Book review: Between two fires

I’ve been reading a lot recently – let’s face it, apart from watching TV and working out on the basement exercise machines, there isn’t much else to do during the coronavirus lockdown. And one of the things I’ve been reading a lot about is the Constitutional Democratic (or Kadet) Party, which was Russia’s leading liberal political organization in the early years of the twentieth century. The Kadets have long since been consigned to Trotsky’s infamous dustbin of history, but my reading has turned out to be surprisingly relevant to the book I’m reviewing today – Joshua Yaffe’s Between Two Fires. It’s all a matter of political compromise.

The thing you have to grasp about the Kadets is that they were often rather dogmatic. As one Russian historian puts it, ‘The Russian liberal of the early twentieth century wasn’t able to abandon the role of idealistic oppositionist and recognize realities and the necessity of compromise’. Looking back on events, one Kadet, Prince V.A. Obolenskii, summed up the prevailing attitude in this way:

We thought the following: the authorities were hostile to the people. Thus, any official in state service, however useful, was in the final analysis harming the people as he was strengthening the power of the government. Besides which, we saw before us a whole series of people of very left wing convictions who had entered government service and gradually got accustomed to compromise and lost their oppositional zeal.

Between 1905 and 1917, the refusal to compromise with the Russian state had catastrophic consequences. On various occasions in 1905 and 1906, the Kadets were offered a role in government under first Sergei Witte and then Pyotr Stolypin, but always refused the offer, preferring instead to seek the complete destruction of the autocracy. Likewise, instead of using Russia’s new parliament, created in 1905, to propose constructive reform measures, they chose instead to block Stolypin’s reform program and use the parliament as a soap box for denouncing the government. Eventually, in 1917 they got their wish and saw the hated autocracy destroyed. But it didn’t do them any good, as they themselves were swept away by the tide of revolution just a few months later.

The more sensible of the Kadets understood that they were making a huge mistake, that compromising with the state, however much you dislike it, is often a much better option than seeking its overthrow. As shown in another book I’ve just finished reading – a biography of the prominent Kadet jurist and politician Vasily Maklakov – Maklakov repeatedly urged his colleagues to understand that democracy would never be possible in Russia unless people learned the art of compromise. But his fellow Kadets paid no attention. They paid for it dearly.

The lesson of all this is pretty clear, but reading Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, it seems that there are some who would prefer that Russians again adopted the principles of the Kadets. For the theme of the book is the moral dangers of compromising with the Russian state (thus the subtitle ‘Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia’), and while Yaffa states that he doesn’t condemn those who choose to cooperate with the ‘Putin regime’, it’s pretty obvious that he thinks that it’s not a good thing.


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Memory politics

The Russian-language version of the journal ‘Russia in Global Affairs’ has published a section in which various commentators say 500 words or so about the conflicts over historical memory which have become prominent in recent times (e.g. the spat between the presidents of Russia and Poland about the origins of the Second World War). You can find them all on the journal’s website here, and among them is a piece by my good self. In case you don’t speak Russian and want to read what I have to say, an English version is below. This is what I had to say:


History is a political tool. It is through references to the past that we legitimize or delegitimize our political and social systems. It is no surprise, therefore, that different groups compete to control their society’s historical memory. Where competing narratives are incompatible, this competition can be quite bitter in nature, as can be seen, for instance, in the dispute in the American south over Confederate monuments, and by that  in Ukraine over the memory of the Second World War.

The logical way to resolve such issues is through objective historical research (insofar as such a thing is possible). In the 1980s, there were sharp disagreements among historians about the number of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror. In the context of the Cold War, some historians regarded it as important to keep the numbers high in order to delegitimize the Soviet Union, and so resisted attempts to revise the numbers downwards. In the end, however, the dispute was settled in favour of the revisionists. For once the Soviet archives were opened, it became possible to adjudicate the dispute on the grounds of firm evidence.

