Book Review: Weak Strongman

My last couple of posts have focused on bad writing about Russia, so today I’d like to talk about something rather better – Timothy Frye’s new book Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia. I have my quibbles with some of what Frye has to say, but in general this is a big step up in quality from most of what I read about modern Russia.

Frye is a political scientist who divides his time between Columbia University in New York and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. As might be expected of someone working in such respectably liberal institutions, Frye isn’t altogether a fan of the Russian state. It would be wrong to say that his book is a positive take on contemporary Russian government. But it is, one might say, a sort of nuanced negativity. For it avoids, and even confronts, the more extreme condemnations of Russia that have become the norm in Western discourse. And that makes it a little unusual.

Weak Strongman is an attempt to show how Russian government works. My quibble number one would be that it very much assumes that Western liberal democracy is both liberal and democratic and constitutes if not the optimal form of government then as least the optimum we’ve come up with yet, and that the Russian state is a deviation from this norm and as such sub-optimal. Frye takes it for granted that we all agree that Russia is ‘non-democratic’, but never defines what he means by democracy. All of which is to say that he approaches the problem of Russian government very much from the perspective of Western liberalism. That doesn’t mean that he’s wrong – I’m a Western liberal myself, and I kind of share his assumptions, but still, people who don’t, might find themselves objecting.

Anyway, Frye notes that most Western analysts resort to one of two explanations as to why Russia is ‘non-democratic’. The first is that it is all the fault of the evil dictator, Vladimir Putin. The second is that it is an inevitable product of Russia’s history and culture – Russia is simply doomed to authoritarianism. Frye dismissses both of these and instead argues that it is better to look at Russia through the lens of political theory as an example of a ‘personalist autocracy’. Seen this way, he says, Russian government displays characteristics that are common to the breed, and can be seen in other personalist autocracies such as Venezuela and Hungary.

Here, I must butt in with quibble no. 2. ‘Personalist autocracy’ seems an awfully broad phenomenon to me. Can you really lump Russia and, say, Turkmenistan, in one model? Or Hungary and Turkmenistan? And wouldn’t Tsarist Russia count as a personalist autocracy? But to say that Tsarist Russia and 21st century Russia have similar polities strikes me as way off the mark. The differences far outweigh the similarities, I think.

That said, I’m not an expert in poli. sci. models, so these are just thoughts that came into my head as I went along. They’d need deeper discussion than I can manage here. Suffice it to say that Frye says that Russia is typical of the personalist autocratic model and that this explains a lot about how it operates.

In particular, he says, personalist autocracies are not totalitarian states in which the ruler has absolute power and seeks to control all of society. Rather, autocrats have to balance multiple factors and make trade-offs that severely constrain what they can do. For instance, they have to trade off the need for freedom and personal initiative with the danger that too much freedom will lead to their downfall; the needs of the economy as a whole with the need to pay off the important persons and institutions that keep them in power; the need for free elections to legitimize their rule with the danger that too free elections will provide the wrong result; and so on.

Here, I have to mention quibble no. 3. Don’t the leaders of liberal democracies have to engage in very similar trade-offs? Between say, the economic benefit of the nation as a whole, and the economic interests of core voters and lobby groups?

It would be useful to know what the difference is in this regard between different types of political systems. That said, Frye does provide some interesting examples of how these trade-offs operate in a Russian context – how, for instance, the Kremlin tries to keep electoral cheating to a minimum but doesn’t avoid it entirely, and also resorts to methods of manipulation that don’t constitute direct electoral fraud but do artificially constrain opposition – for instance, by preventing unwanted candidates from registering.

Along the way, Frye tells some fascinating stories. For instance, he cites research that shows that ‘firms with CEOs who won a seat in the regional legislature boosted their company’s revenue over a term in office by 60 percent and their profitability by 15 percent relative to those firm owners who also ran for a seat and lost.’ This was because their firms were much more successful in winning state contracts. Power and profit, in other words, are intimately connected. They are everywhere, of course, but I suspect not always quite so blatantly.

