End of Year Books

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.

Academic books

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!

30 thoughts on “End of Year Books”

  1. Having so far permanently lived 27 years in the Evil Empire, where I married a Muscovite, with whom, last month, I celebrated 22 years of marriage and by whom I have fathered three children, which children are still here, being educated in Russia, even though they have British and Russian citizenship, I feel my review of life in Russia may be more nuanced than those written by the American authors whose books are reviewed above, none of whom, it seems, having had any intention of living in Russia, but were just passing through, so to say, taking notes, and are now back home in the bounteous West, trying to make an honest buck out of their Russian experience.

    My impression of living in Russia for 27 years in a 3-room flat in a centrally located Soviet house whilst earning a salary of 60,000 rubles (officially — much less since the onset of the dread disease) is that I have few complaints.

    There is food on the table and we have a roof over our heads. My family spends the summer months at our dacha, situated 55 miles southwest of Moscow. I do not drive: never have done. A ticket to the dacha costs 197 rubles one-way.

    The supermarkets are full. There are no food shortages, albeit Camembert and French wine is hard to find, some say.

    Entertainment (theatre, cinema) here is comparatively cheap when compared to the West and of high quality. Before our children began to arrive, my wife and I were theatre goers. In fact, having begun to reside here, I started watching ballet and listening to opera — and yes, I have been to the Bolshoi. Better than a karaoke night in a pub!

    I have had the misfortune to have been in hospital 3 times here (diphtheria, pneumonia, a broken arm)— in a state hospital, not a “Western Clinic”. I am still alive. No complaints. No fees.

    My children were all born in state maternity hospitals: no complaints. They were born fit and healthy and still are.

    I am more than satisfied with my children’s education. My younger daughter still goes to school. The two eldest are now studying at university.Yes, they learnt by rote at school. For example, I remember them all having to learn off by heart Lermontov’s “Borodino”. “Wrong, wrong,wrong!” in the liberal West.Fine with me. I had to learn chunks of Shakespeare at school — so old-fashioned now, I believe.

    Of course, life here in the ’90s was not good — in fact, for most Russians it was hell. However, when the West’s favourite president, whom the powers of Good had set up for a second term of presidency, finally cleared off, everything began to improve continuously.

    During my 27-year residency here, I have never felt threatened, have never felt that my “human rights” were being eroded, I have never feared a late-night call from the FSB. In fact, Moscow in general is a very safe city: my wife and daughters often go out for late evening strolls unaccompanied by me.

    In my 27 years here, I have only been asked twice by the police to show my ID and both occasions took place over 15 years ago when terrorist acts occasionally occured in Moscow. In fact, I have never had any hassle off the cops here, though I must confess, I often had when living in England.

    I should add that I do not socialize with my fellow countrymen. I started avoiding their company shortly after having arrived here: I got so brassed off by their perpetual whinging — and that of US citizens as well. I have never been one to gather with expats in cafés or bars and generally throw ordure with them at Russians and all things Russian.

    To be fair, though, there are a handful of my fellow countrymen and US citizens of my acquaintance who have also “gone native” as I have done.

    I blame my positive attitude towards Russia and Russians on the constant Kremlin propaganda that I have clearly been subject to these past 27 years. That is why I must think that I am “free” here, under The Evil One’s tyrannical regime, but I’m not free, really — not as free as happy Westerners are.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. “In fact, I have never had any hassle off the cops here, though I must confess, I often had when living in England.”

      This could be just a consequence of getting older, though. I imagine everywhere in the world a middle-class man of 30+ is much less likely to get cops’ attention than teenager or young adult…

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      1. I do not consider myself “middle class”. I left England in 1987, when I was 38, in order to seek work in Germany. I ended up in the USSR in 1989 .

        I could not find work in England, as I had been dismissed from my employment there in February 1985. Prior to my losing my job, I had worked as a coal miner and had been on strike for almost 1 year when I was immediately dismissed following my receiving a custodial sentence for public order offences.

        The strike ended two weeks after I had been sent to prison. I never worked again in England following my conviction and my release from prison. I had never been in prison before my conviction nor have I been in prison since my release from prison. I am the only person in my family who has ever been imprisoned and who now has a criminal record.

        So perhaps you can now understand why I most certainly do not consider myself a member of the bourgeoisie and why in England I had for 1 year of my life big problems with the police there.

        I was 35 when I was on strike for 1 year. My father, grandfathers and great-grandfathers had all been coal miners.

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    2. Despite being born in Moscow, I have only spent a very limited portion of my life in Russia, often annually visiting family (more in Cheljabinsk).

      I was 6 when the Soviet Union fell, so all of it is pos Soviet.