Unfortunately, the power of history is such that politicians are all too often not content to leave it to the historians. This can be seen, for instance, in legislation passed in various countries declaring certain atrocities to be ‘genocide’ (for instance the Armenian genocide and the Ukrainian Holodomor). The selective nature of such declarations as well as the often disputable nature of the judgements, points to these being essentially political statements, designed to enforce one form of historical memory over another.

Inevitably, the political nature of such acts is evident to those who feel that their own historical memory is being traduced. Politicized historical memory thus often backfires. This is true on the international as well as the national level. As Robert Jervis has pointed out, states often fail to realize that other states perceive things differently. This applies to the field of historical memory as much as any other, as we can see in the recent argument between Poland and the Russian Federation about the Second World War. The Poles’ belief that the Soviets, in liberating them from the Nazis, subjected them to a new form of occupation is perceived in Russia as an attack on the legitimacy of the Russian Federation. But the Russians’ insistence that that the Soviets were liberators, not occupiers, is perceived in Poland as a sign of unwillingness to repent of past sins, and thus also as an indicator of possible future aggressive intent. The more each side insists on its righteousness, the less it convinces the other.

Disputes over historical memory are part and parcel of political competition. It is no surprise, therefore, that the debate about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War should have become so sharp at a time of rising East-West tension. When that tension subsides, the historical disputes will probably become less tense too. In this sense, they are perhaps more a symptom than they are a cause of conflict.

Beware Russians on campus

My university has pretty much shut down this week due to coronavirus, which gives me an opportunity to talk about some non-virus-related stuff to provide readers with a bit of a distraction. Among these is a newly issued report by the Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), whose contents make me think that closing down our universities may be a good thing as it will safeguard national security against the rampant ‘ foreign interference’ apparently prevalent on campus. Every cloud, and all that!

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Putin 2036?

Russian politics keeps turning up surprises, and you have to think that some of them surprise even those at the top of the Russian power system themselves.

When Vladimir Putin proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few weeks ago, the general reaction of the Western press was to declare the act as a ‘power grab’ and proof that Putin intended to remain in power beyond the end of his last constitutionally permitted term as president in 2024. This narrative had a number of problems. First, since the press had been telling us for years that Putin already had absolute power, it was hard to see how he could be ‘grabbing’ it. Second, once the exact wording of the proposed amendments was announced, it was obvious that far from permitting Putin to stay in office, they guaranteed the opposite. Furthermore, Putin specifically ruled out taking a job other than president, such as head of the State Council, thereby undercutting all the speculation that he was jiggling the system in such a way as to allow himself to continue to be in charge even while not being president. For a while it really did look like Putin would be well and truly gone in 2024.

Until today.

In a completely unexpected development, Valentina Tereshkova, best known for having been the first woman in space but now a member of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, proposed to the Duma that once the new constitutional amendments come into force, the count of how many times somebody can be president be reset to zero. This would allow Putin to stand once again for president in the election of 2024, and to serve two more terms as far as 2036.

Tereshkova’s proposal seems to have taken the Duma completely by surprise. Worse, nobody knew what to do with it. The idea hadn’t come from the Kremlin – at least not directly – but deputies couldn’t be certain that Tereshkova wasn’t acting as a conduit for Putin, and they didn’t want to vote her idea down just in case she was. What to do? The answer was temporary paralysis, as the Duma tried to find out what Putin really thought, a problem which was resolved only by an emergency meeting attended by the president himself, who turned up at the Duma a short while after Tereshkova made her proposal to make an unscheduled speech. In this, Putin said ,

The proposal to remove restrictions for any person, including the incumbent president … In principle, this option would be possible, but on one condition – if the Constitutional Court gives an official ruling that such an amendment would not contradict the principles and main provisions of the Constitution.

In short, Putin gave his consent to the idea, subject to a ruling from the Constitutional Court.