Frye makes sure not to overstate the problems he highlights. There is political repression in modern Russia, he says, but ‘it does not reach into every corner of daily life.’ ‘Moscow is in many respects a more pleasant place to live and work than it was even ten years ago. … Outside Moscow, progress has been slower yet still tangible.’ Yes, the state manipulates the media, says Frye, but its not that effective – you can manipulate the way people think about foreign affairs but not about things they know about – e.g. the state of the economy. And in any case, some free media still exists. And yes, Russia does try to ‘influence’ and ‘interfere’ in other countries’ politics, but it’s very marginal – ‘vastly more disinformation about US elections emanates from domestic than from foreign sources’; etc.

So, you see what I meant by ‘nuanced negativity’. Frye’s definitely of the view that all is not well in the state of Russia, but he’s careful to stick to what he can justify with proper data and not to resort to the kind of extreme exaggerations that typify so much contemporary commentary.

The overall conclusion is that Russia suffers from the same weaknesses as other personalist autocracies, above all weak institutions. The result is widespread inefficiency.

I’m happy enough with that as a conclusion. After all, the idea that Russia is a weak state not a strong one is an argument I’ve used myself.  But the historian in me does feel a need to quibble again. Is it really the case that autocracy creates weak institutions, or is the other way around, that autocracy is the reaction to weak institutions? Of course, it could be a bit of both, but I tend to view it more the second way.

Quibbles, though, are just quibbles, not outright objections. As studies of Russia go, this is one of the better ones I’ve read of late – well-informed and relatively balanced, avoiding extremes. I’m not 100% convinced by the model, but it’s not without value, and there are some useful snippets of information in the book. I certainly learnt from it. That’s good enough for me.

49 thoughts on “Book Review: Weak Strongman”

  1. “All of which is to say that he approaches the problem of Russian government very much from the perspective of Western liberalism. ”

    And he actually believe that “liberalism” is still a going concern in any “Western” country, which I prefer to call for accuracies sake “NATO” nations, as they adhere to a common doctrine and worldview where antagonism to anything Chinese or Russian is part of the cult(ure), and the combination of Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism is the reigning doctrine:

    “Today, neoliberal is used to refer to someone who bills themselves as a liberal but promotes ideas that actually inhibit individuals’ well-being….

    Between neoconservative and neoliberal, then, the neo prefix means not “new” but “disingenuous.” The neocon cloaks right-wing barbarism to make it seem less threatening; the neoliberal poses as a liberal while actually being a right-winger. The “neo” prefix now also carries a whiff of racist, in that both neoliberals and neoconservatives dissent from the liberal consensus on race issues, with neither in line with the idea that whites are stained by “privilege.” From “new” to a moralist sneer—this is how meanings evolve. The original ideological positions survive, and impose their meanings on the words created to move beyond them.”

    https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/05/history-of-neoliberal-meaning/528276/

    So please tell me where your “liberal democratic ideas” still hold sway on deeper analysis of the politics of NATO nations? Where is your liberal democracy actually practised? And this Mr. Frye has the audacity to judge another country on what basis? By pretending it still exist in whatever country within NATO ‘s circle?

    I also like to point out this, as it tells the actual situation of so called democratic countries and bears repeating as it is an actual description of power relations in a so called democracy as the US and the idealistic BS published by Mr. Frye:
    “Economic Elites Economic-Elite Domination theories do rather well in our analysis, even though our findings probably understate the political influence of elites. Our measure of the preferences of wealthy or elite Americans……..is probably less consistent with the relevant preferences than are our measures of the views of ordinary citizens or the alignments of engaged interest groups. Yet we found substantial estimated effects even when using this imperfect measure. The real-world impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater.
    By directly pitting the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other within a single statistical model…pendent variables for nearly two
    thousand policy issues), we have been able to produce some striking findings. One is the nearly total failure of “median voter” and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories.
    When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

    Click to access gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf

    As to “constraining” electoral choice: ask American non mainstream parties how they are constraint in arguing their ideas in the public arena throughout an election campaign

    “Power and profit, in other words, are intimately connected. They are everywhere, of course, but I suspect not always quite so blatantly.”

