Friday book # 37: Sharansky 2 for 1

The next two books on my shelf are closely related, so it makes sense to show them together – Martin Gilbert’s 1986 biography of Natan Sharansky (Anatoly Shcharansky), and Sharansky’s 1989 memoir ‘Fear No Evil’. Sharansky was possibly the most famous Soviet dissident of the early 1980s. Released from prison in 1986, he moved to Israel, where he later became a cabinet minister.



Mannerheim or bust

On Monday, a St Petersburg court refused to order the city government to take down a plaque put up earlier this year to commemorate General Gustaf Mannerheim. Mannerheim served in the Imperial Russian Army before the revolution, reaching the rank of lieutenant general, and the plaque celebrates him as a distinguished Russian officer. During the Second World War, however, Mannerheim was Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Army, which supported the Germans in blockading Leningrad. Believing that it was inappropriate to install a memorial to somebody who brought the city so much harm, a St Petersbug resident petitioned the local court to order its removal. The court ruled that the city was not responsible for putting up the plaque, and therefore couldn’t be told to take it down.


Continue reading Mannerheim or bust

Neither war nor peace

Nezavisimaia Gazeta has published the results of an interesting Ukrainian opinion poll, which sheds light on why the conflict in Donbass remains unresolved.

According to the survey, 18.6% of Ukrainians support the idea of continuing the war in Donbass until final victory, down from 30% at the start of the year. However, only 23% are willing to countenance changing the Ukrainian constitution to give special status for Donbass, as required under the Minsk agreements. The most favoured policy option (30% of respondents) is to declare Donbass ‘occupied’ and isolate it. Only 12% of those polled supported the Minsk agreements in general. More specifically, although those agreements state that elections should take place in Donbass before the rebels hand control of the border back to the Ukrainian government, merely 24% of people supported this idea, whereas 51% opposed it. The agreements similarly oblige Kiev to grant an amnesty to the rebels. This has the support of 34% of people, but is rejected by 38%.

To borrow a phrase from Leon Trotsky, the situation in Ukraine is ‘neither war nor peace’. The poll suggests that this is no accident. Ukrainians have no great appetite for war, but they are unwilling to take the steps required to bring peace. If they have ended up with something in between, it is because that is what they appear to prefer. As Nezavisimaia Gazeta concludes, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko ‘cannot not take these circumstances into consideration’. At this stage, therefore, a major change in Ukrainian policy is unlikely.

Trading insults

This week, American and Russian diplomats have been trading insults, accusing each other of barbaric behaviour. Referring to the fighting in Aleppo, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, said that, ‘what Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism.’ In reply, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mariia Zakharova stated that, ‘the world has seen nothing more barbaric in modern history than Iraq and Libya done the Washington way.’

The two diplomats were speaking past each other. Powers was commenting on alleged breaches of the laws dictating what people can do during a war – jus in bello. Zakharova was complaining about alleged breaches of the laws dictating when people can wage war – jus ad bellum.

The moral posturing concerning the war in Syria is entirely unwarranted. Neither side is in the clear, although for different reasons.

When it comes to jus in bello, the Americans on the whole behave fairly well. They make mistakes – intelligence is wrong and they strike the wrong target, or missiles go astray and kill civilians. But a lot of effort is put into avoiding civilian casualties, and military lawyers are normally consulted before any major targeting decision is made.  By contrast, judging by its behaviour during the battle for Grozny in the second Chechen war and during the current fighting in Aleppo, the Russian military seems somewhat less restrained in the use of force in bello. This may be a matter of culture and ethics, or it may simply be a question of potential (Russian military technology and the particular nature of the battles Russia fights may not allow for as much restraint). Nevertheless, from an American perspective, the Russian way of war seems relatively indiscriminate.

On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the Americans have consistently broken the rules of jus ad bellum. The bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya, the invasion of Iraq, and the support given to Syrian rebels, as well as other examples, indicate an unhealthy willingness to start wars. And in recent years, the Americans have definitely started far more wars than have the Russians. Regardless of how well its troops have obeyed the rules of jus in bello, the United States has thus ended up causing far more destruction than Russia.

The words of Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremburg Tribunal come to mind:To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’

Misgovernment in Ukraine

This week there was a failed coup in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), and one of the alleged coup leaders has committed suicide in a Lugansk jail. As I have said before, a key issue in determining the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine will be the extent to which the governments in Kiev and the rebel republics are able to turn the areas they control into models of good governance and prosperity. With the events in Lugansk in mind, how are they are getting on?