      90s in Chelyabinsk. Very poor, quite chaotic. As a young kid, I found it charming that auntie grew her own food.
      Early 2000s. Aunti was mostly buying her food, getting promoted, and had a pretty good and modern car now. In the sattelite village of Chelyabinsk, there were now many cars and even a Porsche. According to Auntie, the Porsche belonged to the guy with the most ramshackle house, but I doubted this.
      Mid 2000 Auntie has a new high tech show that is vastly more complex then anything I have seen in Germany. Her Car is now a massive SUV. Actually needed because the roads still suck.
      Post 2010 Aunti still has an SUV, got a kid in her 40s with her new hubby (a police guy of such a size you are very happy that he is the friendliest and most decent guy I met), build another house close to the old one.
      Post Crimea, the same but with Krim Nash. Much relief was had when I was basically in their camp but for different reasons.
      I believe that Ukraine, as a sovereign nation, can make choices concerning her foreign policy preferences, however, the nature of Maidan, as well as the nature the association, not accession, agreement with the EU essentially means that Ukraine will never actually get to join it, but has to implement the entire aquis anyway, and since they actually have to do this, the EU has to offer nothing because full aquis compliance for no subvention is like a ream come true for Brussel beurocrats. Furthernore, the South East was robbed of their voices and votes by foreign supportet violent means, which legitimizes them also using foreign supported violent means.
      I am also strongly empathizig with Ukrainian military leaders, who refused Yanukovich orders to march on Kiev because this is not the job of the army, and then also refused Maidan order to march on Donbass, for which they were quickly labelled Russian infiltrators and purged.

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  2. “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.”

    Double plus good, Professor! It’s endearing, that you decided to use this particular… uttering… as a form of what you, North American Anglo-Saxons, like to call shibboleth. Hope it helps you 🙂

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      1. The Prof is Welsh? But I’ve heard him speak, he speaks like a proper English gentleman with impeccable BBC accent, even though he’s a Canook!

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    1. re. the American in a small town reference above;

      I should add that my past 27 years spent here in hell on earth have not been spent in their entirety in the “evil city” of Moscow. (That is how John McCain’s daughter decribed the place when giving an interview to the former US ambassador to Russia.) As mentioned above, I spend several months each year living in the country, and before I settled in Moscow, I studied and lived in Voronezh, which, though not a village – it has a polpulation of over 1 million – is very much a provincial city.

      Very many of my anglophone acquaintances here have never been outside of Moscow city limits. I used to have fun asking them if they had been to Russia yet, to which enqury, of course, I always received a quizzical response. I used to reply: “I mean out there – beyond the outer ring road!” (The Moscow “3rd Ring”, the MKAД, is kind of like the Washington beltway: beyond MKAД there dwell Orcs and dragons!) I then used used to advise them to take a rail trip out into the sticks – only a ride of about an hour or so would suffice – in order that they see Russia.

      I do suspect that many stayed put in Moscow because, deep down, they were afraid of venturing forth into the “badlands”, that they preferred to remain in the company of their compatriots in bars and cafés and also with Russian “liberals” and kreakly (members of the “creative class”), who would regale them with tales of horror as regards their pitifil lives in the “regime”, thereby fortifying their Western chums’ preconceptions of life in Russia.

      Here’s something that would puzzle such blinkered expats: My wife is much younger than I am. She is a Muscovite. Her paternal grandfather was a Red Guard, sent from Petrograd to help quell a Menshevik uprising in Moscow, where he met and married my wife’s grandmother.

      My wife’s grandmother was also a Muscovite, but her Red Guard husband hailed from the province of Penza: he had been sent to Sankt-Peterburg by his parents, who wrere wealthy peasants, to be apprenticed as a cabinet maker.

      My wife is forttunate enough to have turn-of-the-20th-century studio photographs of her forebears, something unusual, I feel, amongst Russians, as very many family records here were destroyed as a result of revolution, civil war, Stalin-time oppression and Nazi invasion.

      My wife is very smart: she is an engineer, She graduated from the Bauman Technical University – an extremely prestigious institute of higher education, both in the USSR and now.

      My wife went through the normal process of Soviet education, which included, of course, instruction in Marxist-Leninist theory. She was a “Young Octobrist”, then a “Pioneer” and finally a “Komsomol” member, by which time, having progressed through membership of the various Soviet children’s and youth organizations, she applied for membership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

      Her first application ended in failure: she did not pass her test. At her second attempt she was granted party membership. Two years after she had become a party member, the CP was outlawed following the dissolution of the USSR and the commencement of the nightmare ’90s.

      And here’s the rub: my wife is a Russian Eastern Orthodox Christian, her having a former Red Guard granddad notwithstanding. (He lived to a good old age, by the way, and died in the ’70s, when my wife was still a schoolgirl.) My wife’s parents were also party members.

      Not only was my wife baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith, she also insisted that our children should be baptized in like manner. (I, by the way, am a devout atheist.) The reason for her insistance that this be done was that she wanted our children “to be Russian”. So my son Vladimir, my elder daughter Yelena, and my younger daughter Aleksandra, are all Russian Orthodox Christians.

