ All this suggests that the new tone of the Russian media is not the result of Kremlin manipulation but of changing social attitudes. Simply put, the media has adapted to the market, and finding that liberal ideas no longer sell has switched to alternatives that do. To return to Ostrovsky’s question ‘How did Russia get here?’, perhaps the answer is that Russians grew disenchanted with the pro-Western cause he holds so dear because their experiences with it were often negative, not because they were manipulated by ‘Russian propaganda’.

Friday book # 24: Motherland

In this week’s book, Lesley Chamberlain charts what she calls the ‘long tradition’ of Russian philosophy from 1815 to 1991. Russia, she says, ‘sits uncertainly on the Western fringe in an alternative cultural space’. Its philosophy has followed a unique path, producing a ‘culture without reason’, rejecting the Enlightenment and the logical pursuit of truth in favour of German Idealism and the desire ‘to find a moral way of being’. Chamberlain believes, however, that the collapse of communism has brought this ‘long tradition’ to an end, and that Russia now stands ‘on the edge of reason’. I suspect that some readers might find this analysis a bit condescending. And given the apparent divergence of Russia and the West in the decade since the book was first published in 2004, I wonder if Chamberlain would reach the same conclusion today.


Vote for ‘Remain’

Being a British as well as a Canadian citizen, and having been resident in the United Kingdom within the last 15 years, I have a vote in the imminent referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union (EU). Today I received my postal ballot. I intend to put a cross in the box marked ‘Remain a member of the European Union’.

Arguments for and against the EU range from the rationalistically technocratic to the purely emotional. Left-wing opponents of the EU think that it is a bastion of neoliberalism. Right-wing opponents think that it is a source of socialist regulation. They can’t both be right. Perhaps leaving the EU will damage the British economy; perhaps it will strengthen it. We don’t actually know.

What we do know for sure is that by the standards of the rest of the world, Britain is a pretty prosperous and successful country. Whether this has anything to do with the EU, one cannot tell. But certainly the EU has not wrought untold damage upon the UK. Certainly, the EU is imperfect, perhaps even badly flawed. But so are all human institutions. The fact that something is imperfect is not per se a reason for abandoning it in favour of the unknown. Given Britain’s prosperity, the burden of proof lies upon those who would exit the EU to show that leaving would definitely be beneficial. That proof has not been provided.

What I can be sure of is that leaving the EU would deprive my family of benefits which it enjoys at the moment. Being a citizen of the EU allows one to live, study, and work anywhere in the Union without hindrance. This is a tremendous privilege. Members of my family may wish to go to university in Europe and make lives for themselves there. Brexit wouldn’t make this impossible for them, but it would certainly make it more difficult. From a purely person perspective, I would rather that my children had access to a union of 500 million people and an area of four million square kilometres than be limited to one small island near the far western edge of the Eurasian continent.

My stance is also a matter of identity and aesthetics. I am a citizen of two countries. I have lived and worked in various European countries – the UK, Switzerland, Belarus (more precisely the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic), Russia, Germany, Italy, and Belgium. I speak English, French and Russian, as well as some Italian and German. Simply put, I feel cosmopolitan rather than nationalist. Perhaps that’s just because as an anglophone born in Quebec and brought up in Wales, I have an innate dislike of separatists and nationalists, and have a sense of the value of belonging to a larger whole. But I think that there is more to it than that. Although the EU often fails to deliver on its promises, the basic ideals it stands for – free trade, open borders, and the like – are things I support and identify with. They are certainly better than the alternative of Little England.

Vote ‘Remain’!

Explaining Russian assertiveness

There is general agreement that the foreign policy of the Russian Federation has become much more assertive in the past decade. In the last few days, I have read several pieces which attempt to explain this.

First is a policy brief by Fredik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson for the European Council of Foreign Relations, entitled Russia 2030: A Story of Great Power Dreams and Small Victorious Wars. Wesslau and Wilson claim that ‘Russia’s assertive foreign policy is increasingly being driven by a need to re-legitimise Putin’s regime at home’. Western sanctions and low oil prices have damaged the economic growth which was the prime source of Putin’s legitimacy. Consequently, ‘Putin is seeking to divert attention from these economic woes and gain legitimacy by reasserting Russian militarism. The Kremlin sees an adversarial relationship with the West as serving its interests.’ However, Russia doesn’t want this ‘adversarial relationship’ to get out of control, so it will opt for continuous ‘medium-level, low cost conflict’. Wesslau and Wilson say, ‘Medium-level threat makes people cling to Putin – hot war or actual disaster might provoke revolt.’

This is a popular thesis among Western critics of Russian foreign policy. However, Wesslau and Wilson merely assert it, while providing no evidence to support it. Furthermore, there is a serious contradiction in their logic. If an assertive foreign policy is a product of economic trouble, then Russia’s policy should have become less assertive in the period 2000-2008 when the Russian economy was doing very well. But the opposite was the case. Indeed, Wesslau and Wilson admit that ‘the Russian economy was booming in August 2008 when Russia fought a short war with Georgia’. This doesn’t fit their thesis at all. It is more likely that greater assertiveness is a product of greater power resulting from economic growth than it is a product of economic decline.

Second on my reading list was the March-April 2015 edition of the academic journal Problems of Post-Communism, which was devoted to the subject ‘Making Sense of Russian Foreign Policy.’ The four essays in the journal come to a very different conclusion from Wesslau and Wilson regarding the importance of domestic factors in Russian foreign policy. As guest editors Samuel Charap and Cory Welt note in their introduction, ‘the four articles lead to the conclusion that domestic factors do not have a decisive impact on Russian foreign policy. They are important on the margins … but none are the central driver of Russian foreign policy.’ Charap and Welt conclude that ‘Russia’s foreign policy is a product of the interaction of international, domestic, and individual factors.’

