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.

13 thoughts on “Which is worse? The book or the reviews?”

  1. Actually, concerning the Geesen piece you agreed with, she is wrong here:
    Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom. No Soviet general would have dared utter the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”

    Paraphrasing Rokososvky:
    “The Wehrmacht is a machine, and machines will be broken by humans. After all, we have intelligence and machines dont. If we die, so be it, but I will shoot anyone who dies and fails to die intelligently.”

    But then I dont think Geesen would get Rokososvkys sense of humor.

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    1. In most countries we have stories of people who selflessly sacrificed for the country and this is presented as the highest good and the ultimate display of virtue one can aspire to, at least before around 1975. Furthermore, given that Soviet Generals fought the Afghanistan War using firepower instead manpower and as the war went on took greater steps to provide their men with improved body armor, and veterans of the war generally concur the Soviet Army was good at medevac in Afghanistan, I think it is a stretch to say Soviet Generals would not have dared utter such a statement – after Stalin died that is.

      In fact part of the reason Zhukov was dismissed by Khrushchev was that Khrushchev wanted other flag ranking officers like Chuikov and Rokossovsky who were more dedicated to developing doctrine which would cut down on casualties.

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      1. Rokosovsky was an incredibly smart guy.
        And as far as moral integrity goes:
        3 years in NKVD torture camp and he neither confessed his “sins” (which is probably what I would do after a couple of days/weeks to make it stop/end) nor denounced anyone else (which is what I hope I wouldnt do, but I cant be certain).

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  2. An interesting event at this year’s Valdai Club meeting may be relevant in considering Francis Fukuyama’s views.

    On 17 October, the British historian Dominic Lieven gave a talk entitled ‘Revolution, War and Empire.’

    (See http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/revolution-war-and-empire/ .)

    As it happens, Paul quoted Lieven in an article in the ‘American Conservative’ back in February 2014, on the centenary of the memorandum sent to Nicholas II by his former Interior Minister Pyotr Durnovo, warning – presciently – of the catastrophic consequences that involvement in a European war would have for Russia.

    (See http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-russia-might-have-stopped-world-war-i/ .)

    An interesting feature of Lieven’s talk at Valdai is his description of the circumstances in which he first encountered the Durnovo memorandum. He recalls that, when he was a graduate student in 1975, Western opinion was generally divided between those he calls ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists.’

    The former believed that in 1914 Russia ‘already possessed the key elements necessary for evolution into a liberal democracy.’ In the opinion of the latter the ‘the tsarist regime was incapable of peaceful evolution, that revolution was inevitable, and that the Bolshevik regime was the likeliest and legitimate heir of Russian history.’

    What Lieven goes on say is that even then he ‘believed that seeing Russian late-imperial history in these terms had more to do with the Cold War context and ideological battles within the Western intelligentsia than it did with early twentieth-century Russian realities.’ And he continues:

    ‘I never believed that a peaceful transition to democracy was likely. No doubt my peculiar origins had something to do with this. The first original document I ever read about Russian history was the famous report presented to Nicholas II by Petr Durnovo in February 1914 warning that in Russia in that era the triumph of liberalism was impossible and that entry into a European war would almost certainly result in socialist revolution. I was given this as a twelfth birthday present by my uncle Leonid, a child of old Russia and the White emigration, one of whose tutors, incidentally, was Georgii Salomon, the former Social Democrat. My thesis, whose subject was Durnovo and his peers in the tsarist bureaucratic elite, only reinforced this view.’

    As however Paul brought out in his article, Durnovo was not any kind of principled reactionary – he simply held the belief, hardly particular strange to anyone remotely familiar with the history of ‘republican’ thought, that democracy required preconditions, which he thought absent in the Russia of his day.

    From this reading of Russian realities, of course, quite different conclusions can be drawn. So it is central to the 2005 study ‘The Soviet Century’ in which a very different historian to Lieven, Moshe Lewin, summed up his life’s work – which is partly a defence of Lenin.

    What however happened at the end of the Soviet period was that ‘liberals’ who were quite as naive and deluded as those criticised by Durnovo, and the contributors to the 1909 ‘Vekhi’ symposium, seized the reins of power.

    A catastrophic consequence was that Western academic ‘Fachidioten’ like Fukuyama entered a kind of ‘echo chamber.’ People like themselves, in Russia, were telling them what they wanted to hear.

    In this process, arguments about the preconditions for a satisfactory liberal society and what to do if they were not present were simply marginalised.

    This was most conspicuous in Fukuyama’s recycling of the reading of Hegel by the Stalinist-turned-EEC bureaucrat Alexander Kojève, according to which history had really ended with the victory of Napoleon over the Prussian monarchy at Jena, because at that point the ‘vanguard’ of humanity had attained ‘consciousness.’

    (See https://ps321.community.uaf.edu/files/2012/10/Fukuyama-End-of-history-article.pdf .)

    By implication, resistance to the ‘consciousness’ of the ‘vanguard’ is most naturally to be explained either in terms of evil will or ignorance.

    So, of course, a diverse range of figures (including, among Russians, Kutuzov and Barclay de Tolly, among British Nelson and Nelson, and – critically – among Germans, Clausewitz) can only be seen as ‘dead-enders’, opposing the triumph of ‘consciousness.’

