The inability to see

I spend most of my time on this blog mocking all the exaggerated nonsense which passes for political commentary nowadays. It’s a rare day that I come across something which is both stimulating and well-written. Fortunately, this is one of those days. Via Facebook (which has its uses), I was pointed in the direction of an excellent article by Patrick Lawrence in this summer’s edition of the magazine Raritan Quarterly, of which I had not previously been aware. I can recommend it to you all, and you can find it here.

In my last post, I made fun of the demand that people should learn less about history and culture. Those making this demand clearly fear that an understanding of context will undermine the simple narratives they are peddling. This is how Putinversteher (someone who understands Putin) became a dirty word. Understanding is a bad thing. Patrick Lawrence comments in his article that,

None of our prevailing versions of Putin has any context. There is no trace of Russian history, political culture, national priorities, or national identity in any of them. In conversation I call this POLO, the power of leaving out, for it is perniciously effective. Leaving out context is an old trick among the propagandists – and of our press, we must at last recognize. It now turns our discourse into irrational nonsense.

Amen to that! But what is the context that we need to understand in this case? Lawrence argues that it relates to the fact that Russia was ‘a late developer’ compared to that part of the world which we call the West. This created a problem for Russians, as they had to answer the question ‘Was to modernize to Westernize?’ Answering that question in turn required them to engage in some soul-searching ‘for believable accounts of identity’. In response, says Lawrence, the great majority of Russians came to a common opinion: ‘Russians had to cut their own path into the modern. It was to be theirs alone, sui generis. They would have to think it through and make it.’

As it happens, this is an important theme in my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism. Lawrence makes the point, however, by citing examples from what one might call the political ‘left’ of Russian history – Alexander Herzen and the lesser known Mikhail Mikhailovsky. The fact that one can use examples from throughout the Russian political spectrum to make this point confirms its basic validity. While seeking to modernize, Russians have also sought to preserve (and one might even say, create) their own identity, in other words to modernize in their own way, while preserving what they value from their past. ‘There is plenty to suggest Vladimir Putin is well acquainted with this notion,’ writes Lawrence, ‘This modernizer is consistently attentive to the unmodern, and the unmodern in Russia is vast.’ [As an aside, I note that this sounds remarkably similar to Alexander Dugin’s idea of the archeomodern.]

According to Lawrence, this explains much of Putin’s behaviour. On the one hand, Putin wishes to modernize Russia. On the other hand, he is well aware that he governs a deeply conservative country in which people, as Lawrence says, ‘value order … above democracy’, and following the economic and social collapse of the 1990s (another vital piece of context) ‘want life to improve … but want little to do with Western neoliberalism.’ Governing in such a situation, ‘requires constant acts of balance,’ notes Lawrence. Putin isn’t an all-powerful autocrat. He ‘needs to build a broad consensus to get anything done.’ This explains many of his actions. The infamous legislation prohibiting the ‘propaganda of untraditional sexual practices’ to minors, for instance, can be seen as a kind of compromise which aimed to appease the conservative mood of the public while not going too far in the direction of a form of social control Putin is not actually interested in. Similarly in foreign policy, Putin’s instincts were initially pro-Western and he still insists on calling Western states his ‘partners’, but he is under consistent pressure from critics at home who ‘complain he is too slow in protecting Russia’s interests against the West’s repeated challenges to them.’ ‘These internal complaints’, notes Lawrence, ‘are part of the domestic politics Putin must manage.’

Seen this way, the policies Putin pursues can be seen as a response to Russia’s historical and domestic political context, not, as they are normally portrayed in the West, as the products of his own personal, malicious personality. And while Putin’s government is not democratic, in the purely procedural sense that we tend to understand it, Lawrence notes that ‘the majority of Russians consider that he acts broadly within Russian tradition.’ Putin’s rule, therefore, fits with a model of legitimacy in which ‘legitimacy tends to derive less from participatory political processes than from the provision of security, services, sound infrastructure, and altogether the prospects of well-being within the polity.’

Lawrence concludes that Western commentators are so obsessed with ‘the need to believe’ that they have acquired an ‘inability (or refusal) to see’ along with an inability to think. Alas, I think that this is all too true.


17 thoughts on “The inability to see”

  1. “And while Putin’s government is not democratic, in the purely procedural sense that we tend to understand it”

    The current constitution was adopted in 1993. Wikipedia says it was inspired by the current constitution of France. And as I understand, no one in the west criticized the procedures during the first 10 years or so. I wonder why.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ninja’d me with this question!

      “I wonder why.”