      When my convent educated sister first visited us and learnt about this, she expressed great surprise: “But the nuns always told us that you were not allowed to go to church in Russia, that you were sent to prison if you did so! And they shot priests!”

      Which happened, of course – but not always!

      As regards my writing a book about my life and times, my wife often advises me to do this. She thinks I have led a very interesting life. I don’t: I prefer not to remember large parts of it and I tell her that my life, my meaningful life, only really began when I met her.

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      1. Greetings Moscow Exile, “I prefer not to remember large parts of it … ”
        This statement reminds me of my friend Klava. She was born in 1931 in a village in Orel province. Several times over the past 15 years I have asked her to record her and her family’s history. No. Each time the answer is ‘NO’. Why not? Extreme poverty in a collectivized village, WWII, forced-labour in Germany, and finally immigration to Canada where for several years “we were the poorest of the poor.” Much of her past is too painful to recall let alone to record. Without detailing her adult years in Canada, Klava became — considering her background — a success. Like you, Moscow Exile, she became a big asset to her second homeland, but, unlike you, Klava does not have a family of her own.
        Aside: “I, by the way, am a devout atheist.” Does ‘devout atheist’ have religious connotations?

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      2. Typo!

        How they annoy me!

        Above:

        NOT:

        “. . . I am totally committment to having no religious faith . . .”,

        BUT:

        “. . . I am totally committed to having no religious faith . . . “

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      3. …not allowed to go to church in Russia, that you were sent to prison if you did so! And they shot priests!”

        Which happened, of course – but not always!

        I don’t think this has ever happened. Party/komsomol members could have troubles: get censured or kicked out of the organization; but definitely no prison. For the rest, no consequence at all.

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    2. @RS

      My expression “devout atheist” is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

      However, though some may think the expression is oxymoronic, I could argue that in saying that I am a “devout atheist”, I am stating that I am totally committment to having no religious faith, no belief in the existence of a supreme being, the creator of the All.

      The strange thing is that unlike, I suspect, the majority of folk, the older I become, the more convinced I am that there is no godhead. I am 71 years old now, by the way.

      Now there may indeed be a godhead and a “spiritual” existence after life. Nobody knows. I do not worry about this matter. I often get very annoyed when deeply religious people maintain that atheists such as I am have no moral compass, no moral code and are, therefore, inherently dangerous. Most religious types that I have known believe that without religion — and by religion, more often than not, they mean “Christianity” — there is no basis for ethics. This annoys me greatly because I consider myself to highly moralistic, and by that I do not mean that I follow the precepts of “Holy Scripture” or “the word of God”. I believe (my faith) I know what is right and wrong — better said, I am able to know — what is socially acceptable or, as the case may be, abhorrent. And I am talking about the “big picture” as regards what is “right” and what is “wrong”, namely Kant’s “Categorical Imperative”: I am a rational, sentient being and I strive to use reason when making moral decisions. It is very often a pretty tough task to do this!

      Of course, Immanuel Kant said what I feel far better than I can:

      “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence”.

      Because of this coronavirus epidemic, earlier this year I missed the opportunity of visiting Kant’s hometown, the former Königsberg, something that I have long wanted to do. There is in present day Kaliningrad a memorial to Kant, and his above quoted words, though in Kant’s German mother tongue, can also be seen in Russian, on a memorial to his memory.

      I’ll go along with that, Herr Kant!

      Like

  3. Dear Prof. let me ask a question to re Crimea.
    By what right did Ukraine hang on to Crimea after the dissolution of the USSR. It was given (ceded?) to it by Crushev in 1954 (I think) when they were part of the USSR and as part of the USSR.
    The USSR dissolves – no right to further control it.
    As a Canadian I think this situation is comparable to the situation in Quebec, when it was made were clear especially before and during the last referendum in ’95, that those parts ceded to Quebec as a member of the federation would revert to the possession of the remaining federation.

    As far as I understand from different sources, the problem was that at the time of the dissolution of the USSR when the documents were signed Yeltsin did not insist at that time as he should have done to demand the return.

    But does failure invalidate the right to later referenda – I think three in total, with the one before 2014 resulting in Crimea achieving an “autonomous region status” which apparently was threatened by the putschist post Maidan government threatening this autonomy and actual leading to a successful outcome.
    I am convinced that the question of a seperate Crimea was under the to be expected continuous threat of its sovereignty by Ukraine not feasible, so the only option was to rejoin Russia.

    As a personal note, having followed the Ukraine Maidan demonstration pretty well from the beginning, and having found various source on the internet directly reporting the situation (by english speaking correspondents) I told friends directly after the take over by “our man yats” in February that this would quickly lead to Crimea joining Russia, having observed the stance of this Regime towards the russian majority in Crimea. Plus the simple fact that Russia would never permit sebastopol fall into the hands of a future NATO member. Anyone who could not predict this at the time was blind, deaf and dumb.

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