Crisis? What Crisis?

Back in 2014, Paul Starobin wrote an excellent article analyzing what he called the ‘“Russia is Doomed” syndrome’, which is manifested in persistent claims that Russia is on the verge of collapse. This perspective, said Starobin, ‘is grounded in unreality. Russia isn’t going anywhere. Critics tend to exaggerate its ailments or fail to place them in proper context.’ One should add to this that the ‘Russia is doomed’ narrative applies not just to Russia as a whole, but also to the system of government and the person of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. They are all perpetually on the edge of extinction.

You can get a flavour of this from titles of books published by Western journalists this past decade, such as Ben Judah’s  ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin’ (embarrassingly published just before Putin’s ratings rose to record highs following the annexation of Crimea), and Richard Lourie’s ‘Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash’ (neither of which has yet come about). Whenever anything happens which suggests that everything is not going 100% swimmingly well in Russia, then out come the keyboard warriors to flog another screed telling us all how the end is nigh, Putin’s popularity is tumbling, and regime change is just around the corner.


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Psychological connections

For whatever reason, a single subject keeps cropping up in my readings of late – the alleged psychological deviance of the Russian people. I’m not quite sure how to thread it all together, so I plan just to ramble through some of the things I’ve come across, and hope that something coherent comes out of it.

A while back the journal Russian Review asked me to review a book by Moscow academic Sergei Medvedev entitled The Return of the Russian Leviathan. The review appeared in print this week. Medvedev is an outspoken critic of the ‘Putin regime’ and, as one might expect, his book – which is actually a collection of op-ed articles – is relentlessly negative in its depiction of Russia. This is clear from the very first essay which tells readers that, ‘All around there are ever more dead villages … The people you come across are increasingly wretched. They wander aimlessly along the roadside … with a look of hopelessness … everything is dissolving into oblivion.’ That’s modern Russia for you! Everything is ‘hopeless’.  As you can see, Medvedev isn’t exactly even-handed in his approach, although it must be said that he does write extremely well. I note in my review that, ‘As op-eds go, those in this book are exemplary – colourful, hard-hitting, and penetrating.’ ‘But’, as I also say, ‘an op-ed is not a work of scientific research, and readers should treat Medvedev’s arguments with caution.’

If there is a single argument running through Medvedev’s book it is this: that there’s something deeply wrong with the Russian psyche. Medvedev writes of the ‘mass infantilization of public consciousness’, an ‘embittered, alienated and provincial consciousness’, ‘an undeveloped mass consciousness’, and the ‘archaic, pre-rational and mystical condition of our national consciousness’. Russia, he says, is ‘a society mired in lies, cynicism and lack of trust, having lost all hope for the future.’ Its defining characteristics are the ‘syndrome of trained helplessness’ and the ‘condition of resentment,’ defined as ‘the moral of slaves.’ You get the theme: Russia as a whole, says Medvedev, ‘is in desperate need of collective therapy.’

It turns out, though, that he’s not the only one saying this. If you go the book section of the latest edition of the Russian Review, just above my review of The Return of the Russian Leviathan you’ll find a review of Andrei Kovalev’s memoir Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin. Reading it, I had an odd sense of déjà vu, as all the same criticisms as I had made of Medvedev popped up again. Kovalev is a retired Soviet/Russian diplomat of what one might call ‘liberal’ inclinations, who like Medvedev is keen to expose the evils of modern Russia. In the process, comments reviewer Robert English, he ‘engages in some questionable psychiatry of his own’. English cites Kovalev as saying that, ‘Russia is sick. Its illness is complex and psychosomatic in character. This presents itself, among other ways, as manic-depressive psychosis accompanied by acute megalomania, persecution complex, and kleptomania, all compounded by dystrophy.’ Kovalev’s position, according to English, is that ‘The opinion of most of the population is irrelevant since their “slave psychology” makes them easy to brainwash and everything is decided by the KGB-silovik elite in any event’. ‘It would make any but the most extreme Russophobes blush’, English concludes.

