Wall of Grief

Yesterday (30 October), Vladimir Putin attended the unveiling of the ‘Wall of Grief’, a monument erected in Moscow to the victims of communist repression. This is the third major such monument constructed in Moscow this year, the other two being the Sretenskii Monastery (about which I wrote earlier) and a memorial at the former Butovo firing range.

You might imagine that these strong signals of disapproval of communism would have some effect on how the media represents Putin and the state he leads. For instance, you might imagine headlines like ‘Putin condemns Stalinism’, or ‘Russian state turns it back on communist past’, combined with some analysis of how this connects to other similar official condemnations of the Soviet Union. Well, if so you’d be wrong. For the most part, Western media haven’t bothered covering the story at all, but let’s look at those which have.

Reuters sets the tone with the headline, ‘Putin opens monument to Stalin’s victims; dissidents cry foul,’ and with an opening paragraph declaiming that, ‘President Vladimir Putin inaugurated a monument to the victims of Stalinist purges on Monday, but Soviet-era dissidents accused him of cynicism at a time when they say authorities are riding roughshod over civil freedoms.’ At the very end of its article, Reuters takes pains to tell us:

Monuments and memorial plaques honoring Stalin have sprung up in different Russian regions. State-approved textbooks have softened his image, and an opinion poll in June crowned him the country’s most outstanding historical figure. By contrast, those who have helped document Stalin’s crimes, from the Memorial human rights group to individual historians and journalists, have sometimes felt themselves under pressure from the authorities. A group of Soviet-era dissidents published a letter on Monday, accusing Putin of cynicism. ‘We … consider the opening in Moscow of a monument to victims of political repression untimely and cynical,’ they said in the letter, published on the Kasparov.ru news portal. ‘It’s impossible to take part in memorial events organized by the authorities who say they are sorry about victims of the Soviet regime, but in practice continue political repression and crush civil freedoms.’

The BBC takes its cue from Reuters. It gives a factual headline, ‘Wall of Grief. Putin opens first Soviet victims memorial.’  But, after presenting the basic story, the BBC then cites the same group as Reuters, telling us that ‘critics accused him [Putin] of continuing political repression and “crushing civil freedoms.” A group of dissidents from the Soviet era wrote to a news website that they considered the event to be “untimely and cynical”.’ The BBC notes that Putin said that, ‘An unequivocal and clear assessment of the repression will help to prevent it being repeated,’ and that, ‘This terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified by anything.’ But it then qualifies this by finishing with the words, ‘In June, President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia’s enemies were “demonising” Stalin excessively. Under his rule, the Soviet victory over the Nazis has become central to a new ideology of Russian greatness.’ As with Reuters, a story about Putin condemning the crimes of Stalinism thus gets turned around and becomes a story about Putin ‘crushing civil freedoms’ and indirectly promoting the Stalin cult.

Next we have Deutsche Welle, which gives us the headline ‘With new Wall of Grief, Russia grapples with Soviet crimes.’ This starts off with a paragraph saying, ‘As some worry that Josef Stalin is being rehabilitated in Russia’s collective memory, a new monument to his victims has opened in Moscow. Survivors of his reign of terror are not convinced that it’s enough.’ It then recounts the opinion of Tatiana Nikolskaya, whose mother was imprisoned under Stalin, who says that she doesn’t like the Wall of Grief very much and complains that state compensation for Stalin’s victims has been ‘virtually nonexistent.’ Deutsche Welle, like the others, then turns the story around and tells us:

The unveiling of the Wall of Grief comes amid a period of rehabilitation of Stalin’s legacy. A bust of Stalin was erected this year on Moscow’s Alley of Rulers, glorifying the dictator alongside President Putin’s other predecessors. In an interview earlier this year, Putin said foreign enemies had used the ‘excessive demonization of Stalin’ to attack Russia. And that message from the top seems to be having an effect on Russia’s collective memory.