      Cuz “muh librulizm”, that’s why. Only so-called liberal democracy is the legitimate one for the Western so-called intelectuals who themselves are expected to be faithful liberals in the same vein, as any recipient of the higher education in the Middle Ages was supposed to be a good Catholic, working directly for the “Universal” Church’s agitprop dep.


  2. Now, a quote from the article:

    “[Putin] has regenerated a Russian middle class but does not seem to know how to field its aspirations.”

    Dear author while much more clear-sighted than most others “Russia watchers” still fall into the trap. By now, there ought to be only a mocking, deriding reaction from anyone in the now upon hearing that. No, Mr. Lawrence – it’s ain’t no “regenerated Russian middle class”. It’s a trap (in many meaning of that word).

    Let’s start from the beginning – American (well, Western actually), obsessing with form over substance/essence and their firm subscription to the positivistic autism. Applied to Russia and its various strata the “thinking masses” of the so-called Free World pronounced the intelligentsia to be the middle class. It’s not. It never was. What is more horrific, for me as a Russian, is that some shy and conscientious members of the Soviet/Russian intelligentsia started to believe that lie. Desole!

    Here in my mortal hands I hold a family relic – №8 issue of the “Novy Mir” literature magazine (ISSN 0130-7673), price: 1 ruble 20 kopeks. For those of you who don’t know – the “Novy Mir” (“New World”) magazine, founded in 1925, was the literary fiction monthly magazine published by the Union of the Soviet Writers. The print run of this particular issue was 1 595 000 copies (which would be suppressed to over 2 million copies in 1990). Within it contained first chapters of Alexander Isayevich SoLZHEnitsin’s “Archipelago GULAG: an experiment of fictionary research”. I remind you, needlessly, perhaps, that “Novy Mir”, as well as other “pillars of the Perestroika”, like the literary “October” magazine or the “Ogonyok” periodicals, were published by the Soviet State. It’s prime readership consisted of the aforementioned shy and conscientious intelligentsia – people, employed by the Soviet State, who received their free higher education (or several) thanks to the Soviet State.

    These people ruined it.

    After post 1992 “downsizing” and the introduction of the Invisible Hand of the Market, no one now fucking reads newly privatized “Novy Mir” and “October” with their miniscule print runs (2200 copies for the former and 1000 copies for latter) and no relevance whatsoever. “Ogonyok” fell victim to the acquisition by the mildly liberal, mildly dissenting “Kommersant” publishing house. It’s target readership – so-called “urbanites” and the remnants of the old faithfuls.

    These people still consider themselves to be cut above the rest of the bydlo and demand the State to provide them with everything, while hating it. They are, naturally, are deeply beloved by the West, who sees in their ugly-cute cargo-cult worship of the imaginary, perpetually stuck in the past perception of the Civilized West something soooooo adorable.

    So, yeah – Putin (and Russia, and Russian people) have the problem with the so-called “middle class”, whose members openly and proudly proclaim themselves a Fifth Column and do not restrain themselves in heaping scorn and hatred on their own fellow citizens and country. But, not quote comrade Stalin, “sorry – I have no other writers for you”. Thankfully, they are so minor a threat now, after the Invisible Hand of the Market and freedom of emigration during the Blessed 90s reduced their population significantly. Besides, they are more preoccupied with petty vendettas among themselves.

    Who really does not know what to do with them, are the Western intellectuals, for despite seeing them as their own counterparts, they are not. From whence streams the continual Western inability to understand how Russia fails to become the mirror imagine of their own “paradise” and why Russkis refuse to submit to their superior groupthink. In short, the Western liberal “watcher” strata, which cut itself from the deplorable component of their own nations years ago, fails to see that their “adorable” epigones are a tiny, easily replaceable minority in their own country, with no political prospects whatsoever.

    Those who finally see and understand that, like Maria Alexandrovna Gessen mentioned by Mr. Lawrence on the very first page of his short essay, they became a higher form of the Russophobes – Russophobes knowingly embracing all the hatred and desire to destroy.


    1. Sorry, not Russophobia, but antifascism. Russia chose to invade Ukraine. And too many ordinary Russians still love this shit. When ordinary Russians learn to love their neighbours and dump the notion of themselves as the third rome, chosen people etc, then the rest of the world will stop treating them like fascists. Until then, Russia, and Russians, will continue to be fascists in the anglosphere and beyond.


      1. Good [insert time of the day] to you, Sterling Aspen!

        “Sorry, not Russophobia, but antifascism”

        In what way is Russia a “fascist”?

        “Russia chose to invade Ukraine”

        I’m not aware of that fact. When? How? Those troops were stationed in Crimea prerivously. Besides, if what you say is true, and Russia indeed “invaded” the Ukraine, “annexed” Crimea and even now “occupies” Donbass – why the Ukraine does not declare war?