This is the approach taken also by Elias Götz in a recent article for another academic journal, International Policy Studies. Götz examines four explanations of Russia’s actions:

  1. Decision-maker explanations: Russian foreign policy is a product of the particular characteristics of Vladimir Putin. Götz dismisses such explanations, saying that Putin’s policies are reflective of a ‘strong consensus’ in Russia, and it is most likely that if anybody else had been leading Russia for the past 16 years they ‘would have staked out a similar course.’ In many ways, writes Götz, ‘Putin’s approach to the post-Soviet space looks like a carbon copy’ of the policies followed under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.
  2. Domestic political explanations: Russian assertiveness is designed to divert attention from domestic problems (as claimed by Wesslau and Wilson, for instance), or to suppress the growth of democracy in Russia’s near abroad lest it spread from there to Russia. Götz dismisses this explanation too, noting that Russia’s leadership is not under serious threat and so not in need of diversionary tactics. Also, Russia has shown itself quite willing to work with democratic neighbours as long as they are friendly to Russia – thus Russian-Georgian relations have improved in recent years even as Georgia has become more democratic under President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
  3. Ideational explanations: Russian foreign policy is a product of national identity, nationalism, and the pursuit of national honour. The problem with these explanations, says Götz, is that they can’t explain why one narrative about national identity or honour has more influence on foreign policy than another.
  4. Geopolitical explanations: Russian assertiveness is a result of Russia’s increased power and of the growth of external threats, most notably NATO expansion. Götz admits that this provides a partial explanation of Russian behaviour, but it is not, he says, a complete one, as it cannot explain why Russia views some things as threats and not others, or why Russia has chosen to act differently in similar scenarios – e.g. annexing Crimea but not Donbass; or recognizing the independence of Abkhazia but not of Transnistria.

No single explanation is sufficient, Götz concludes. Instead, a way must be found of synthesizing them. This represents a much more sophisticated approach than that of Wesslau and Wilson. Geopolitical factors clearly matter, but political actors don’t interpret them in a neutral manner but through ideological lenses. Domestic politics also surely matter, at least to some extent: Russia’s leadership is constrained by a national consensus which often demands a more assertive policy, and it is influenced by domestic narratives which limit the options available to policy makers. Within those limits, the character of the leader then does play a role. Overall, I find Götz’s analysis the most convincing of the lot.

Friday book #22: Missionaries of Modernity

This week by exception, the Friday book doesn’t come from my shelf but is one which arrived in today’s mail: Missionaries of Modernity by Antonio Giustozzi and Artemy Kalinovsky. Chapter 8 is written by my former research assistant Alfia Sorokina, Artemy Kalinovsky (author among other things of A Long Goodbye: the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan), and me.


The book as a whole looks at the part played by foreign advisors in developing countries during and after the Cold War. Our chapter examines the role of Soviet specialists in providing economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan. We point out that ‘Soviet activities in Afghanistan were constructive as well as destructive. The Soviets provided Afghanistan with both “free aid” (free deliveries of food, seeds, fuel, etc.) and economic and technical assistance which was designed to promote long term economic development.’ Soviet specialists participated in these activities ‘by constructing modern industrial infrastructure, and by training the personnel to run it.’

We note that Soviet specialists often spent years working in Afghanistan (a striking contrast to modern Western advisors, whose stays in Afghanistan are often very short). However, when the Soviets left, the industrial enterprises they had created rapidly ceased production. All too often the Afghans they had trained fled the moment that the Soviet Army was no longer there to protect them. Thus we conclude that, ‘The Soviets’ development plans might never have achieved their aims under the best of circumstances, but when attempted under fire they were certain to fail.’

Our study reveals that Soviet advisors were often ill-equipped to deal with the peculiarities of the Afghan environment. On the one hand, they eventually came to understand that slavishly applying Soviet models to Afghanistan made no sense, and they pressed their Afghan colleagues to be less ideologically rigid. On the other hand, the problems of war meant that they were endlessly reacting to events and being forced to improvise, rather than following a coherent strategy.

The chapter following ours examines US and NATO advisory missions to Afghanistan post-2001. It concludes that these were ‘more chaotic and directionless’ than those of the Soviets, ‘with a multitude of not always compatible templates being sponsored by different agencies and countries.’ Whereas the Soviets focused (not always very successfully) on developing industrial infrastructure and training the workers required to operate it, the US/NATO approach was rather different. As the book says:

On the economic development front, the [US/NATO] mission did little more than import the Washington consensus into Afghanistan, neglecting not only efforts to equip the Afghan state with the facilities necessary to prevent the country turning into a capitalist ‘wild west’, dominated by robber barons, but even to create incentives for those very robber barons to at least invest their ill-gotten riches back into the Afghan economy.

Overall, Giustozzi and Kalinovsky conclude that advisory missions ‘have had a mixed impact on their host countries’, helping to reshape institutions, but not always for the better. Advisors almost always follow a ‘template approach’, but the templates are often not appropriate. When they fail, as they often do, advisory missions abandon their lofty dreams of national building and economic development and turn instead to patronage, trying to achieve a degree of peace by paying local warlords and others to maintain order on their behalf. In this sense, the Soviet and American missions in Afghanistan followed a similar pattern.