Deutsche Welle also takes care to note that in his speech at the unveiling of the Wall of Grief, Putin ‘stopped short of mentioning Stalin by name.’ The implication is clear – Putin isn’t really anti-Stalin at all. By contrast, the newspaper approvingly cites Ksenia Sobchak as saying that Stalin was ‘unequivocally a bloody hangman and criminal’. In this way, we are left with no doubt as to newspaper’s preferred Russian presidential candidate.

It’s interesting to see how this works. Putin unveils a monument to Stalin’s victims, but Western reporting doesn’t focus on that, nor link it to other memorials which repudiate communism (Butovo, Sretenskii, etc), but instead uses the event as what journalists call a ‘hook’ to write a story about political repression under Putin and the Russian state’s alleged rehabilitation of Stalin. And the sources it cites are the likes of Sobchak and Kasparov.ru, who represent a tiny and extreme fringe of Russian public opinion. Unfortunately, this is all too typical of how Russia is reported. Caveat Emptor, as the saying goes; or to put it another way, let the reader beware.

First arrest in Russia scandal – for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of Ukraine!

The rumours, it appears, were true. Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate alleged Russian interference in the US election, has brought charges against former Trump adviser Paul Manafort for conspiracy to launder money.

It seems bad for Trump, you might think. But, stop! Money laundering has nothing to do with Russian interference. Moreover, who was Manafort working for when he committed his alleged crime? Not Russia. No. Ukraine! For sure, it wasn’t the current Ukrainian government, but that of the supposed (but in reality not at all) ‘pro-Russian’ president, Viktor Yanukovich. But still, there’s no Russian connection here.

Maybe, the conspiracy theorists might claim, but Manafort will now surely spill the beans on Trump, the Russians, and all their his evil doings. As the BBC says, ‘Mr Manafort will be under growing pressure to co-operate with the Mueller investigation. If he offers up useful information about his time during the campaign, this could be just the first domino to fall.’ But if Manafort actually had any relevant information about Russian interference in the election, he’d have offered it up by now. In the past weeks, reports have suggested that Mueller was pressuring Manafort to tell all in return for some deal, but Manafort told Mueller that he couldn’t cut a deal because he didn’t know anything.

Having not seen the charge sheet, I can’t say for sure where the evidence to indict Manafort came from, but it seems likely to have been the data about payments from Yanukovich to Manafort provided by the current Ukrainian authorities during the US presidential campaign, data which led to Manafort resignation from Trump’s team at that time. In short, it derived from Ukrainian interference in the US election.

Russia-wise, it appears that so far Mueller has drawn a blank. All he’s managed to come up with is charging someone for being an ‘unregistered agent’ of the Ukrainian government. Perhaps everybody has been chasing the wrong target.

UPDATE: You can read the charge sheet against Manafort and co-defendant Richard Gates here. I found paragraph 19 interesting. It says:

MANAFORT and GATES engaged in a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign in the United States at the direction of Yanukovich, the Party of Regions, and the Government and Ukraine. MANAFORT and GATES did so without registering and providing the disclosures required by law.

It’s an interesting outcome from an investigation set up to examine Russian interference in US politics.

Foot in mouth candidate

Say what you like about Ksenia Sobchak, who this week declared her intention to challenge Vladimir Putin in next year’s Russian presidential election, but she’s certainly creating a splash. In a single day, Sobchak has managed to create two scandals – first by saying that under international law Crimea is part of Ukraine, and second by calling Russia a ‘страна генетического отребья’, a phrase I have difficulty translating, but which roughly speaking, I think, means a country from which all the good genetic material has been removed.

On the first issue – Crimea – one might say that Sobchak has a point, if one sticks strictly to the issue about international law. But the thing about international law is that it is open to wide interpretation. Western lawyers will say one thing; Russian lawyers another. And the nuance that she was referring simply to the legal situation won’t have made much difference given that the headlines in the Russian press were ‘Sobchak says Crimea is part of Ukraine.’ Considering the overwhelming support for the Crimean annexation/reunification among the Russian population, it’s not exactly a vote winner.