        “And too many ordinary Russians still love this shit. When ordinary Russians learn to love their neighbours and dump the notion of themselves as the third rome, chosen people etc, then the rest of the world will stop treating them like fascists. “

        Hmmm… Let’s see…

        – Russia does not love “shit” – they support their government’s foreign policy.

        – Russians love their neighbours. They are just not going to allow them to crap on them. “Tough love”, that’s it.

        – Believe me (or check the polls) that the idea of the “Third Rome” does not really permeate the general discours among the ordinary Russians in their everyday life. Neither do we consider ourselves the Chosen People – there is already one people who thinks that.

        – You can’t really speak on behalf of the whole world, I’m afraid. Also, by the general radical bent of your words may I surmise that you are still in your teens? Or that you discovered Professor’s blog just recently?

        – What is without doubt – you have no idea what is “fascism”. If you think that your diatribe impressed anyone – good for you and for your not considerable self-esteem. I guess.

        “Until then, Russia, and Russians, will continue to be fascists in the anglosphere and beyond.”

        Hmmm, did you just called the entirety of the Anglosphere a bunch of hypocritical morons? My dear Sterling Aspen, once again – no one gave you the right to speak on other’s behalf. Some butthurt individuals, grant-suckers and shysters in the search for the justification of their grand-power politics – yes, they might call Russia names. A few even believe their own propaganda. But everyone?..

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hmmm. Clearly you didn’t bother read the article in the link, or you could have mustered more than idle & inaccurate gibes supporting your ‘not Russophobia, but antifascism’ claim. So, thanks – you unintentionally bolstered the author’s case against western pseudo-intellectual know-nothings.
        Beyond that, Russia has had considerable first-hand experience dealing with actual fascist aggression. Russians know what fascism looks like, and the average Moscow cab driver knows more about it than you do. Here’s some remedial study for you, in an easy-to-understand mainstream-media format:


  3. In my little backwater (in the American Northeast) I recently attended a symphony concert featuring Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition”. The concert itself was pretty good (this particular orchestra is rather good), but the program notes really ticked me off. The notes stated, literally, that Russia had no culture, music or art, until these things were imported from Europe by Peter the Great.
    I was thinking to myself that Andrei Rublev and the other medieval artists would have astonished to read that.

    And I had to wonder, just whom they hire to write these Russophobic program notes. One does not even need a college degree in Russian History (or Russian Art), all it takes nowadays is a quick browsing of the Wikipedia to pick up a few facts here and there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. P.S. – speaking of “bydlo”, astonishingly enough, one of the “pictures” from Mussorgsky’s piece is something entitled “bydlo”.
      But the Hartmann painting in question literally features oxen.


  4. What is modern?
    What is democracy ?

    These attitudes to other countries who are judged as less than civilised or modern – smell of colonial attitudes / white mans burden/ eteetc

    These terms are used to mean “like the west”
    Why not just respect another countries culture? And accept that they don’t want to be like the west?


    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Why not just respect another countries culture? And accept that they don’t want to be like the west? “

      Because they can’t – that would be a death sentence for the “West” as a concept.

      Imagine His Holiness the Pope addressing the faithful with such speech:

      Hmmm…Actually, that’s a bad example, given who’s wearing the tiara right now, and how, basically, the Church of England already embraced lots of such things – and more.

      No! Better, imagine suggesting for the Kingdom of the Saudi Arabia to stop persecuting people for committing the apostasy… and also stop chopping heads. Can you convince the most powerful and/or authoritative mullahs that the Prophet (pbuh) is not the deliverer of the Ultimate Message from Allah (swt)? To allow a mere thought, that kaffirs and mushriks might have a point? That there shouldn’t be a universal effort to spread the True Faith?

      Whatever one can say about its “humble” origins and being quite progressive (at least in the way of the labour organization via capitalism), by now the liberalism have (d)evolved into political wahhabism. Look, it fits: perpetual jihad abroad in order to bring more and more lands into Dar el-Librulism (neolibs\neocons) coupled with neo puritanical iconoclasty at home (“progressives” of all stripes).


  5. Something I find puzzling in western analysis not only of Russia, but also of other countries, is the emphasis on personalities. It is alway Putin this or Putin that. Rather than realising that Russia like any other society is infinitely more complex. Any leader of any country is a product of the society from which they originated. Any leader in any country fundamentally depends on public support for legitimacy.