What Medvedev and Kovalev have in common is their belief that Russians have ‘the moral of slaves’ (as Medvedev puts it) or the ‘slave psychology’ (in Kovalev’s words). This is a centuries-old trope, dating back at least as far as the sixteenth century writings of Sigismund von Herberstein, but as I found out in something else I read this week, the idea got a more general boost from the infamous Frankfurt School of scholars, which came up with the concept of ‘The Authoritarian Personality’.

This was the title of a book published in 1950 in the United States on the basis of research originally conducted in Germany in the 1930s before the School’s members fled from the Nazis. Supposedly, the authoritarian personality reflects ‘personal insecurities which result in the superego adhering to externally imposed conventional norms, and unquestioning obedience to the authorities who impose and administer the social norms of society (authoritarian submission).’ From this theory emerged the ‘F-Test’, which supposedly reveals how disposed one is towards fascism. Unfortunately, when the F-Test was tried out on Nazi war criminals, they didn’t score particularly highly, but that rather significant snag didn’t stop it having some influence, and the idea spread that authoritarianism could be explained by a certain personality type.

I wasn’t previously aware of this, and it goes some way towards explaining the logic of Yuri Levada and his research into the ‘Soviet man’ (Homo sovieticus), which is a sort of social scientific effort to measure the allegedly authoritarian personality and ‘slave mentality’ of the Russian people. Levada died in 2006, but the research centre which bears his name continues his work, and this week it issued a new survey as part of its ‘Soviet man’ project, with results which are either somewhat encouraging or somewhat alarming, depending on your point of view.

According to the latest survey, Russians have become more tolerant toward groups such as gays, prostitutes, and feminists, but less tolerant toward religious sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the one hand, only 32% of respondents said that gays and lesbians should be ‘isolated from society’ compared with 37% five years ago, thus giving rise to the headline of ‘increased tolerance’ (although it should be pointed out that another 18% think that gays and lesbians should be ‘liquidated’). On the other hand, 41% think that members of religious sects should be ‘isolated from society’ and another 21% think that they should be ‘liquidated’, an increase since the previous survey.

All this talk of ‘liquidation’ and ‘isolation from society’ doesn’t suggest a very liberal state of mind among the Russian people (75% think paedophiles should be ‘liquidated’, 9% think the same of feminists!). If you take this survey at face value, it’s more than a little scary. The question therefore arises of whether one should take it at face value. As I mentioned in a previous post, Levada’s methodology has been criticized as ‘colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer’. Unfortunately, I’m not qualified to say how true that it is, but one does wonder what Russians think they are saying when they reply that they want to ‘liquidate’ people, and one also has to wonder whether 21% of them really would want to ‘liquidate’ Jehovah’s Witnesses if some survey didn’t ask them to consider it. It could be that their attitudes really are quite scary. Or then again maybe not. I’m not sure.

In an article in Kommersant, political scientist Aleksei Makarkin commented that the language and practice of isolation and liquidation comes from Soviet times, but a really interesting book I read last week suggests an even earlier, and perhaps more surprising source, positing that the Soviets got the language from pre-revolutionary liberal psychiatrists and sociologists. In short all this talk of ‘isolating’ people has its origins in the liberal human sciences.

In Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930, Daniel Beer examines how late Imperial liberal intellectuals took on board Social Darwinist ideas of ‘degeneration’ and argued for the need for drastic measures to restore the health (ozdorovlenie) of the Russian people. According to their logic, social conditions had the effect of producing forms of social deviancy (crime, alcoholism, laziness, etc), which were then reproduced in offspring (through a Lamarckian system of biological evolution), leading to the gradual degeneration of the nation over several generations. This process applied to the richer classes (whose privileged lives produced degenerate people) as well as to the poor. Making matters worse, a process of ‘moral contagion’ meant that the degenerate morals of the deviant tended to spread to the healthy elements of the population, gradually infecting all. The only solutions were a) a radical altering of the social and economic system, and b) measures to ‘isolate’ the morally degenerate in ‘special institutions’ in a type of ‘indefinite preventive detention’. In this way, liberals became supporters of decidedly authoritarian measures. According to Beer, the Soviet regime then picked up on these theories and ‘began to universalize the principle of social defense’, in which society defended itself by isolating ‘corruptive elements’ from the rest of society.