As for the genetics issue, Sobchak tried to explain herself by saying that she was referring to the first two decades of the communist era, when in her words ‘our country underwent a vast quantity of human purges, when the best of the best were destroyed. … you and me … are the result of what happened.’ Again, it’s not something designed to attract the voters, as it pretty much confirms the original impression – Sobchak thinks that Russians are made up of genetically inferior material. It’s hard to think of a better way to insult a lot of people.

According to some conspiracy theories, Sobchak is a Kremlin quasi-puppet candidate, whose role is to liven up what would otherwise be a boring and predictable campaign and so increase the turnout, in order thereby to make Putin’s inevitable election seem more legitimate. The problem with that theory is that it assumes that Sobchak can mobilize a reasonable number of people to come out and vote for her (enough to enhance turnout, but not so much as to be a genuine threat). But judging by her performance so far she’s unlikely to manage that feat. Sobchak’s faux pas induced Vzliad.ru to proclaim that ‘the candidate seems ‘not to be interested in the final result … isn’t trying to attract the maximum number of votes. On the contrary, with her first step she’s cutting herself off from the support of hypothetical voters.’ If Sobchak doesn’t buck up and change direction, she runs a serious risk of being an immediate bust and crashing so far out of contention as to be unable to fulfill her required role.

Which is worse? The book or the reviews?

I have yet to read Masha Gessen’s new book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. To be honest, I’m not sure that I will. The use of the word ‘totalitarianism’ in the title is so extreme that it rather discredits the product before one even looks at it. But, whatever the book’s merits or demerits, it surely can’t be worse than a couple of reviews of it I’ve read in the last few days.

Originally, I was going to write about a review by Heather Mallick in The Toronto Star. It’s got it all: Putin is a murderer (it’s all Putin, as if there’s nobody else in Russia); he’s ‘stoking hatred’ of gays; and he’s ‘trying to rebuild the cult of Stalin’. You know the drill by now. Mallick throws in a few other complaints. Apparently, there’s ‘no reliable traffic system’ in Russia. I’m not sure what that’s all about. But, just as I was about to pen a few words about Mallick, I stumbled across something else. No doubt you’ve had this sensation. You see something, and you know, you just know, that this is the one. It’s too perfect to miss. That’s how I felt on reading a review of The Future is History in this Sunday’s New York Times book review section by none other than Francis Fukuyama (he of the ‘End of History’). Rightly or wrongly, Fukuyama is considered one of the great minds of our time. Ho, ho. I’m beginning to giggle already. It’s worth reading this one. It’s a real gem!

The first half of Fukuyama’s review is fairly anodyne, but it really gets going at the bottom of the third column, where he writes:

This is what the Putin regime represents: an entire society psychologically damaged and unwilling to come to terms with its own past, leading to a widespread depression and belief that the country has no future.

I’m guessing that Fukuyama isn’t just making this up, but it is copying it from Gessen, but it’s psychobabble tosh nonetheless. ‘An entire society psychologically damaged’ – where’s the evidence for that? As Fukuyama points out, Gessen’s book consists of a survey of seven Russians, one of whom is the Levada Centre’s Lev Gudkov. So, let’s test the thesis by going to the Levada Centre’s website. What do we see there? What do Gudkov and co. tell us about Russians’ view of their future. Top left is a chart entitled ‘Evaluation of the state of things in the country’. And what do you know? Just under 60% of Russians think that their country is headed in the right direction. Only about 30% of Russians think that their country is headed the wrong way. Yet, Fukuyama says that there’s ‘widespread depression and a belief that the country has no future.’ Go figure!

But it gets better. One of the characters analyzed by Gessen is Aleksandr Dugin.  Fukuyama mentions Dugin’s eclectic intellectual background, and then adds ‘From there, Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’

Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!

He, he, he, he, he!

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

Or as I said in another post, ‘#$@&%*!’

Yup, good old Frankie sure is one of the finest minds of our era. ‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ My sides are cracking. (For those of you who don’t know, Eurasianism is generally considered to have been ‘invented’, if that is an appropriate word, by Nikolai Trubetskoi, Pyotr Savitsky and others in the 1921 volume Exodus to the East.)

‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ !!!!