The picture in the government-controlled parts of Ukraine is mixed. On the plus side, total economic collapse has been averted. The economy is beginning to grow again, albeit extremely slowly – it will take many years before the country again reaches the level of GDP it enjoyed before the Maidan revolution. And politically, the country is managing to muddle through. The fall of the Yatseniuk government earlier this year did not lead to the dissolution of parliament or to political chaos. The system barely has its head above water, but it is nevertheless managing to keep on swimming.

However, massive hikes in the price of gas are lowering the standard of living of ordinary Ukrainians still further. And, as the arson attack a couple of weeks ago on the Inter TV station in Kiev showed, militia groups continue to operate outside the law with relative impunity. In an article in today’s Guardian, opposition MP Vadim Novinsky complains about an ‘increasingly bold witch-hunt by the government’ against its opponents. According to Thomas Theiner, a vocal supporter of Euromaidan with business experience in Ukraine, ‘By now it is clear that the corrupt and thieving government-mafia clans are still in charge’.

How about the situation on the rebel side?

Of the two rebel republics, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) has always seemed like the better governed, and its leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, has a charisma that the LPR’s leader, Igor Plotnitsky, entirely lacks. Recent reports from Donetsk suggest that the DPR is doing about as well as could realistically be expected for a small region in which the state entirely disintegrated two years ago, and which is cut off from the most of the world and forced to spend its limited resources on fighting a war. In a recent report for Meduza, a media outlet not by inclination favourable to the Donbass rebels, journalist Nigina Boroeva wrote the following about a trip she made to Donetsk:

The streets are quiet, cozy, and clean: the locals say the city has never been so well-kept, not even before the war. … The main boulevard is packed with glamorous coffee shops. … A private entrepreneur named Roman … says that some residents have even regained their cars, which were seized two years ago. ‘The courts are overloaded with cases, but rulings are being made and implemented,’ Roman says. … The businessman complains, however, that a stronger presence of the law has a downside, too: ‘In Russia, if you break the rules, you bribe the traffic cop and drive on. As for our inspectors, they are afraid to take bribes now.’

By contrast, the LPR appears to be bedevilled by corruption and political scandals. In 2014, self-styled Cossacks (some local, others from Russia), played an important part in the rebellion in the LPR. The regions under their control became notorious for banditry, and the Cossack leaders zealously defended their autonomy against any attempts to centralize power. The result was a series of violent power struggles, which resulted in the assassination of several prominent rebel leaders. Eventually, with Moscow’s support, Plotnitsky got the upper hand, but it would appear that attempts to concentrate power in the hands of the state authorities have been much less successful in Lugansk than in Donetsk. Various militia leaders remain resentful of Plotnitsky and his Russian backers, and perhaps also feel that their revolution has been betrayed and that one corrupt system has merely been replaced with another. The upshot was a failed attempt to assassinate Plotnitsky in August of this year, followed by the coup attempt this week. Apparently, the DPR had to come to Plotnitsky’s rescue by sending to Lugansk.

This does not bode well for the rebellion’s prospects. Unfortunately for Kiev, its less than inspiring example means that it is not in a position to take advantage.

Quotations, quotations

I don’t like to keep returning to the same topic, but The New York Times leaves me little choice. A few months ago I wrote a piece denouncing a lecture by historian Timothy Snyder which, roughly speaking, proposed the following thesis: Vladimir Putin has quoted philosopher Ivan Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; ergo Putin is a fascist. Today Snyder repeated his thesis in an op-ed entitled ‘How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election’. In this he argues that, with Ilyin as his philosophical guide, Putin is trying to ‘discredit both elections and their observation’ and thereby ‘bring down democracy everywhere’.

According to Snyder, ‘Mr Putin has relied on Ilyin’s authority at every turning point in Russian politics’. This is clearly an enormous exaggeration given that Putin has quoted Ilyin a grand total of five times in the 16 years that he has been in power. Furthermore, Snyder’s description of Ilyin’s views is decidedly one-sided. He writes, for instance, that ‘Ilyin believed that individuality was evil’. Now I confess that I haven’t read everything that Ilyin wrote, but I’ve read a reasonable amount, and I have yet to come across anything which would suggest such a conclusion (see the quote below about soldiers being individuals). Moreover, Snyder errs in saying that Ilyin’s critical views of formal democracy could justify undermining democratic procedures in foreign countries. Ilyin was actually of the view that in some countries, such as Switzerland and the USA, formal democracy worked well. He made it clear that, even if he didn’t want Russia to follow their example, he was very happy for other countries to do things the way they did. The political system of each country had to match that country’s specific form of legal consciousness, he insisted.