Was this Putin’s aim all along? Did he put Tereshkova up to it? Or was he as blindsided by her proposal as everybody else? It’s not clear. If he’d wanted this, it would have been simpler just to include it in the original amendments. On the other hand, it arguably looks better if it appears to come as a result of some sort of demand from below, especially when voiced by somebody like Tereshkova who has something of a heroic status. But then again, that status means that she has some independent moral authority and doesn’t have to do whatever the Kremlin asks her. So maybe it was her idea after all, and she was acting on her own. In that case, though, why didn’t Putin reject it?

It’s next to impossible to know what’s actually going on here. For the past few weeks, Putin’s been sending strong signals that he really does plan to leave in 2024. So this is quite a reversal. The cynic in me imagines that in a political system as tightly controlled as Russia’s, today’s events can’t have been a surprise to the president. But the way it happened – the temporary paralysis in the Duma, and Putin’s sudden, unscheduled speech – suggest something rather more spontaneous. I pronounce myself flummoxed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean for certain that Putin will stay on as president post-2024. It’s possible that even if permitted to stand again, he’ll decide not to. Nor does it mean, as the Daily Telegraph immediately announced, that Putin would now be president ‘for life’. But it certainly opens up the possibility that he’ll be hanging around in power for a lot longer yet. Having said that the proposed amendments precluded that (as indeed they did before today), I find myself once again contemplating the wisdom of avoiding making firm predictions while engaging in punditry. What’s going to happen next? I don’t know. All we can do is sit back and see how things unfold.




Toronto for Putin!

The more Russophile elements of the online universe are up in arms today about the latest attempt to smear presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as some sort of Kremlin agent. This follows an article in the New York Times describing how as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders endeavoured to find a ‘sister city’ in the Soviet Union, eventually signing a twinning agreement with the town of Yaroslavl. No matter that the twinning program in question was approved by no less a person than Republic president Ronald Reagan, there was obviously something dodgy about it, the Times implies. Vote for Bernie at your peril!

This kind of Russia-related scaremongering has become commonplace in the United States since late 2016, when the Democratic Party decided to make Russia the central point of Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Donald Trump. Fortunately, we’ve been relatively free of it up here in the frozen north, but only relatively. For every now and again somebody pops out of the woodwork to strike fear in Canadians about their Arctic neighbour, Russia.

And so it was that on Wednesday, the Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, General Jonathan Vance, told a conference in Ottawa that, ‘the most immediate state-sponsored military threat, if I could caveat it that way, that we face right now and today in physical space is Russia’. Others piled on. Lieutenant General Christopher Coates, deputy commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command, remarked that ‘Russia today represents the greatest short-term threat to North America’. And American writer Frederick Kagan, invited to Ottawa for who knows what reason, told the conference that, ‘We are collectively … standing around waiting for the next play to start while the ball is actually live and the Russians are running back toward our goal. This is not an interwar period. The war is on.’

I’ve somehow missed the fact that my country is at war. I really ought to wake up. For while we sleep, the Russians are taking us over. They’ve even managed to capture our largest city.  Or at least, that’s what the Toronto Sun thinks, judging by an article published yesterday, headlined ‘Is Toronto under the sway of Russian propaganda?’ Clearly, the Sun wants its readers to think that the answer is yes. Author Marcus Kolga who, on behalf of the Baltic diaspora, has undertaken heroic efforts to enlighten Canadians about the Russian threat, laments that ‘the City of Toronto Parks department cynically rejected a proposal’ to rename a ‘small street inside Earl Bales park’ after murdered Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. Note how they didn’t just reject this proposal, they rejected it ‘cynically’. What moral turpitude has infected our municipal leaders!

Apparently there was an online public consultation about the renaming, and it would appear that it didn’t go too well for the proposal. Kolga suspects Kremlin manipulation of the results. ‘It would not have taken much effort by staff at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the St. Petersburg troll factory, to undertake such an effort,’ he says. Forget about the war in Syria and the like. Toronto Street names are clearly top priority back in Russia.