You’ve got to give to Francis. He sure knows how to tell ‘em.

And then, just to display his vast knowledge a bit further, he says: ‘Today, he [Dugin] would like to cast himself as the unofficial ideologist of the Putin government.’

The tears are pouring down my face! My ribs are aching! Go read my interview with Dugin, Frankie-boy. Right at the end. I ask him about his influence. And what does he say? ‘I have no influence. I don’t know anybody, have never seen anyone, I just write my books, and am a Russian thinker, nothing more.’ So, sure, he would ‘like to cast himself as the unofficial ideologist of the Putin government.’ That’s the way it is.

Fukuyama goes on to add some other nonsense, but I think this is enough. You get the point. I’ve read some pretty bad book reviews in my time, but I’m pretty certain this is the worst. Why the New York Times would give a book like this to somebody like Fukuyama to review I can’t imagine. (Because the book has ‘History’ in the title?) It’s not like he has the slightest bit of knowledge about Russia. And that’s the problem. So much of this Russia stuff is written by people who haven’t got a clue. As a result, they approach the subject with a totally uncritical mind. Is Gessen’s methodology sound? Can one really draw broad sweeping conclusions about Russia from an analysis of seven very untypical people? And are those conclusions in any case valid? These are the sort of critical questions one would expect a reviewer to ask? But neither Mallick nor Fukuyama try.

Having said all that, Fukuyama made my day. ‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ I’m still laughing.

Not a ‘useful idiot’

I’m disappointed. Crushed even. The European Values think tank has just produced a report entitled The Kremlin’s Platform for Useful Idiots in the West: An Overview of RT’s Editorial Strategy and Evidence of Impact. The report contains a spreadsheet with the names of 2327 ‘useful idiots’, that is to say people who have appeared on RT and, says the report, ‘either due to unawareness of RT’s political agenda, or indeed explicit support of it, lend their names and credibility to a pseudo-news network and proxy agent of the Kremlin.’ And what do you know? I’m not on the list! In fact, I’ve appeared on RT twice, once on their news section, and once on Crosstalk, but for some reason they don’t seem to have bothered analyzing the Crosstalk guest list, so I’ve slipped through the cracks. I’m not a ‘useful idiot’ after all, and have been deprived of the opportunity to express moral outrage at being publicly named and shamed.

So much for the methodology of the European Values think tank, a Czech-based organization which runs something called ‘Kremlin Watch’, described as ‘a strategic program … which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against Western democracies.’ Let’s take a more detailed look at the report on the Kremlin’s useful idiots.

The report begins by saying ‘RT’s raison d’être is to denigrate the West at all costs and undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy. On these grounds, RT categorically qualifies as a Kremlin disinformation outfit.’ This confuses a bunch of separate things. Yes, I think it’s probably fair to say that RT does denigrate the West reasonably often, but that doesn’t mean that denigration is its ‘raison d’être’; rather, it’s a tool for some other objective, namely convincing people that the Western narrative is incorrect, and so making them more amenable to a Russian narrative. Second, denigration of certain aspects of Western life and policy is categorically not the same as trying to ‘undermine public confidence in the viability of liberal democracy.’ Lots of political actors within the West criticize things about their societies. If they didn’t, they would hardly be democracies! Denigration is part of democratic discourse, not a way of destroying it. And third, none of the above means that RT is a ‘disinformation outfit.’ Denigrating the West and attacking liberal democracy, even if true, are again categorically not the same as disinformation, for the very simple reason that one can denigrate pretty well using the truth. Is it the case that RT has on occasion run stories which have turned out to be untrue. Yes. Is that true of Western media too? Yes. Are most RT stories untrue? As far as I am aware, nobody has ever produced any evidence to say that they are. To make the claim that RT is a source of disinformation, you need to do proper quantitative analysis of its output. This hasn’t been done, so the claim is not founded on proper research. Furthermore, while it may be that RT is selecting a certain segment of the truth, and not other segments, that’s bias, it’s not ‘disinformation.’

