the lower depths

I returned from a week away without internet, newspapers, or email, to discover that Russian-US relations had plunged to a new low following the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. The only positive element of the whole affair is Vladimir Putin’s refusal to play the game of tit-for-tat. Overall, the event does not strike an encouraging note on which to end the year. Nevertheless, I think that there are some grounds for thinking that Russian-Western relations have now reached rock bottom, and might start getting at least a little better.

Reports in the past couple of months have suggested a growing sense of frustration in Moscow as a result of its inability to get an agreement with the US government about Syria. In the end, Moscow bypassed Washington and reached a deal with the Turks and Iranians. Now, Putin has elected not to respond to the American decision to expel Russia’s diplomats. Together, these acts suggest that the Kremlin has given up on the Obama administration and has decided more or less to ignore it.

This has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where the growing impotence of the United States has caused great angst among the hawks in the American foreign policy establishment. These are accusing Obama of making their country ‘irrelevant’ by failing to take a sufficiently robust line against Russia. In reality, the cases above suggest that America’s increasing irrelevance is more a product of Obama’s refusal to cooperate with countries such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Fed up with Washington’s behaviour, others have decided to go it alone.

Obama’s critics are thus in some ways correct, but for the wrong reasons. What is clear is that his years in office have not been good for Russian-Western relations. This is not entirely Obama’s fault. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent civil war in Ukraine would have been bound to aggravate relations no matter who had been in the White House. But the United States could have played its cards better. It didn’t have to push forward with plans for missile defence in Europe, encourage revolution in Ukraine and Syria, refuse to collaborate with Russia in the latter, and so on. Obama and his advisors underestimated Russian power and resolve and consequently failed to pay Russia due respect. In the pursuit of what are fairly minor US interests (such as its objectives in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya), the White House lost sight of the far more important interest of maintaining good relations with the world’s largest country.

That may, however, be about to change. The election of Donald Trump has generated a huge amount of anxiety among the chattering classes in the Western world. But it does provide at least a glimmer of hope that Russian-Western relations may begin to improve. It may be no more than a glimmer, but any ray of light which penetrates the lower depths is to be thoroughly welcomed. Obama began his reign using the slogans ‘change’ and ‘hope’. In reality he provided precious little of either. The arrival of a new administration, therefore, makes this new year more hopeful than most.

The title of Maxim Gorky’s play ‘Na Dne’ is often translated as ‘The Lower Depths’ but a more accurate translation is ‘On the Bottom’. That is where we find ourselves today. But the good thing about being on the bottom is that one can only go up.

Happy New Year!


8 thoughts on “the lower depths”

  1. “Nevertheless, I think that there are some grounds for thinking that Russian-Western relations have now reached rock bottom”

    You are a pessimist, professor! 😉 Every time you might think (and hope) that, say, the Ukraine have finally reached the moral and political bottom, the справжнi descendants of the Ancient Ukrs take up the shovels with which their ancestor dig up the Black Sea and break a new depth to the True (yet unattained) Bottom. If you were 7 days without the Net then, surely, you’ve missed plenty of such examples (from the state officials of that… “country”) following the TU-154 catastrpohe. Russian so-called liberals were not far behind.

    “The annexation of Crimea…”

    Reunion with Russia.

    “The title of Maxim Gorky’s play ‘Na Dne’ is often translated as ‘The Lower Depths’ but a more accurate translation is ‘On the Bottom’. That is where we find ourselves today. But the good thing about being on the bottom is that one can only go up.”

    THe term became memetic in Russia. You just can point out to some egregorious example of, say, Charlie Hebdo’s lates “artistic piece”, say “Дно” (Bottom) or “Очередное дно пробито” (Another bottom had been broken) and everyone will get that.


  2. Dr Robinson,

    Obama is doing all he can to sabotage relations between the incoming Trump administration and Russia. Obama’s provocative act of expelling 35 Russian diplomats intended to create a diplomatic crisis between the US and Russia. A crisis that Trump would inherit. Putin’s refusal to retaliate, ignoring the requests of Lavrov and the Russian Foreign Ministry to do so has defused this crisis.