The failure to honour Nemtsov is the least of our problems, though. Even more exasperating from Kolga’s point of view is the atrocious fact that last month Toronto city council allowed the Russian consulate to use the foyer of city hall to put up an exhibition about the Second World War. This included displays on outrageous topics such as ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’, ‘The Siege of Leningrad’, and ‘The Holocaust: Annihilation, Liberation, Rescue.’ City council had allowed the Russian consulate ‘to post historical propaganda posters’, complained Kolga on Twitter, linking to a message from the consulate which included the following shocking example.


It’s ‘outrageous’ that this happened, said Kolga on Twitter. I’m sure, dear readers, that you share his outrage. This cannot be tolerated. As Kolga said in the Toronto Sun:

It is difficult to comprehend how the Nemtsov street naming project … was rejected while a Russian Government initiated and sponsored historical propaganda exhibit … was allowed to proceed. … The Mayor and Council should immediately revisit the decision to reject the naming of a street … in honour of this great Russian hero … The City must immediately review policies and reject all attempts by malign foreign states to hijack public spaces in our city to advance their own false narratives in order to manipulate our citizens.

God forbid that Torontonians learn about the Second World War or the Holocaust. They might, for instance, conclude that Baltic collaborators were on the wrong side of history. We must prevent this ‘malign’ attempt to ‘manipulate our citizens’. But Kolga got one thing wrong. It isn’t ‘difficult to comprehend’ how this happened. The answer is obvious. Toronto is ‘under the sway of the Kremlin.’ What other answer could there be?

Post-secularism and the liberal international order

In October last year, I gave a talk entitled ‘Rules, Rights and Values: Contradictions in the Post-Secular Liberal International Order’ at a conference at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). This has now been published, in Russian, in the latest edition (2019, no. 3) of ‘Tetradi po konservatizmu’ (‘Notebooks on Conservatism’), and can be found here.

As the piece is only available in Russian, below is a much truncated version of it in English, which provides the gist of the argument while leaving out most of the academic baggage.


Rules, Rights and Values: Contradictions in the Post-Secular Liberal International Order


In recent years it has become common in the West to talk of the ‘liberal international order’. Western politicians also make regular reference to the ‘rules-based international order’. Both are considered ideals which the West wishes to promote and defend. Yet rules do not have to be liberal and many of the rules governing state behaviour are founded as much on utility and necessity as on liberal values. Indeed, in the traditional Westphalian model of international relations, values were set aside in favour of international peace and stability. Western states thus find themselves in a paradoxical position, unable to pursue both rules and values without one in some way contradicting the other. Using post-secular theory, I argue that one reason for this contradiction may be that contemporary Western liberalism has taken on many of the characteristics of a political religion which has shed God but incorporates Christianity’s universalism and messianism.

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Constitutional update

Since Vladimir Putin suggested amending the Russian constitution and set up a commission to discuss proposals, some 900 amendments have supposedly been submitted to the commission. We now have a better idea of which of these have passed muster and will be considered by the State Duma as additions to the amendments already submitted. The Speaker of the State Duma Viacheslav Volodin announced today that several new clauses would be added for consideration in the second reading of the constitutional reform bill, which is due in the next few days. The text of the changes is said to be 24 pages long. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet available on the Duma website, so we’re going to have to go off what Volodin told the press, but I am assuming that this is accurate.

First, the preamble to the Constitution will now say:

The Russian Federation, united by a thousand year history, preserving the memory of our ancestors, who gave us our ideals and belief in God, and preserving also the succession in the development of the Russian state, is a historically composed state unity.

This wording serves two purposes. First, it adds a references to God. Second, it entrenches the modern Russian Federation’s claim to be the successor of both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. It thereby throws a bone to the Church, while also resolving a debate about Russia’s identity, asserting that all of its past is part and parcel of an integral Russian whole. This is primarily of symbolic meaning, but it does possibly have some practical significance, making it difficult, for instance, to imagine any sort of Ukrainian-style decommunization involving the wholesale elimination of Soviet-era names and monuments.