Next, the report says: ‘RT’s epistemology is rooted in the denial of the very possibility of objective, verifiable truth.’ Here, we’re into an interesting philosophical area. Personally, I think that there is an objective truth. Either I got up this morning and wrote this blog post, or I didn’t. However, our ability to know the truth is very limited. Facts are disputed, and what those facts mean is subject to multiple interpretations. We are also human beings, subject to a vast number of cognitive biases, which means that none of us is entirely objective. We can aspire to be so, but we will never achieve it. I’m a great fan of Richards J. Heuer’s book Psychology of Intelligence Analsysis, published by the CIA and available online. In this Heuer remarks:

Analysts do not achieve objective analysis by avoiding preconceptions; that would be ignorance or self-delusion. Objectivity is achieved by making basic assumptions and reasoning as explicit as possible so that they can be challenged by others and analysts can, themselves, examine their validity.  … [one view is that] objectivity requires the analyst to suppress any personal opinions or preconceptions, so as to be guided only by the “facts” of the case. To think of analysis in this way overlooks the fact that information cannot speak for itself. The significance of information is always a joint function of the nature of the information and the context in which it is interpreted. The context is provided by the analyst in the form of a set of assumptions and expectations concerning human and organizational behavior. These preconceptions are critical determinants of which information is considered relevant and how it is interpreted. … The question is not whether one’s prior assumptions and expectations influence analysis, but only whether this influence is made explicit or remains implicit.

In other words, don’t kid yourself that you can be objective. You can’t. What matters is whether your biases are made explicit or are hidden. So, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in RT saying it isn’t objective. In fact, that’s a good thing, as it makes its biases open. By contrast, media outlets who pretend to be objective are deceiving their readers and viewers. Obviously, as with so many things, this is contestable. One can have a long and detailed debate about the validity of RT’s epistemology; but it’s not necessarily incorrect, and certainly not inherently anti-democratic or designed to disinform.

Next, the report claims that, ‘RT disguises the malicious objectives of this editorial strategy by claiming to uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals like free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought.’ Note how the word ‘malicious’ is thrown in here. This is a value judgement placed in the middle of what claims to be a factual statement. Where is the ‘objectivity’ here? Besides that, there is something a little creepy about denouncing people because they claim to ‘uphold traditional liberal-democratic ideals’. If the report’s authors think this is false, then they need to provide a detailed analysis showing that that there is no ‘free speech, critical journalism, and independent thought’ on RT. Have they done this? Have they asked RT’s guests whether they are told what to say, or cut off if they say something wrong (the answer in my experience is no and no). Have they done a thorough analysis of all RT’s reports to see if there is any ‘critical journalism’ (actually, there’s a lot, and that’s what this report doesn’t like – RT’s journalism is too ‘critical’). And have they done a quantitative analysis proving that there’s no independent thought, that people on RT just parrot the identical line all the time? No they haven’t. Perhaps all these claims are true, but there is no solid data in the report to back it up.

In fact, the report reveals quite the opposite. It says that, ‘RT uses guest appearances by Western politicians, journalists and writers, academics, and other influential public personalities to boost its credibility.’ It then provides the name of 2,327 of these guests. But look who they include:

  • Among American politicians, such well known Kremlin stooges as Dick Cheney, Wesley Clark, Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman, Michael Morrell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Ryan, and James Woolsey.
  • Among British politicians, such obvious Putin puppets as Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Martin Bell, Boris Johnson, David Owen, Jack Straw and John Prescott
  • Among European and international politicians, Kofi Anan, Ehud Barak, Helen Clark, Dominique de Villepin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Hamid Karzai, Romano Prodi, Dima Rousseff, and a bunch of others who obvious only ever spout Kremlin talking points.
  • Among journalists, a whole bunch of peoples whose names I don’t mostly recognize, but does include another well-known non-independent American Larry King, who actually hosts a show on RT
  • And among academics/experts, the likes of Richard Dawkins, Alan Dershowitz, Daniel Drezner, Mark Galeotti, Nina Khrushcheva, Michael O’Hanlon, Daniel Pipes, Angela Stent, and Dmitry Trenin, who are well-known for their incapacity for independent thought and their inability to do anything other than read from their Kremlin cue cards.

