No better nature

The term ‘Russophobia’ gets bandied about a lot at the moment. This annoys the hell of out people who get criticized as Russophobes. ‘Russophobia’, they tell us, is a smear used by the Kremlin and its proxies to smear critics of the ‘regime’. As such, it ought to be eliminated from public discourse. The online outlet Meduza, for instance, recently stated that the word ‘Russophobia’ has Stalinist roots and ‘is actively used by the Russian authorities for propaganda objectives’. According to Meduza, it would be better to use the term ‘anti-Russian’, as it fits with the phrase ‘anti-American’, which generally has political but not racial overtones.

Meduza nevertheless admits that Russophobia isn’t entirely fictional and that you can spot examples by uses of markers like ‘always’, ‘unchangeably’, ‘centuries’, and so on. Meduza’s point, therefore, is not so much to deny Russophobia as to make a politically-founded linguistic argument about the correct choice of word to describe it. By contrast, Brian Whitmore (who I’ve yet to hear say anything nice about Russia) takes a much harder line. Linking the use of the word ‘Russophobia’ with  anti-Semitism, he remarks that:

Russophobia is not just a smear the Kremlin aims at anybody who has the temerity to criticize Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime. The use of the term is part of a carefully calculated disinformation strategy aimed at stigmatizing any and all critiques of the government as chauvinistic assaults on all Russians. It’s effectively a systematic attempt to smear and discredit Kremlin critics as racists.

‘Rascist’ is probably the wrong word. As Sean Guillory notes, ‘Russians are not a race’. Guillory concedes that the idea of Russophobia can be used by the Russian government to discredit critics. At the same time, he continues, ‘Russophobia does employ racist language and concepts’. It endows not just the Russian state but the entire Russian nation with negative characteristics. Does Russophobia of this sort exist? Too damn right it does. Take the following example:


In an interview for the Estonian think tank, the International Centre for Defence and Security, Keir Giles of Chatham House laid out 10 principles for dealing with Russia, including this gem:

‘8. Do not hope to appeal to Russia’s better nature. It doesn’t have one.’

Giles can’t defend himself by claiming that he’s just talking about the current Russian government, for the basic principle of his book Moscow Rules, from which these principles are drawn, is that there is a sort of ‘eternal Russia’ which continues over the centuries regardless of regime or individual ruler. It’s not Putin who doesn’t have a better nature, Giles is telling us, it’s ‘Russia.’

The fact that this analysis is coming out of Britain’s most prestigious think tank is more than a little disturbing. It’s Russophobia pure and simple – a negative stereotype of an entire nation taking the place of reasoned discussion of the actual roots of current East-West tensions. It deserves to be called out.

Does labelling people Russophobes discredit them, as Meduza and Whitmore complain? Yes, of course it does. For sure, many critics of the Kremlin make perfectly valid criticisms, are far from Russophobes, and don’t deserve to be labelled as such. Others, though quite clearly do. If that discredits them, all the better.


A Tale of Two Museums

Back in June, my students and I had the good fortune to receive a guided tour of the Russian State Duma. The highlight for many of the students was a meeting with hockey legend (and Duma deputy) Vladislav Tretyak, but far more of our time was spent participating rather unexpectedly in an opening ceremony for a new institution – the Soviet Lifestyle Museum.

soviet life
Display case for Soviet Lifestyle Museum

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Floreat gens togata!


Britain has had 54 Prime Ministers. Tomorrow, it gets its 55th, and the 20th to have passed through the hallowed portals of The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor (though only the second to have been one of the ‘tugs’ – the gens togata or ‘gowned ones’, as the school’s intellectual elite, the King’s Scholars, are known). What can we expect from Boris Johnson? Will he save Britain from its current political chaos, or will he lead it further into the abyss? I can’t say that I know the answers, and my mind is somewhat divided. I can’t help but like and admire the guy. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if he’s really who one wants to run one’s country. A few memories help to explain why.

Boris combines brilliance and eccentricity in equal measure, as I witnessed in about 1986 when I stumbled across him one day in the Gladstone Room of the Oxford Union hosting a group of visitors from the Netherlands. Boris was clearly at a loss as to what to do with the Dutch, but on seeing me he summoned me over and launched into a hymn of praise to Eton’s founder, King Henry VI:

Rex Henricus, sis amicus

Nobis in angustia;

Cujus prece, nos a nece,

Salvemur in perpetua.