Second, marriage will be defined as something limited to men and women. This will render same-sex marriage unconstitutional. So-called ‘family values’ will be further protected by another change which will declare that ‘children are the most important property of the Russian Federation’. This reflects the government’s desire to get Russians to have more kids. I doubt that putting these words in the constitution will do much to encourage them. It might, though, at some point be used in some legal argument to bolster the case for children’s rights.

Third, if the amendments are passed, the constitutional will now state that,

The state language of the Russian Federation on all its territory is the Russian language, as the language of the state-forming people [как язык государствообразующего народа].

This is a concession to Russian ethno-nationalism, though it doesn’t go as far as some would have liked, as it doesn’t say that Russia is the state of the Russian [russkii] people (as opposed to that of the Rossiiskii people – the distinction between russkii and rossisskii being a crucial one). It merely calls Russians the ‘state-forming people’, while at the same time maintaining elsewhere the description of Russia as the state of the ‘multinational Rossiiskii people.’ As such I doubt that this change is of much importance, although entrenching Russian as the state language could well have an effect in terms of favouring Russian-language education over minority-language education in parts of Russia where there are large populations whose first language isn’t Russia.

Fourth, the constitution is to be changed to guard against separatism and concessions of territory, with the following wording:

The Russian Federation guarantees the defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Actions (excluding delimitation, demarcation, and re-demarcation of the state boundary with neighbouring states), directed to the alienation of part of the Russian Federation’s territory, as well as calls for such actions, are not permitted.

Ironically, having supported secession elsewhere, the Russians are now proposing to ban it at home! And not just ban it, but make it illegal even to propose it. This means, for instance, that it will become unconstitutional to call for Crimea to be returned to Ukraine. One can see that this might lead to repressive measures against what might be considered perfectly legitimate political positions. Another interesting question is whether this proposed amendment will affect negotiations with Japan over the status of the Kuril Islands. Arguably, it could make it unconstitutional for the Russian government to cede the Kurils to Japan in any future negotiations. However, I suspect that such an act could be interpreted as a ‘demarcation’ or ‘re-demarcation’ of the state boundary, and so permitted.

Fifth, the Russian constitution will now regulate history. It will henceforth say:

The Russian Federation honours the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland, guarantees the defence of historical truth. Diminution of the significance of the people’s achievement in defending the Fatherland is not permitted. Any pronouncement which blackens the achievement of our citizens is unconstitutional.

This clearly has the Second World War in mind, and reflects, among other things, Putin’s angry reaction to Polish and Ukrainian efforts to portray the Soviet Army as having not liberated Eastern Europe, but occupied it, and as such as having been morally equivalent to the Nazis. Having said that, this constitutional clause could apply to just about any war. If someone was to write, for instance, that Russian soldiers betrayed their country by abandoning their posts in World War One, would that not also be ‘diminution of the people’s achievement in defending the Fatherland’? As a historian, I consider this particular amendment entirely unjustifiable. It attempts to dictate historical analysis. I cannot approve.

I imagine that the State Duma will approve all these propositions. Overall, they reflect the conservative and patriotic mood in contemporary Russia, albeit in a somewhat limited way. They also reflect Putin’s style of balancing between different ideological trends. Non-systemic liberals won’t be happy, but systemic liberals get a small bone in the form of a minor shift in power from the president to the State Duma. Conservatives get some family value stuff and a mention of God. Russian nationalists get to feel happy about the mention of the ‘state-forming Russian people’; and Soviet nostalgists can go home happy that Russia is the successor of the USSR and that nobody will dare question the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. Just about everybody gets a symbolic something, while in practice the system of government carries on much as before.

Assuming that the Duma approves the amendments, they are to be put to a public vote on 22 April (which just happens to be Lenin’s 150th birthday). No doubt they will pass by a large majority.