Perhaps, as I said, all the accusations about RT could be justified if there was a proper, quantitative analysis of what is said on RT and by who, of how much of RT news is true and how much untrue, etc. In the absence of solid, quantitative, data, all the report is able to produce is a handful of anecdotes about allegedly biased reporting. But a handful of examples doesn’t really prove anything. And in the case of this report, its anecdotes aren’t even very good ones. For instance, it denounces RT’s coverage of the annexation of Crimea because, among other things, RT had the audacity to show pictures of Crimeans happily welcoming Russian troops. And it spends half a page defending the Ukrainian government’s language policies. Now it might well be that RT exaggerates the extent to which these threaten the use of the Russian language, but the report is equally biased in whitewashing the policies as if they aren’t discriminatory at all (which, as seen by recent legislation on language in the media and education, is not the case).

And here is a picture the report shows as evidence of RT’s ‘conspiratorial’ nature.

rt1

What precisely is wrong with this? Academic studies of the American media’s coverage of the issue of Iraqi WMD prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq have shown that the media overwhelmingly accepted the government’s claims that Iraq had WMD and posed a serious threat to US security. There was indeed ‘no second opinion’ in any large-scale sense. And look what happened! Wouldn’t it have been better if there had been more questioning?

According to the report, ‘Appearing on RT is not harmless, it enables and legitimates RT’s subversive agenda. … It is therefore impossible to appear on RT without being ultimately complicit in its efforts to undermine Western democracy and pollute the information space.’ So, in the name of democracy and free speech, we must tell people that they shouldn’t accept invitations to express their view, and we must publish lists of their names and call them ‘useful idiots’ in the hope of shaming them into silence. Does anybody else appreciate the irony?

Impossible victory

It’s always a pleasure to read the words of former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, so imagine my joy at breakfast this morning when I opened up the Globe and Mail and found his latest article, entitled “Peace in Ukraine requires a carrot and stick approach.” You get a sense of where it’s going from the very first sentence, which says: “I just returned from the contact line in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, which separates free Ukraine from the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbass region.” I suspect that a lot of Irrussianality readers would have stopped right there and turned instead to the sports section, but it’s my job to read this guff, so I ploughed on. And what great reading it made!

It’s pretty clear how Rasmussen sees the war in Donbass: Ukraine v. Russia, not Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians. “Nearly three million Ukrainians in the Donbass region live in fear,” writes our friend Fogh. True enough, perhaps, but I don’t think that for most of them its Russian artillery that they’re afraid of. But Rasmussen doesn’t let such little details bother him. Apart from spelling Donbass with two s’s, what follows in his article could pretty much have been written by the president of “free” Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, as if Rasmussen had just jotted down some Kiev briefing notes and recycled them for the Canadian press.

The core of the article is Rasmussen’s proposals for a “political solution” to the war. This involves “providing defensive equipment to the Ukrainian soldiers,” and “deploying a robust United Nations peacekeeping force to the Donbass region.” The former should include “night-vision goggles, signal-jamming equipment and radar to detect enemy firing positions.” Quite why this is purely “defensive” military equipment, Rasmussen doesn’t explain. It can just as easily be used for offensive purposes. As for his peacekeeping proposal, it fits exactly with what Kiev has been suggesting – not a mere protection force for OSCE monitors, as Russia has proposed, and not a larger force to separate the sides and patrol the area between them, but a mission which “stretches all the way to the Ukraine-Russia border to avoid turning the contact line into a de facto new border,” and which should also “protect the population and the infrastructure.” In short, it would be a UN occupation force, a bit like the one NATO sent to Kosovo in 1999. We all know how that ended up. In essence, this is a proposal for the Donbass rebels’ surrender. It’s also contrary to the Minsk Agreements, which stipulate that Ukraine should regain control of its border only after it has granted special status to Donbass and carried out local elections.