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Homo Sovieticus

Over the years many issues have divided Russian conservatives and Russian radicals. One of these has been the relative importance of individuals and institutions. This is something of a simplification, but broadly speaking conservatives have tended to the view that individuals come first, while radicals have said that institutions do. In the eyes of conservatives, it is fatal to establish democratic or liberal institutions in a society where the people are uneducated, have a poorly developed legal consciousness, and the like. The first step in reform therefore has to be improving the people. The schema of the likes of Uvarov and Pobedonostsev, therefore, was a process of very gradual enlightenment, after which political reform might eventually be allowed. Until then, power would have to remain in the hands of those who were already enlightened – i.e. the aristocracy. The schema of the radicals, by contrast, was to smash existing institutions. Only then could decent people finally be created.

Despite these differences, conservatives and radicals have long had one thing in common – they hold the ‘people’ (narod) in low regard (as I say, this is a simplification; there are obvious exceptions). For the conservatives, the unenlightened nature of the people is an excuse not to surrender power; for the radicals, it is an excuse to destroy the hated system and to create a ‘new man’.

These attitudes prevail to this day. An example of the radical view comes in an article entitled ‘Russia’s Moral Disaster’ published on the website of the Estonian International Centre for Defence and Security by the Finnish writer Jukka Mallinen. Its basic theme can be deduced from the subtitle ‘Russians cannot tell good from evil.’ Mallinen notes that the patriotic resurgence in Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea ‘has made the intelligentsia take a new and deep look at morals and the Christian faith in Russia.’ He quotes the ‘poet and philologist Olga Sedakova’ as saying that the roots of Russia’s alleged moral crisis lie deep in the Russian personality. As Mallinen says, Sedakov ‘thinks that Russians have a special relationship with evil-the inability to tell it apart from good. In the West, the relationship with evil is unambiguous, but in Russia it’s vague: nothing is declared definitively evil. Complicated explanations lead to making friends with evil.’ Russians, in effect, can’t tell wrong from right. 

The sense that Russians are morally deficient is commonly associated with the concept of the ‘Sovok’ – the Soviet personality, often also known by the phrase ‘Homo Sovieticus’. The idea that society could only progress by ‘smashing the Sovok’ was a popular theme in the rhetoric of pro-Maidan liberals in Ukraine in 2014. Smashing the Sovok required total de-communization, a renunciation of Ukraine’s Russian ties, and a complete reorientation of the country towards Europe. Through institutional revolution, a new Ukrainian person could be built, and the country could finally prosper.

The same idea is often to be found in discussions of modern Russia. In an article just published in the academic journal Slavic Review, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of King’s College London notes that Homo Sovieticus is associated with a host of negative personality traits allegedly instilled in Russians by 70 years of Soviet rule. These supposedly include being excessively obedient to authority, lacking in choice and initiative, and duplicitous. The persistence of these negative traits explains why Russia has failed to transform into a ‘normal’ democratic society and to develop ‘the autonomous liberal self’ which supposedly characterizes the Western individual.

But is any of this true?  In her article ‘Was There a “Simple Soviet” Person? Debating the Politics and Sociology of “Homo Sovieticus”,’ Sharafutdinova expresses scepticism. The popularity of the concept of Homo Sovieticus, she argues, owes much to the work of Russian sociologist Iury Levada and his successor as head of the Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov. Levada popularized the idea that there was a simple ‘Soviet type’ through a large survey project he conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The problem, says Sharafutdinova, was that ‘the foundational assumptions of the project were deeply political’, and the survey methodology ‘was itself colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer.’ Levada’s survey was based on a totalitarian model long rejected by Western sociologists and assumed that the overarching political system was the single most important factor determining individual personality. ‘This approach did not allow for recognizing human (whether individual or collective) agency and reflexivity, and promoted a flat, mechanistic version of the individual.’ It also ‘identified exclusively negative features’ and was ‘coupled with a tendency to idealize western society’.

Much better, according to Sharafutdinova, was the work of a less well-known sociologist, Natalya Kozlova. Rather than use surveys, Kozlova made use of a ‘people’s archive’ consisting of documents such as ‘letters, postcards, memoirs, and personal journals of ordinary people’, in order to explore the realities of everyday life. Whereas Levada ‘viewed Soviet citizens as a brainwashed and corrupted emanation of the system (cogs), or its victims, Kozlova viewed individuals as actors involved in complex social games.’ In the process, she was able to determine the existence of values ‘such as altruism, compassion, and [a] sense of justice expressed in the “little” Soviet person’s everyday life.’ Her documents showed, for instance, how Soviet people reacted to problems such as shortages with strategies such as ‘exchange’ ‘based on the moral economy of selfless giving and obligation, on heartfelt closeness and ethical grounds.’ In short, the Soviet person was not as devoid of ethics as Levada claimed.