Thus, concludes Beer, ‘Russian liberalism … proved to be the unwitting architect of significant features of the project that triumphed over it.’ If so, it may not have been a coincidence. As Isaiah Berlin argued in his famous essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, if you take the line that people can’t be free because they’re not able to reason properly, then you can justify all sorts of repressive measures. In this way, the pursuit of liberty leads to its destruction. It’s an irony worth bearing in mind whenever the talk turns to the moral failings of the people.

Various forms of liberalism

I was reading something last week which fitted in rather nicely with the phenomenon I described in my recent review of Joshua Yaffa’s book, namely the idea that if the authorities are flawed one should have absolutely nothing to do with them. The more I read it, the more I liked it. The problem I had, though, was that I liked it so much that as I made notes I began to realize that I was pretty much copying the entire piece. So, in the end I decided to do exactly that, and also translate it. The result is below.

The piece in question is an article written in 1862 by the Russian conservative liberal philosopher Boris Chicherin, entitled ‘Various forms of liberalism’. I’d read some Chicherin before, but not this piece, and I think it’s really great – not a deep piece of philosophy, hardly a product of thorough, empirically justified research, more of an opinionated rant, but all the more enjoyable because of it. And although I regard parts of it as somewhat over the top, the basic themes resonate. One can recognize today, 120 years later, many of the same characteristics of what Chicherin calls ‘street’ and ‘oppositional’ liberalism among liberals both in Russia and the West (indeed I even recognize some of them in myself). For this reason, a lot of this rings true even today. Chicherin’s discussion of the nature of freedom is also interesting.

The translation is far from perfect, and on occasion rather clunky. This is due to the haste with which it was done as well as my own rather limited skills as a translator. Still, I think that it gets the sense across most of the time. I apologize for any inaccuracies.

I have translated Chicherin’s phrase ‘okhranitel’nyi liberalizm‘ as ‘conservative liberalism’, as this is how it is normally done, and I can’t think of anything better. But it doesn’t really do credit to the statist nuance inherent in the word ‘okhranitel’nyi‘ (some historians after all write of okhranitel’nyi konservatizm – which following this translation would be ‘conservative conservatism’). If anybody has any suggestions for a better translation, I’d be happy to hear them.

Here goes:

Various forms of liberalism (Boris Chicherin, 1862)

If we listen to the social conversation which is taking place from one end of Russia to the other, both secretly and openly, in clubs, in drawing rooms, and in the press, then despite the variety of speeches and tendencies, we easily notice one thing in common, which dominates over everything else. There is no doubt that at the present time public opinion in Russia is decidedly liberal. This is not an accident but a product of necessity; it’s a result of the nature of things. The rejection of the old order is a direct consequence of its bankruptcy. It has become obvious to everybody that you can’t have a well-ordered state without also having some degree of freedom.

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Book review: Skripal in prison

You all surely know the story. Sergei Skripal, a one time officer in the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, was recruited by the British intelligence service MI6, and worked for a while as a British spy before being caught by the Russian authorities and imprisoned. He was then released as part of a spy swap and went to live incognito in Salisbury, England, where he carried on his life peacefully until one day a couple of GRU officers, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, travelling under the pseudonyms Petrov and Boshirov, flew to the UK and smeared a nerve agent known as Novichok on the door handle of his house. The poisoning almost killed Skripal and his daughter, Julia, but both eventually survived. Also poisoned was a police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who entered the Skripals’ house to investigate. He too survived. Less lucky was another resident of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess, whose boyfriend Charlie Rowley gave her a perfume bottle he found somewhere in town. The bottle contained the Novichok used by Petrov and Boshirov to poison Skripal. Sturgess died after spraying herself with its contents.