    Dr Robinson you right to point out that the “chattering classes” in DC are nonplus and even apoplectic that prospect of a US-Russia rapprochement. There are too many people in the beltway that have careers (think tanks, experts/pundits, etc.) and financial interests (military-industrial complex, politicians, etc.) in maintaining US-Russian tensions and hostilities.

    Trump will encounter powerful and entrenched vested interests that will do all it can to obstruct a new détente. Prominent Republican leaders in the US congress such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have engaged in hostile rhetoric against Russia recently. These same establishment Republicans will frustrate Trump’s domestic programmes too – especially with regards immigration and building the border fence/wall.

    Implacable hostility to Russia (whatever its form or political system), along a with a fanatical conviction in the righteousness of US hegemony; are the principal tenets of the ideology/theology of “Atlanticism”. Trump subsequently is viewed as a heretic by the DC “chattering classes”.

    Trump may sincerely wish to improve relations with Russia, whether he can or be allowed to do so, that is an entirely different matter.


  3. Yeah, let us hope it’ll change, but like other commenters I’m not too optimistic. It seem that the US establishment (mostly the disgraced Democratic party) is now deeply invested into mccarthyist hysteria.

    Whatever (probably false) hopes we may have for the new administration, the current – now certifiably insane – one still has 20 days left. And the world can be destroyed in an hour.


  4. I have a considerable dose of reluctance to hope for a major improvement, but this is not based on Trump’s desire for better US-Russian relations – a desire which most definitely is a better reflection of US interests. I wrongly stated in one social media post that this 35 diplomats is the largest even considering the cold war; it isn’t: the stunning issue was that the US expelled 50 Soviet diplomats within 6 months of the Reykyavik summit. This fact made me delve a bit deeper, and the lack of decent initiative in diplomacy on the part of the US is jarring also back then during the Reagan years; the degree of preparation; the constructiveness and the initiatives were all heavily slated on the part of Gorbachev’s team. The impression really is that this country does not know how to, or care to, come to compromise solutions. The military industrial complex may prove too big also for Trump; his Secretary of State is just as likely to be thwarted by other departments as was Kerry under Obama, and similar internal sabotage is highly likely when a real detente were to get underway. Trump at this point seems to hold out some carrots like nuclear armament renovation, but his criticism of the F35 and NATO are such incredibly complex goals that I seriously doubt he can pull that off.


  5. Unlike Lyttenburgh I think you are quite an optimist professor. As saying goes “we thought we reached the bottom but then we heard knocking from below”. US – Russia relationships still could worsen a lot, and that wouldn’t take much considering all the hotspots there interests collide and all the angst of hawks.


    1. Alex Kramer,

      Ah yes. The ‘lonely old volcano of the Right’ as W.H. Auden put it.

      And Lewis did get Hitler very badly wrong.

      But then, many members of the contemporary Western ‘intelligentsia’ do seem oddly reminiscent of eerie figures like Gillian Phipps and Tristy in ‘The Revenge for Love’, as the novel originally entitled ‘False Bottoms’ was eventually called.


      1. Waaal, he did get him right eventually, just in a lonely way; hence Auden.

        More relevant to what’s happening now is Lewis’s Human Age. Assuming Trump isn’t allowed to be sworn in or allowed to be the ‘outsider’ President very long, the power structures and directions of force could start to match this theological sci/fi epic trilogy! (Which would make it predictive as well as wildly entertaining, just like Joyce!)

        The three major characters would be President Pence (the Christian dominionist in Washington represented by Lewis as the local white angel), alt-President Trump issuing dagger-eyed tweets from his Tenth Piazza tower (Lewis’s demon Bailiff), and Mayor of NYC Hillary Clinton (the chief of police of women).

        Life imitating satire.


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