But Snyder’s errors on those points are not what I am most interested in challenging. Rather, what exercises me is the assumption underlying his argument, namely that if someone quotes somebody who at some point said something else which was distasteful, then the person doing the quoting obviously shares that distasteful opinion in full.

To show why this is wrong, let us consider somebody else Putin has cited: the Slavophile thinker Konstantin Aksakov. Does Putin share all Aksakov’s views on everything? Surely not. There is the Konstantin Aksakov who supported centralized state power. But there is also the Konstantin Aksakov who was something close to an anarchist. There is the Aksakov who backed autocracy. And there is the Aksakov who opposed serfdom and was a fierce proponent of free speech. Which Aksakov is Putin?

Take some other examples. Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, but he was also at one point a member of the Nazi Party. Many philosophers continue to cite him and make use of his ideas. It would be ridiculous to claim that they are all Nazis. The jurist Carl Schmitt has become increasingly popular in academic works in the past decade. He too was a member of the Nazi party. But it would be preposterous to call all the legal scholars who cite him fascists.

So, let us look at which of Ilyin’s sayings Putin has actually referred to. There are as follows:

25 April 2005:

The great Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin wrote that, ‘State power has its limits … The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness, and convictions. It cannot regulate scientific, religious, and artistic creation. … It musn’t interfere in moral, family, and everyday life, or except in extreme necessity restrict economic initiative.’

10 May 2006:

The well-known Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin said that the calling of soldier is a high and honourable title and that the soldier ‘represents the national unity of the people, the will of the Russian state, strength and honour’.

23 January 2012:

It is this special quality of Russian statehood that was outlined in Ivan Ilyin’s works: ‘Not to eliminate, not to suppress, not to enslave other people’s blood, not to stifle the life of different tribes and religions – but to give everyone breath and the great Russia…to honor all, to reconcile all, to allow everyone to pray in their own way, to work in their own way, and to engage the best in public and cultural development.’

26 June 2013

As the famous philosopher Ivan Ilyin said, ‘The Russian army will never forget the tradition of Suvorov, which maintained that the soldier is an individual’.

4 December 2014:

I will cite here Ivan Ilyin: ‘Whoever loves Russia should desire freedom for it; first of all freedom for Russia itself, its international independence; freedom for Russia—as the unity of Russian and all other national cultures; and finally, freedom for Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of religion, the search for justice, creativity, labor, and property.

Professor Snyder thinks that these quotations make Putin a fascist. I cannot imagine what definition of fascism he is using to draw this conclusion. In 1990 the New York Times admitted that Walter Duranty’s reporting was some of the worst it had ever printed. Given what the newspaper is publishing nowadays, Duranty is facing some stiff competition.

Plus ça change …

‘Who would have thought’, asked Admiral Aleksandr Shishkov in his 1803 book Discussion of the Old and New Style of the Russian Language, ‘that, abandoning the firm foundation of our own language established over many centuries, we would begin to recreate it on the meagre basis of the French language? Who would have imagined that we would transfer our well-built house from fertile soil onto barren, swampy land?’

One of the founding fathers of modern Russian nationalism, Shishkov disliked the Russian aristocracy’s habit of using French expressions. Believing that Russia lacked a great literature of its own, he maintained that it would never manage to create one if all it did was imitate foreigners. It needed, he said, to draw on its own native roots. Complaining of the ‘slavish imitation of the French’, Shishkov wrote:

It is very good to follow the path of the great writers, but one must try with all one’s strength to express oneself in one’s own language … Without a knowledge of our own language, we will imitate them in the same manner as parrots imitate humans. … Every people has its own set of discourses and has accumulated its own ideas, and it should express them in its own words, not foreign ones.

Well, as they say, ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, though no doubt Shishkov would have hated that expression, and told me not to use it when I could just as well say in plain English, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ And so they do. In an interview with Komsomolskaia Pravda this week, Roman Doshchinskii, president of the executive committee of the Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature, proposed the creation of a sort of ‘language police’ to protect Russian from a rising tide of foreign words. ‘Not altogether a police, but a competent organ responsible for the norms of the Russian language in the Russian Federation’, he said, adding that he had in mind something similar to the institutions which enforce the use of the national language in France, Estonia, and Latvia.

Like Shishkov, Doshchinskii seems particularly perturbed by his compatriots’ habit of using foreign words, although nowadays the main source is English not French. Recognizing that Russian has borrowed foreign words for centuries, Doshchinskii claims that he doesn’t want to get rid of all of them, merely what he calls ‘barbarisms’: words like ‘Okei, super, respekt, sel’fi’. ‘Super’, he says, could perfectly well be replaced by Russian words like ‘zamechatel’no, prekrasno, udivitel’no’. To deal with cases where obvious replacements don’t exist (for instance, in the realm of technology), Doshchinskii thinks that the Russians should have an official committee, like the one in France, which thinks up native equivalents of English words and expressions.