But good old Anders has some carrots to offer as well – “full sanctions relief”, when and if “Russia delivers on the withdrawal of troops [who these are he doesn’t say] and the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty … when all of Russia’s obligations are met.” No mention here of Ukraine’s obligations under Minsk, you will note. It’s not much of a carrot. “Give in to all our demands and then we’ll be nice to you,” is what it amounts to.

For that reason, Rasmussen’s proposal doesn’t have a chance of succeeding. When a war reaches stalemate, you can’t get peace by demanding that one side makes all the concessions. It won’t agree to it, and because the war is stalemated, you can’t force it to do so. In such a situation, the only way forward is something which takes both sides interests into consideration. Rasmussen seems utterly uninterested in that.

So what’s the alternative?

Continue reading Impossible victory

Centering the Russian Slav by destroying Russian culture

As regular readers will know, I’m not much of a fan of the Soviet Union, but whatever my political biases, as a professional historian I’m above all in favour of historical accuracy. If historical accuracy requires me occasionally to come to the Soviets’ defence, then so be it. So, here goes.

The Washington Post published an op-ed yesterday by Terrell Jermaine Starr which drew parallels between Soviet nationalities policy and alleged attempts by modern-day Russia to stir up racial tensions in America. The message was pretty clear: the Soviets were not just racists, but specifically Russian racists. So you shouldn’t be surprised that modern day Russians are too. Let’s look at this in detail.

Starr begins saying that “The Washington Post reported recently that Russia-backed entities spent at least $100,000 on Facebooks ads designed to pit white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general. … We still don’t know exactly how any of these social media efforts informed American voting choices in 2016.” Here we run into an immediate problem: $100,000 is the total allegedly spent on Facebook ads, most of which had nothing to with pitting “white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general,” but involved things like a dog lovers site, and one of which – the “Blacktivist” account – supposedly actually complained about white racism against blacks (all part of “sowing divisions”, as is said). And over half the money was spent after the 2016 election, and so can’t have been about influencing the election at all.

But all that is by the by. What really interests me is what Starr gets onto next: a discussion of Soviet nationalities policy. “None of us should be surprised” by Russia’s Facebook shenanigans, Starr says, because:

As a Russian supremacist state, the former USSR understood very well how to weaponize racism. It wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities during its 70-plus years of existence.  … [the 15 Soviet republics] were nothing more than colonies of Moscow. One of the first things a colonizer does is center its ethnic superiority over the peoples it rules. During the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin waged “Holodomor” (or Holocaust) against Ukraine … The best numbers  have the death figure ta 4 million people, but some estimates have that figure upwards of 10 million. … Stalin … presided over a USSR that centered Russians as the leading ethnic group. … Soviet childrens books depicted African children in blackface and Africa as an uncivilized continent … In 1927 the Soviet Union engaged in a campaign demanding that women in Uzbekistan unveil. … the real motivation was to homogenize the population, which the Kremlin viewed as primitive and backwards, with Russian values. Soviet propaganda from the time depicts clerics in Uzbekistan as menacing and primitive in a clear case of Islamophobia. … Whether it was killing Ukrainians, “civilizing” Central Asian peoples or disparaging black peoples while pretending to treat them as equals, the USSR always centered the Russian slav. The Russian Federation is no different.

Let’s unpack this.

First, is it true that the USSR “wielded Russian homogeneity” against minority nations and “centered its [Russian] ethnic superiority” over them? Note how Starr’s examples are taken almost entirely from the Stalin era. Nationalities policy did indeed take a Great Russian turn at that time, but it was a relatively short-lived one. In the 1920s, and then from the 1950s onwards, the Soviet policy was one of “indigenization” (korenizatsiia). This encouraged the use of local languages and the development of a local national elite. In fact, the Soviets were responsible for spreading mass education in non-Russian languages, and in various cases of actually standardizing and creating a literary language for local peoples, precisely so that mass education in the local language could become possible. It is generally accepted by scholars of Soviet nationalities policy that the Soviet Union established the conditions for its own eventual collapse by in effect creating nationalities, national institutions, and national elites where none existed before.