    There appears to be a current in western thought that getting rid of Putin will mean that Russians will submit to western control or follow the international community (delete as appropriate). I doubt that any Russian leader with genuine popular support would respond in any other way as Russian policies are a product of the country’s history, cultural norms perceived interests. As you stated in an earlier article it is essential to be able to understand a countries culture to be able to effectively engage with them. This is a of course harder then demonising a politician

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a very good point – that the personalisation of politics is just an excuse not to look at a countries history and cultural norms.

      When you have an individual it’s easy to project onto that person all the negative things you want – this however leaks out and spreads to the people who live in the country and then we get to out and out Russophobia

      Listen to Nikki Haley / John Brennan / John Bolton and what they say about Russian characteristics and behaviour / it’s racial in its content and tone


  6. More from the article:

    “It is better nonetheless to begin one’s journey into Russia’s present a century and more earlier. There we find the later Romanovs facing the prospect of the modernization of a state and society wherein most of what was “modern,” if not all of it, would be imported from the West. This was a common predicament during the second half of the nineteenth century. Meiji Japan had to contend with the same social, political, and, indeed, psychological disorders at roughly the same time…

    What does it mean to be modern? This question was posed among all the late developers. Was to modernize to Westernize? All that one once was suddenly had to go? The question was quickly turned upside down to still-thornier effect: what does it mean to be Japanese or Chinese or Russian? Was there some ineffable Japaneseness or Chineseness or Russianness, some ballast held within, that must not be lost on the way to becoming a modern nation, made of modern institutions and modern people?”

    Dear author once again disappoints – and that’s second time on the first 4 pages. Whatever his credentials and/or diplomas, the knowledge of Russian history (let alone – its understanding) is clearly not within his mental grasp. “Modernization” of Russia had been carried out by Peter the Great in late XVII – early XVIII cc., nearly at the same time (well, perhaps half a century later) when nearly all other European countries became truly modern, i.e. “post-Medieval”. What was “modern” back then? Centralized state with expansive military and bureaucracy, plus the industrial power to sustain it (the spread of manufactures and early factories) and a financial system to maintain it (mainly – mercantilism). Not – oh horror! – a democracy, liberalism and freethinking. In fact – the absolutism was the most progressive at the time, compared to the feudal throwbacks (hallo, Poland!). And Russia Westernized, yes – it switched completely to the regular army and fleet based on recruit system, dealt with aristocratic separatism and adopted the government organization 1:1 in accordance with the most forward and successful theories of the time.

    If dear author, Mr. Lawrence tries to imply, that “to Westernize is to Democratize”, then he is… very ideologically firm. He is also very-very wrong – for he mixes two absolutely different issues.

    XIX c. was not about “modernization” – it was about industrialization in the capitalist times. Yes, that word – which Mr. Lawrence fails to mention, as if it might burn his tongue. And capitalism, inevitably, brings forward the nationalism wherever it goes. Even before that, late XVIII – early XIX cc. saw the titanic globespanning conflicts of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, which, for everyone involved, resulted in the (rather quick and bloody) development of the national consciousness. Yes, Professor – including Canadians, who acquired their natsionalnu svidomost’ in You Know When, But the Americans Still Insist They Won That War. Dear author did not bother to research, when the question of “what it means being a Russian?” enters the general discourse in Russia. The author, who riles against “Orientalism” among his fellow Westerners, happily lumps Russia together with Japan and China, whose path to both modernization AND industrialization, let aloe the way how they developed the national conciseness, differs too much from Russia’s. He also, once again, leaves unsaid, that as late XIX c. examples show us, “To Modernize = to Westernize” did not mean “to Democratize” – Germany proved that. The author also, repeatedly uses the term “West”, as if in XIX it was already what it is know, i.e. an Anglo-Saxon hegemony or set of the ideals, hence his underlying belief that “to Democratize” is the ultimate fate for anyone in the “West”.

    Also very conspicuously absent in dear author’s article are any mentions of the serfdom, its inception, development and crisis in Russia. Well, that’s quite understandable – if you launch this train of thought it might, to the horror of the handshakable public, ultimately arrive to Petrograd’s Finland station in April 1917.

    “Russian intelligents (aspiring philosophes, roughly)”


    Yeah – stuff like that, that tipped me off about the authors level of knowledge about Russia.

    “Out this window will be a country that remains in many ways premodern. One will imagine the villages to be slightly updated versions of the obshchina. In the villages there will be churches—Orthodox, of
    course. There will be people among whom poverty is not uncommon. But they will be people who, in my limited exposure, seem remarkably a l’aise dans leurs peaux, as the French say—at ease in their skins”

    Here you go. Dear author had a brief contact with the deplorables/morloks/Orks that make up the vast majority of the Russian people. He began to suspect something. His esteemed colleagues don’t have even that level of exposure – even with their own “fellow citizens” of lower class.