That’s the official narrative, which most people accept. John Helmer, though, doesn’t believe it. Ever since the original poisoning he’s been penning pieces on his blog, Dances with Bears, casting doubt on the story being provided by the British police and government. Now he has assembled his pieces into a book entitled Skripal in Prison, which lays out the case against the theory that the Russians were behind the Skripal poisoning.


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Exposing the disinformation industry

In my last post I mentioned the growth of an industry of disinformation ‘experts’ who themselves spread disinformation. If anybody has any doubts about it, evidence of how this industry operates came out this week in the form of a couple of short reports from the University of Manchester, which is the home of a research project known as ‘Reframing Russia’.

Led by Professor Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz, both well respected researchers, the project primarily studies the Russian media network RT, saying that ‘ we test hypotheses … that challenge conventional thinking and presumptions about RT and really get to grips with RT’s recalibration of Russia’s public image for international audience.’ Beyond RT, however, the Reframing Russia team also comment occasionally on issues relating to the Russian media and disinformation more generally, and this is where this week’s news comes into play.

First off, we had a frenzy of complaints that the Russian news agency RIA had published an article claiming that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been ventilated while in hospital suffering from coronavirus. This resulted in a series of denunciations of Russia in the press and on social media, followed by a public statement by Johnson’s office that the story was Russian ‘disinformation’. Rather embarrassingly, however, news soon came out that Johnson had been taken into intensive care and was being provided with oxygen, apparently indicating that the RIA story had been true.

The Reframing Russia team therefore decided to investigate. Apparently, the accusations of Russian disinformation were due to ‘mistranslation’ of what RIA had said, which was not that Johnson was being intubated, but that he ‘will’ (future) be receiving artificial ventilation, a phrase that in Russian includes ‘non-invasive use of an oxygen mask’. In other words, RIA didn’t report that something had already happened, but made a prediction which turned out to be true. ‘In sum’, concludes Reframing Russia, ‘there is no evidence of any attempts by Russian news providers to spread disinformation about Prime Minister Johnson’s state of health’. The whole story, in other words, was sloppy journalism. As Reframing Russia puts it, this case indicates how

rudimentary journalistic standards relating to the careful verification of source materials are … sidestepped. … the inaccuracy with which Russian coverage of the COVID-19 crisis is represented in the EU and the UK is concerning. Countering disinformation with mis/disinformation is counterproductive.

That brings us neatly onto the research project’s second report, which deals more generally with claims that the Russian state has been spreading disinformation about the coronavirus. The report involves an analysis of the output of the European Union’s counter-disinformation service EUvsDisinfo, which has been the source for a large number of media stories claiming that the Russian Federation is actively spreading false stories about COVID-19 for nefarious political purposes.

To check whether EUvsDisinfo’s claims were correct, Reframing Russia examined the specific stories the EU organization had flagged as disinformation, but also went beyond that by taking a wider look at what Russian TV has been saying about the COVID pandemic. Observing the output of Russian TV’s Channel 1, the team concluded that, ‘there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin “conspiracy theory propaganda’ flagged by EUvsDisinfo.’ On the contrary, ‘The extent of EUvsDisinfo’s misrepresentation of Russian COVID-19 media coverage in the material we then analyzed is troubling.’

The research team identified two ways in which EUvsDisinfo misrepresented the truth. The first is ‘omission’: ‘in some cases individual sentences are extracted from the context of the source materials and rephrased in the form of summaries and headlines which make them sound particularly outrageous. Failure to supply contextual information encourages misreading of the significance of the relevant media.’

The second form of misrepresentation is ‘blatant distortion’. For instance, EUvsDisinfo issued a report claiming that Sputnik Latvia had said that ‘COVID-19 had been designed specifically to kill elderly people’. In fact, ‘the article in question … was clearly ridiculing a whole series of international conspiracy theories … the article highlights their idiocy.’