Outside of the Stalin period, Great Russian nationalism had some supporters within the party leadership, but was generally frowned upon. In 1970, the Politburo itself stepped in to purge the editorial board of the journal Molodaia Gvardiia because it had overstepped the mark in promoting Russian nationalism. Party ideology chief Mikhail Suslov was a firm opponent of Russian nationalism, as was KGB head and later General Secretary of the Communist Party Yuri Andropov. And while the party purged the Russian nationalists, it provided a degree of protection for Lev Gumilev to publish his Eurasianist tracts which went out of their way to praise the qualities of the steppe peoples of the Soviet Union, such as the Tatars, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, tracts which earned Gumilev the insult “Tatar lover” from the nationalists. Soviet policy was far from promoting racism, let alone Russian nationalism.

Second, when it comes to the Holodomor, it’s interesting that Starr, after admitting that most historians assess the number of deaths as about 4 million, throws in the figure of 10 million as well, as if there is some justification for this much higher number. He also fails to mention the many Russians and Kazakhs who died at the same time.  The result is a distorted picture of reality.

Third, Starr may well be quite right about Soviet depictions of black people. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But it would hardly have made the Soviets uniquely racist, compared with how blacks were depicted in other countries.

Fourth, it makes no sense to describe the Soviets’ campaigns against Islamic traditions in Uzbekistan as an attempt to homogenize the Central Asian peoples “with Russian values.” The aim was to homogenize them with “Soviet values.” That isn’t the same thing at all. Yes, Soviet propaganda showed Muslim clerics as “menacing and primitive.” And yes, if you like, you can call that “Islamophobia.” But at the same time, Soviet propaganda was every bit as disparaging of Orthodox clerics. In 1916 there were 66,000 priests in Russia. In 1940, only 6,000. In 1916, there were 33,000 Orthodox parishes in Russia. In 1940, just 950. The Soviets practically wiped Orthodoxy out as a formal institution. If they were “Islamophobic”, they were “Orthodoxophobic” too.

That mattered because Orthodoxy was, and is, a central part of Russian national identity. In assaulting the Church, the Soviets assaulted the very core of Russia. They smashed up its historical heritage, tearing down monuments and destroying churches. Starr should look up “village prose” or read some of those Molodaia Gvardiia articles from the late 1960s, to get a sense of what many Russians felt the Soviet Union was doing to their heritage. When sculptor Sergei Konenkov, artist Pavel Korin, and writer Leonid Leonov, penned an article entitled “Guard our sacred objects!” denouncing Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign and demanding the preservation of Russian historical monuments, they didn’t do it because they felt that Russia was in charge of the Soviet Union and “centering its ethnic superiority over the people it ruled.” They did it because they understood very well that the Soviet regime was a threat to Russian culture. And when Vladimir Soloukhin wrote his “Visit to the Russian Museum,” and complained of the destruction of Russian culture, he wasn’t doing so he thought that the Soviet Union “wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities,” but because he realized that traditional Russia was under threat.

The Soviet Union, then, didn’t always “center the Russian slav.” Its objective was the “merging” (sliianie) of the Soviet peoples into one common, Soviet, nationality, an objective which was as threatening to Russian national identity as to the identity of other peoples.

As for Starr’s idea that modern Russia follows a similar, racist, anti-non-Russian policy, it’s worth noting that when one examines the current situation, one finds that Russian nationalists don’t like the policies of the current Russian government at all. They don’t like that the government preaches that Russia is a multinational state, Rossiiskaia not Russkaia; they don’t like the freedom given to national regions within the Russian Federation to educate children in local languages; and they really don’t like the government’s policy of relatively open borders encouraging large scale immigration from Central Asia. From the nationalists’ perspective, the state doesn’t “center the Russian slav” at all.

Starr finishes his article with the following gem:

While I was visiting the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, in 2010, a man who appeared to be at least 80-years-old approached me on a busy downtown street and asked me if I knew the history of Ukraine. It was a broad question, but I welcome his insight. “Ukraine is a colony of Moscow and Russia wants to take it back.”

So this is Starr’s evidence – the word of one old man in Lviv. I guess it must be true then.