    And these, ah, “Elves”, will lecture us how to behave?

    “Five years ago this June, Putin signed what is commonly known as “the anti-gay-propaganda law.” Its official intent is “for the purpose of protecting children from information advocating a denial of traditional family values.” There would seem no way to consider this legislation positively. I cannot think of one.”


    Did the author just came out?


    Also – why the author leaves out all the prior discussions in Russian society and media of the topic? Why fails to mention, that not Putin invented this law – that the initiative came from below?

    “There we find that legitimacy tends to derive less from participatory political processes than from the provision of security, services, sound infrastructure, and altogether the prospect of well-being within the polity. I confess to disliking this thought as much as any Westerner— or, indeed, non-Westerner—might. I rather hope humanity’s future does not lie with it.”


    The author is дивный Elf.

    P.S. That author of the article is not a proper scientist. The author is clearly out of his depth, when it comes to establish, what he really means by “the West”, “to Westernize” and “the middle class”. The article itself could not be used as a reliable reference point – it’s more like a sermon. The gist of the sermon is the following: “Liberal crusades – hold your horses! Allow us, liberal missionaries, to try to save the soul of the heathen Russia, for, surely, we still can”.

    However, as our host Mr. Robins showed us, you can extract some useful things out of it and pass them as the Message (™), or, at least, as some food for thought.


  7. The impression I have of Putin (and of Ilyin, from what little I have gleaned from your translations and from other websites) is that he has a respect for emergence, for the organic (as opposed to “design”) and thus for the process of social coordination and consensus formation that lie at the heart of emergence. This implies both an openness to change where it is emergent but also a reluctance to squander the product of past social coordination where it is still valid (i.e., still accurately reflects preferences), given that coordination is a socially costly and time-consuming discovery process. Stable Law (with a capital “L”) can only emerge from the preferences of the governed. The Russians know better than any of us the consequences of “design” and the instability that is the inevitable result.

    On the question of legitimacy, legitimacy ultimately derives from consent of the governed. Electoral democracy is one method for obtaining consent. A commitment to governing based on emergence is another. They obviously can both be present and democracy can be an important input to emergent government. However, elections are not sufficient for consent of the governed or for truly representative government where there is no widespread underlying consensus. For example, given the divisions in the US (and its rigid two-party system), can it meaningfully be said that federal government in the US either is “representative” or rules with the consent of the governed, when at, any given time, only about half have consented or have their views represented (and that’s not even taking into account the tendency for politicians to misrepresent their intentions during elections)? This implies that it is not in fact elections that are fundamental to consent of the governed but broad social agreement. One question then might be: if Russia has broad social agreement and the US does not, which government is more legitimate?


  8. Thanks for this, Paul. I read the article yesterday, and this turned out to be the paragraph I most heavily highlighted:

    It is only mildly surprising that most Americans remain dimly aware, if at all, of the Yeltsin years’ tragedies. The wall of nonsense erected to obscure them was high, thick, swiftly in place, and remains so. Michael McFaul, the most brazenly dishonest American ambassador to serve in Moscow during my lifetime, said late in the Yeltsin era,“Basic arrows on all the big issues are pointing in the right direction.” By then Bill Clinton, as president, had already declared, “Yeltsin represents the direction toward the kind of Russia we want.” The Western press was unreservedly complicit in this immense deception. “We edited out the pain,” one correspondent later acknowledged (pp. 7-8).

    I was particularly startled by the phrase “immense deception,” as it’s in jarring contrast to those TV images and news stories from the Yeltsin years I have not been able to forget—images of children jumping between the lines of morning traffic, trying to sell pencils (or a variation) to motorists; images of men passed out on sidewalks; images of angry soldiers who had not been paid for months. There where even images of destitute villages—one of which inspired some rich guy (American or Canadian?) to adopt one (buy one?) and get it back on its feet. It was his ancestral hometown.

    There were many news and magazine stories about women who took to the streets, and traffickers who tricked many young Russian women with promises of careers in the wealthy West. Trafficked Russian women were a big news story back then. And then there were the Russian women who advertised themselves as dutiful wives for Western men. (How a lot of those marriages to Canadian men turned out is, of course, another story—one that was introduced to me by the CBC’s Fifth Estate.)

    It would never have occurred to me that similar kinds of coverage wasn’t being done in the US. Canadians like to make sweeping generalizations about American ignorance—mea culpa—but it’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s not merely ignorance as a lack of knowledge as it is ignorance as something consciously cultivated in the American public by the American ruling class and its compliant press. There are consequences for the state that keeps its nation in ignorance—as the American state is (I hope) learning right now.


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