As the year is about to end, and I have several book reviews to do, I thought I would bundle them all together.
Personal reflections: Americans in Russia
First off are a couple of books of a non-academic variety which were sent to me, one being a memoir, and the other a self-published collection of essays. Both to some degree touch upon the issue of Americans in Russia.
Behind the Red Veil is American teacher Frank Thoms’s memoir of his time teaching in Soviet schools during the Gorbachev era. Thoms taught for a few months at several English-immersion schools in Leningrad, Moscow, and Yekaterinburg, and also at Pioneer camp in Kazakhstan. His decision to work there reflected his desire to penetrate behind what he calls the ‘red veil’ of the Soviet Union, and to unpeel the ‘deeper layers’ of the Soviets’ matrioshkas, as he puts it. It was also perhaps a response to a personal crisis, following on from his divorce. Thoms’s trips to the Soviet Union were thus maybe as much a voyage of personal discovery as an exploration of Soviet life. As he himself concludes, ‘Upon reflection, I was the primary beneficiary of my sojourns. … I was befriending me. … My effort to probe Churchill’s “Russia is riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” became a process of self-deciphering.’
Perhaps for that reason, Thoms’s memoir is rather self-absorbed and spends surprisingly little time reflecting on Soviet life, and pretty much nothing outside the school system. On that, though, he does offer some thoughts. As described by Thoms, the Soviet school system had an overly rigid curriculum which placed a huge emphasis on grades, to which both teachers and pupils paid overt homage while quietly subverting it with each others’ knowledge. He’s fond of using the word pokazukha (window-dressing, roughly speaking) to describe the Soviets’ attitude of pretending to go along with the rules which doing their best to undermine them. He describes the prevalence of crib-sheets and cheating, and of students lying, and prompting one another in class, to all of which teachers turned a blind eye. The Soviet Union, Thoms concludes, was ‘not only authoritarian but pretended.’
Americans in Russia also pop up in veteran journalist Deena Stryker’s self-published collection of essay, Russia’s Americans, although the title is rather deceiving as the Americans in question are just a small part of the whole.
Stryker is an Franco-American journalist of, I think it’s fair to say, well-left-of-centre political opinions. In the past she hobnobbed with the likes of Fidel Castro and Federico Fellini, before spending some time writing speeches in the US State Department under Jimmy Carter. The Americans in the title of her book are various US (and one Canadian) expats she met on a trip to Russia in 2017. As a whole, they seem a happy bunch, who don’t particularly miss America, and express no special desire to go back, though they are no without their criticism of modern Russia (the food is ‘gross’ says one; chaos ‘reigns’, says another, while adding that he actually likes the anarchy; and another echoes Frank Thomas and complains that the rote learning of the Russian school system ‘encourages cheating.)
I thought rather more could be made of all this, and it made me think that there would be value in a detailed study of expat experiences of life in Russia. As it is, though, they constitute only a small part of Stryker’s book, most of which consists of essays denouncing US foreign policy and defending Russia against a variety of common charges. She stresses the ‘Wolfowitz Doctrine’ which proclaimed that the US should act to prevent any other nation from challenging US hegemony, and interprets US policy towards Russia in light of that doctrine and the desire to control what the founder of geopolitical theory Halford Mackinder called ‘the heartland’.
The USA is indeed in large part to blame for the current poor state of Russian-American relations, but there’s blame on the Russian side too. Take Ukraine: while the US undoubtedly backed the Maidan coup, it had domestic roots, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebellion in Donbass can’t be ignored. So, to be honest, I somewhat part with Stryker, as with other what you might call ‘pro-Russian’ analysts. I think that she pushes things further than is warranted. In recognizing American’s sins, it’s important that one doesn’t end up blaming America for everything.
Next in this line of reviews are a couple of academic books, which I’ve selected as being among the best works produced about contemporary Russia this year.
First up is Elena Chebankova’s Political Ideologies in Contemporary Russia which is pretty much what it says on the tin – a description of the various currents in modern Russian political thought, such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism, nationalism, and feminism.