    Clearly, Putin should apologise for Borodino, and Theresa May for Trafalgar and Waterloo. And perhaps we should subject ‘On War’ to a kind of ‘burning of the books.’ (I am not certain that Paul’s contemporary from Eton and Oxford days, Boris Johnson, has grasped the nature of the ideological universe he appears happy to inhabit.)

    The essentially ‘Jacobin’ mentality quintessentially embodied in Fukuyama’s writings naturally generates what the ‘revisionist’ historian of the French Revolution François Furet called a ‘theory of circumstances.’

    If the activities of the ‘vanguard’ generate unanticipated – and frequently bloody – consequences, these are automatically explained away in terms of the ‘evil will’ of nefarious forces, either external or internal.

    What of course underpinned the hallucinations both of Kojève and Fukuyama was the evident fact that at the post-war ‘Pax Americana’ was extraordinarily successful, in post-war Western Europe, in particular West Germany, and in parts of East Asia – both Japan, and the ‘Asian Tigers.’

    To assume that conditions either in the post-Soviet space, or the Middle East, were remotely comparable however required prodigious ignorance and self-delusion. Predictably, the results have been that different versions of the kind of liberal failure that Durnovo anticipated have materialised, in country after country.

    Quite naturally, however, ‘neo-Jacobins’ like Fukuyama have interpreted these failures in terms of their own ‘theory of circumstances’. And this version has, time and again, turned out to have a name: Vladimir Putin.

    Some of the consequences of this were well brought out in a piece in the ‘National Interest’ in January by Dominic Lieven’s younger brother Anatol, entitled ‘Is America Becoming a Third World Country?’

    (See http://nationalinterest.org/feature/america-becoming-third-world-country-19050?page=show .)

    One of the things which he charts in this piece is the pattern whereby the assertion that only ‘democratic’ forms of government can be legitimate, taken together with the disastrous consequences of ‘democracy promotion’, has actually delegitimised ‘democracy.’

    Predictably, and in very large measure rightly, what more and more people – most critically in China – conclude is that they are being offered a ‘poisoned chalice.’ At issue is not simply the – justified – fear that the alternative to the existing ‘authoritarian’ systems will most probably be chaos, but the suspicion that supposedly ‘idealistic’ agendas, are simply an instrument of a Western ‘will to power’.

    In its stronger form, the suspicion is that chaos is actually the ‘hidden agenda’ of those making Western policy: which in my view, rather overestimates their intelligence. (If
    I recall rightly, Paul thinks the intellectual abilities of Boris Johnson superior to his own. (Untoward modesty often does not help.)

    Equally predictably, one of the unintended consequences of the policies pursued on the basis of Fukuyama’s principles has been a backlash at home – manifested in, among other things, ‘Brexit’ and the election of Donald Trump.

    Again, however, Western élites respond with a ‘theory of circumstances’, and again much of the time it has a name: Putin.

    One has to ask, however, what else can one expect people like Fukuyama to do, but to cling to the versions of the ‘theory of circumstances’ put forward by people like Masha Gessen?

    To do anything else would involve contemplating the possibility that Stanford should immediately sack him – and indeed, given the damage he has done to his country, his least worst option might be to walk out into the Pacific.

    Suppose one was confronted by the possibility that the effect of one’s writings, rather than to produce a ‘new American century’, had been to make more likely a ‘new Chinese century’?

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    1. “Alexander Kojève, according to which history had really ended with the victory of Napoleon over the Prussian monarchy at Jena, because at that point the ‘vanguard’ of humanity had attained ‘consciousness.’”

      If we are to resort to dialectics here, then why not to look a deep further? By breaking Prussia’s military might, Napoleon not only trashed and humiliated one of the Great Powers – he finalized the formation of his Empire. But supra-national, monarchic Empire was a relic of the Old Ages, running totally against all that the “vanguard” of the Great French Revolution fought for! By all of his further steps Napoleon only betrayed that “progressive cause” more and more, harming himself, his legitimacy and the future of his power.

      “By implication, resistance to the ‘consciousness’ of the ‘vanguard’ is most naturally to be explained either in terms of evil will or ignorance.”

      So it is Bonny himself who they ought to pillar and deride – not the rulers and military commanders of the countries who fought against him. I can’t recall who exactly made this comparison, but “the French bayonet became a magic wand, incurring the feeling of the national conciseness to whatever country it touched”. It is by resisting Napoleonic France that the people began to view themselves just as that – as the people, nut as the subjects. If we are to accept that the values of the French Revolution were “good” and “forward thinking”, then the way which introduced them into the national organism must also be good! Ergo, the resistance to Napoleonic hegemony was good.

      But, yes – there is many, many similarities between the French Revolutionary thinkers of the era and between the think-tankers of today. To name one – the view that the foreign policy does not exist, that everything is the internal policy – your own, “vanguard country” inner policy, an eternal Civil War against the forces of tyranny, which knows no respite or peace – just short armistices to bury the dead.

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      1. There are many similarities with leaders of democratic Athens or Roman republic (to a lesser degree) as well. This is the mindset of revolutionary political system build on the “common good of free citizens” that seeks to expand and views its core values as sufficient proof of superiority over it’s neighbors.

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