Not everybody likes this proposal. Vladimir Pakhomov, editor of the Russian grammar website, ‘’, complains that, ‘In general, I am surprised, pained, disturbed even, that whenever we talk about language, or some actions are proposed to do with language, they somehow always have a punitive character – linguistic police, some sort of prohibitions, fines, restrictions, etc. For some reason nobody proposes better education. In other words, don’t forbid or restrict, but educate’.

Shishkov fought a long battle against proponents of the ‘new style’, most notably the historian Nikolai Karamzin. In the end, he lost, and the influx of foreign words continued. The nineteenth century version of globalization proved a more powerful cultural force than Russian nationalism. I suspect that the same is true today. I leave it to Russians to decide whether Doshchinskii or Pakhomov’s approach is better, but I doubt that either would change much.

Friday book # 35: I Write As I Please

Years ago, when I was working on my doctoral thesis in the archives at Columbia University, I met another researcher (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten just now), who was studying American journalists who reported from the Stalin-era Soviet Union. The most prominent of these were the New York Times’s Moscow bureau chief, Walter Duranty, and the New York Evening Post’s Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker. According to my fellow researcher, the archives showed clearly that both men were very well aware of the crimes committed by the communist government and that they deliberately covered them up in order to stay in favour with the Soviets. Both Duranty and Knickerbocker won Pulitzer prizes for their reporting from the Soviet Union, but in 1990 the New York Times declared Duranty’s work to be ‘some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper’. I don’t know if my archival colleague ever produced anything from his research, but he did give me this bashed-up copy of Duranty’s memoirs. Their title – I Write As I Please – seems very fitting.


Origins of the war in Donbass

I thoroughly recommend the latest podcast on Sean’s Russia Blog, in which Sean Guillory interviews Baylor University professor Serhiy Kudelia about the origins of the war in Donbass. You can listen to it here. For those of you who don’t have the spare time to listen to the whole thing, here are some key points.

  1. Many local officials helped the separatists in the early stages of the uprising, including helping to organize the referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces in May 2014. In ‘the absence of the state’, which had collapsed following the change of power in Kiev, they were ‘hedging their bets’, but nobody was telling them what to do, Kudelia says. On the basis of research he conducted in Donbass, he comments that ‘There was clearly no hierarchical subordination to any elite actor at the very top. And a lot of the decisions that were taken by local officials were taken on their own.’
  2. ‘Strelkov was not an agent of the [Russian] state’, in Kudelia’s opinion. He and other Russians who came to Ukraine were ‘private individuals’ acting on their own initiative.
  3. The recently released tapes of Sergei Glazyev’s telephone conversations with anti-Maidan activists are ‘not very convincing’, in the sense of not proving that the anti-Maidan movement was being run by the Russian government. There is an ‘absence of a smoking gun in these tapes’. Glazyev is recorded speaking with activists in Odessa, Kharkov, and Zaporozhye, but not in Donbass. Furthermore, the conversations suggest that the activists were not in contact with any representatives of the Russian government in Ukraine. That in turn suggests that the anti-Maidan movement was not being controlled by members of the Russian intelligence services operating within Ukraine, as the Ukrainian government claimed.
  4. ‘A careless attitude of the Ukrainian government towards the use of indiscriminate force against the separatists … hardened grievances … and a sense of the illegitimacy of the Kiev government’, and so strengthened the rebellion.
  5. Kudelia argues that the war in Donbass meets the definition of a civil war. In August 2014, it became an ‘internationalized civil war’. But even after that it remained essentially about internal Ukrainian affairs.

Towards the end of the interview, Kudelia remarks that a correct understanding of the origins of the war is essential to resolving it. If the Kiev government is right, and the war was primarily the result of Russian aggression, then the solution lies in pressuring Russia. If, however, the war was mainly a product of local grievances, then the solution must involve addressing those grievances. That in turn requires Kiev to take the rebels’ demands seriously and negotiate with them.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I found Kudelia’s analysis most convincing. I would have liked Guillory to ask him a few more questions concerning the role of Western states in the conflict. To what extent has the West’s focus on Russia encouraged the Ukrainian government’s misinterpretation of the war as being primarily caused by Russia rather than internal grievances? And to what extent, therefore, must the West share some of the blame for what has happened?