As a summary of the various modes of Russian thought, I think that the book does a pretty good job. It’s also, I think, well-balanced and thankfully free of the extreme interpretations of Russia’s ideological twists and turns that characterize so many Western analyses.
This can be seen in the way Chebankova describes ‘Putinism’ as a system of ‘paradigmatic pluralism’, in which liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, multipolar world order ideas, and multiculturalism exist side by side. According to Chebankova, ‘representatives of each paradigm operate within Russia’s main political parties, at the high echelons of power, in large and medium-sized business structures, and in the main social movements.’ As for Vladimir Putin, he ‘prefers to balance these socio-political forces without taking sides, and he navigates between the traditionalists and the liberals situationally.’
Chebankova, in other words, paints a picture of Russia as far more diverse than one would expect if one accepted the general view of the country as an authoritarian dictatorship in the grip of a new conservative ideology. Overall, people wanting an introduction to contemporary Russian liberalism, conservatism, and so on, will find this book invaluable.
Issues of ideology also pop up in another new book, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova’s The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity. In this the author argues that Vladimir Putin owes his success to the fact that he has adopted a form of identity politics which has ‘worked to consolidate the Russian nation in the sense of infusing Russian citizens with a sense of belonging and a sense of pride, patriotism, and faith in their country.’ In the process, he ‘has articulated the shared collective perspective and has built a social consensus by tapping into powerful group emotions of shame and humiliation, derived from the painful experiences of the 1990s.’ Consequently Russians feel that Putin is ‘one of us’, is ‘doing it for us’, is ‘crafting a sense of us’, and is ‘making us matter’.
Sharafutdinova spends a lot of time demonstrating how the Russian media has helped Putin in this regard by propagating the ‘frame’ of the 1990s as a period of national humiliation, a frame which provides vital support for the current government by allowing it to present itself as a comparative bringer of stability. She argues that, while this frame isn’t one invented by the Kremlin, its widespread acceptance is a product of a top-down decision to promote it. I found her deconstruction of the workings of the TV talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ rather good. That said, I have some issues with the idea that the prevalence of this frame owes so much to top-down support. I rather suspect that if Putin had decided to push another frame, such as arguing that the 1990s were a time of successful transformation, it would not have got very far. Propaganda works bests when it resonates with what people feel. You can’t propagate any old thing. And this, I think, is a case in point.
Nevertheless, Sharafutdinova thinks that the framing of the 1990s in purely negative terms is a serious mistake from the point of view of Russia’s democratic development, and that Russia can never move forward unless it accepts the positive elements of the post-Soviet reform period. Good luck with that, I have to say. Sharafutdinova herself admits that it’s not likely to happen.
So, I have some issues with this book. At the same time, though, it’s useful as a corrective to the widely-held view that Putin’s power is founded purely on repression or media manipulation. There’s a degree of the latter in Sharafutdinova’s account, but only in the sense that the Russian media plays on, and amplifies, existing viewpoints, with Putin successfully allying himself with the Russian people’s sense of identity. Isn’t that democracy, part of me wonders?
Book I never finished
Finally, there’s a book I never finished, Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton’s monstrously huge door-stopper Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West. I made a big mistake in failing to check how long this book was before I ordered a copy. It’s 624 pages. I gave up at page 136. Some editor at publisher Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux really ought to have taken Belton aside and ordered her to cut her work in half.
If the book had been say 250 pages long, I might have struggled through to the end. As it was, 136 pages were more than sufficient to give me enough of a sense of it not to feel any need to continue. Basically, you know what’s in it by the title: Putin, KGB, evil; Putin, KGB, evil. You don’t need to read 600 pages to get the point.
My issues with the book, however, go beyond the simplistic thesis and the excessive length. They are also a matter of methodology, and the amount I read was sufficient to convince me that methodologically-speaking Putin’s People has serious some difficulties: reliance on a dubious exiled one-time billionaire whose credibility has been found wanting by the British courts; regular use of anonymous sources; repetition of rumour; unsupported assertions and speculation; and a tendency to interpret everything in the most sinister way possible. It’ s problematic, to say the least.
Some people like this book. Luke Harding and Anne Applebaum wrote glowing reviews. Say no more!