Beyond this, Reframing Russia attacks EUvsDisinfo’s methodology for assuming that ‘random websites without any traceable links to Russia state structures’ are similar to state-funded media outlets, and that all are part of a coordinated Kremlin-led campaign. This is true even in the case of ‘conspirological, far-right websites which are actually critical of Putin.’

Overall, the Reframing Russia report concludes with characteristically British understatement, that

Our analysis demonstrates that EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation … The source material cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting countries with an organised around the current public health crisis.

The research team suggests two reasons for this: first, ‘a profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work’ (everything is not, in reality, dictated by the Kremlin), and; second, ‘The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to do the required work’. In EUvsDisinfo’s case, the work is outsourced to some 400 volunteers, who are ‘operating in a post-Soviet space saturated … by anti-Russian attitudes.’

In short, the disinformation experts don’t understand how Russia operates, and they are also unprofessional, and driven by anti-Russian biases.

I’d go farther than this. The output of the disinformation industry doesn’t ‘border on disinformation’, it is to a large degree disinformation. Furthermore, the industry’s output is a product of more than just lack of understanding and lack of professionalism. I’d argue that it’s inherent in the industry itself. Institutions have purposes, and the methods they use reflect those purposes. The purpose for which the disinformation industry was set up is to be a tool in the current East-West geopolitical conflict. The method is to make Russia look bad by presenting Russia as a source of disinformation, which in some way is said to undermine Western unity, democracy, and all the rest of it. In short, disinformation ‘experts’ exist to find Russian disinformation. It’s what they do. If they can’t find it, their reason for existence disappears. So, they find it. And if they can’t, they fabricate it. The ‘blatant distortion’ identified by Reframing Russia is part and parcel of what this industry is.

Sadly, EUvsDisinfo is hardly unique. Other examples, such as the Ukrainian organization Stop Fake and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, abound. The problem is that our media and politicians take them seriously. As Reframing Russia notes, ‘Since it [EUvsDisinfo] bears the EU stamp of credibility, it is unsurprising that the material provided [by it] provided the basis for a series of national international press articles’. This applies more generally. The output of the disinformation industry is widely treated as truth. But as the Reframing Russia team have so ably demonstrated, in reality much of it is not.

Pot, kettle, black

I’ve theorized before that there may be something of a correlation between how loudly someone shouts about misinformation and how much misinformation comes out of that person’s own mouth. Recent years have led to a large-scale, and seemingly well-funded, industry of misinformation ‘experts’, who make a healthy living from exposing alleged foreign attempts to undermine our fragile democratic order, while simultaneously having a rather tenuous hold on the truth themselves. A recent publication from the University of Calgary is a case in point.

Entitled ‘COVID-19 as a tool of information confrontation: Russia’s approach’, the piece comes under the banner of the university’s School of Public Policy, giving it the air of academic respectability. In reality, it’s an under-referenced, poorly produced rant, which doesn’t deserve wide publicity. Still, I think it’s worth referencing as an example of how the misinformation industry operates.

Author Sergey Sukhankin, whose work I have discussed before, argues the following:

As the rest of the world struggles to cope with COVID-9, Russia is churning out propaganda that blames the West for creating the virus. … Russia is using social media accounts, fake news outlets, state-controlled global satellite media, bloggers, pseudo-scientists and supposed scholars, experts and Russians living in the West to spread its lies and distortions. … Putin’s larger goal in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories is to subvert the West … COVID-19 is seen as an ideal way for Russia to deal a powerful blow not only to the EU, but to inflict damage on the ties between Europe and its North American allies.