Overall, Sharafutdinova concludes, ‘the political nature of Levada’s project … stigmatized the Soviet man rather than explained him.’ A much more sophisticated understanding of personality is therefore needed. Unfortunately, ‘the model of the simple Soviet person seems to have acquired dominance as a frame of reference for Russian intellectuals’ who regard the ‘masses as slaves/sheep/bydlo’. Intellectuals thereby ‘lock Russia … into its present (and even past) condition’, arguing that democratic reform is impossible in Russia due to Homo Sovieticus. In this way, they have inadvertently ended up on the same side as the conservatives.

None of this is to say that the institutions have no effect on individual personality and that Russia’s imperial and Soviet pasts have not left some psychological legacy which in some way influences current developments. But Sharafutdinova’s article demonstrates clearly the need to avoid stereotypes, and acts as an excellent rejoinder to the kind of essentialism put forward by Mallinen and Sedakova. Simplistic slogans such as ‘Russians cannot tell good from evil’ hinder our understanding of current events far more than they assist them.

Rebels without a cause

I’ve long said that if you want to bring peace to Ukraine, you need to develop a proper understanding of how the war in Donbass began and of the exact dynamics between the various players, including the government in Kiev, the Russian Federation, and the rebel movement. Attempts to view the conflict purely in terms of ‘Russian aggression’, ignoring its internal dimensions, are bound to point towards policies which see the solution as lying solely in pressuring Moscow. Such policies will fail because they ignore the local nature of the rebel movement and the genuine fears and grievances of the people of Donbass. At a minimum a peace settlement will require autonomy for Donbass, an amnesty, and a change in various Ukrainian policies such as those connected with language.

To make this argument, I have provided evidence in this blog and in various academic and other publications that the initial uprising in Donbass was local in nature; that the overwhelming majority of rebels have always been Ukrainian citizens; that the Russian government only slowly and reluctantly became involved (in large part to gain control of a process over which it originally had little control); that Moscow’s preference has always been for Donbass to be reintegrated within Ukraine with some sort of autonomy, a preference which has put it at odds with the rebel leadership; and finally that patron-client relations are complicated and do not give patrons complete ability to manipulate their clients (indeed the patron may even become something of a captive of the client). All this means that the wishes of the people of Donbass and of the leadership of the rebel republics cannot be ignored. Instead of blindly supporting Kiev as it does its best to alienate eastern Ukraine, Western states should be pressuring it to live up to its commitments in the Minsk accords.

This argument is, of course, entirely at odds with the prevalent narrative coming out of Kiev and Western capitals. It is satisfying, therefore, to read a report which pretty much confirms everything I’ve been saying these past five years. Entitled Rebels without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine, the report was published yesterday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG gets a lot of its funding from governments, notably Qatar, Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Norway and Sweden, as well as from foundations such as Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘Kremlin proxy’. That makes its conclusions all the more striking.

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Fact checking

The big news from Italy this week is the seizure by Turin police of a massive arsenal of weapons held by a neo-Nazi group. Among the weapons was a stonking-big air-to-air missile. Reporting the story, the BBC links the neo-Nazis to ‘Russian-backed separatist forces’ in Ukraine, saying that:

The raids were part of an investigation into Italian far-right help for Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, local media said. … On 3 July a court in Genoa jailed three men who were found guilty of fighting alongside the Russian-backed separatists who control a large swathe of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.


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Rehabilitating Stalin

Bryan MacDonald posted an interesting thread on Twitter today, which serves as a useful indicator of why it’s worth following RT as well as other more ‘mainstream’ journalistic outlets and why the former can occasionally provide a welcome counterpoint to the latter.

Those who follow Russia-related news will be aware of the regular complaints of the Western press that Vladimir Putin is working day and night to rehabilitate the memory of Joseph Stalin. I’ve dealt with this issue before, pointing out what egregious nonsense it is.  Unfortunately, my influence on public debate appears to be approximately zero, so the idea that Putin is busy promoting Stalin continues to gain traction. As Bryan points out, both The Washington Post and The Guardian have recently run stories on the matter. Let’s take a look.

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