It’s sounds terrible. The problem is that after two and half pages of introduction and historical filling, the core of the publication, which itself consists of just two pages, contains no evidence to back the assertions above. Note the claim that Russia is ‘churning’ out propaganda, suggesting a huge flood of the stuff. But Sukhankin fails to provide examples, let alone evidence of a process of ‘churning’. Note also the use of the word ‘Russia’, which seems to imply that everything any Russian says is somehow part of some centralized state plan. Again, no evidence is produced. It’s remarkably thin gruel.

What we do get is a complaint of crude disinformation being spread on Russian TV to the ‘least informed of the Russian masses’ by ‘Russia’s most notorious TV anchor, Yevgeny Kisilev’ (a rather embarrassing error, as Sukhankin surely means Dmitry Kisilev – Yevgeny moved to Ukraine in 2008). I have to admit that I don’t watch either Kiselev, so I have no idea what they’ve been saying about coronavirus. But what I do know is that Dmitry broadcasts in Russia, to Russians, not in foreign languages to foreign audiences. How then could he be part of some Russian plan to spread disinformation in the West? It doesn’t make sense. As for what this disinformation is, the only example Sukhankin provides is Russian TV showing pictures from the social media account of hockey star Alexander Ovechkin’s wife, showing empty shelves in American stores. Well, where’s the disinformation in that? (Besides which, most of us have probably seen similar pictures online from the USA and elsewhere from any other number of people – it’s hardly something extraordinary for them to appear on Russian TV).

I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much credence to this stuff. I’ll just provide one more example of Sukhankin’s weird form of argumentation. Apparently, ‘Russian intellectuals have concluded that the virus is a precursor of the coming end of the “liberal world order, and giving way to a new configuration in which old powers, such as the US … are giving way to the new leaders, including China and Russia.’ Well, yes, some have. But the idea that the balance of power in the world is shifting is hardly a uniquely Russian one (let alone disinformation, since it is obviously true), and the potential impact of the current crisis on the international order is a topic exercising intellectuals in the West just as much as in Russia. How is all this proof that Russia is ‘churning out propaganda’ to ‘subvert the West’ and deal a ‘powerful blow’ to the Western alliance? It isn’t. Not in the slightest.

‘Russian military-political elites consider COVID-19 as something that could and should be used to deal a powerful blow to the EU’, concludes Sukhankin, providing not a single reference to anything any Russian military-political leader has said to this effect. But don’t let the lack of evidence get in our way. Something must be done! ‘The Canadian government must take a tougher stance on platforms/agencies operating in Canadian information space and deliberately sowing panic or discord among the population’, says the final words of the report. And so we end up where we so often do, with a call for censorship.

Of itself, this publication doesn’t matter a jot. It’s just the ramblings of one guy in Calgary – a true scholar, I guess, not one of the ‘supposed scholars’ he denounces. But this stuff spreads. For instance, Canadian military historian David Bercuson, a Calgary U professor emeritus, took the opportunity of Sukhankin’s publication to pen a piece in the National Post, spreading fear of Russian and Chinese disinformation. On almost a daily basis, stories and op-eds appear claiming that the Russians are using COVID-19 for geopolitical purposes. The aid Russia has recently provided to Italy and the United States is a case in point. Take a look at these recent headlines:

‘The influence operation behind Russia’s coronavirus aid to Italy: how the Kremlin is using Covid-19 crisis to undermine NATO and the EU.’ (Coda Story, 2 April 2020)

‘Coronavirus: what does “from Russia with love” really mean?’(BBC, 3 April 2020)

‘Beware of Bad Samaritans: China and Russia are sending medical aid to Italy and other coronavirus-stricken countries, but their motives aren’t so altruistic’. (Foreign Policy, 30 March 2020)

‘Russian aid to Italy leaves EU exposed’. (New York Times, 26 March 2020)

‘Russian mercy mission to Italy is a front for intelligence gathering, British expert warns.’ (Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2020)

Having read these, now ask yourself a couple of questions: who exactly is using COVID-19 to spread propaganda? who exactly is exploiting the current situation to raise tensions and stoke conflict? To me, the answer is pretty clear. It’s very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black.