    I wonder: are you actually aware of the scandals in our beloved Canada?
    The SNC Lavalin, the Sponsorship scandal? Tunagate to name a few>
    And about the close connection between the Government/Military and Industry, MIC for short in the USA? Various Scandals between Industry in Germany, the present Tory government in the UK etc etc. Not blatant?
    Are you trying to be funny?

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    1. No contest between “the weak strongman” and the popularity challenged (in his country of origin) dissident who gets a disproportionate amount of outside propping.

      Likewise, with some of the stuff not getting propped here and elsewhere – CNN, BBC and JRL included.

      The real dissidents are the ones not getting the attention as their efforts are targetted:

      https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0126

      Excerpt –

      “SANCTIONS IMPLICATIONS

      As a result of today’s designations, all property and interests in property of these targets that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them. Additionally, any entities 50 percent or more owned by one or more designated persons are also blocked. In addition, financial institutions and other persons that engage in certain transactions or activities with the sanctioned entities and individuals may expose themselves to secondary sanctions or be subject to an enforcement action.”

      ****

      Mischievously written and shouldn’t apply to my favorite American citizens who contribute (write) for that venue. The aforementioned present reasoned fact based commentary, as opposed to the unchallenged lying drivel put out by the likes of Everlyn Farkas and Ben Hodges.

      Seeking to unite Americans and supporting a democratic society is a quite Orwellian pursuit for some.

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      1. “the popularity challenged (in his country of origin) dissident who gets a disproportionate amount of outside propping.”

        as to that a comment that I find timely by Doctorow:

        “With all due respect, I must tell you frankly that you have been duped by fellow intellectuals who are themselves the knaves of the Russia-bashers, the Ugly Americans who populate the governing political elite of the United States in both parties. To put it less formally, you don’t know your ass from your elbow when it comes to current Russian politics, when it comes to who is who and what is what. But this ignorance has not prevented your barging in precisely in the spirit of political correctness as it is practiced by the Collective West. Shame on you, Mr. Coetzee.”

        https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2021/04/24/an-open-letter-to-author-uk-booker-prize-laureate-john-coetzee-regarding-alexei-navalny/

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      2. The BBC let Farkas get away with saying that the Navalny situation might’ve influenced the recent Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s northeastern border.

        It’s not as if the BBC doesn’t know that there’re capable analysts who will successfully debunk such tripe if given the opportunity.

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    2. On “constraining electoral choice”, well at least Putin’s Russia has more than 2 actual political parties. America has only 2 parties, and those Two are actually One! Also, recent legislation has made it even more difficult for any Third Party to get off the ground, because of the amount of money they are required to raise, and the number of signatures, etc. The American political class really really really do not want there to be any political parties other than Democrat/Republican sharing the big pigs trough.
      Also would be curious to know what Frye thinks about the American Electoral College – the very essence of “democracy” – LOL!

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      1. But seriously, it’s so preposterous, I’m just at a loss what to think! Are those people nuts? Do they live in a parallel universe? Is it some sort of provocation designed to elicit a response? What in bloody hell is it?!

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      2. Sorry about my comment above – I meant to reply to another one of Yalensis’s comments! I’ll repost that comment below, and perhaps our gracious host could delete it and this one when he has a minute.

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  2. I do not see my post where I argued against the assumptions by Mr, Frye, but my point is simply:
    how anyone who does not see and acknowledge first the deep seated flaws of the system they live and argue from within has the right and capacity to analyse a system of a foreign country and comparing such with their idealized version of so called “liberal” democracies they inhabit that are neither liberal (whatever definition one wants to use) and where democracy is limited to an election cycle and where corruptible and often corrupted representatives control policies, themselves controlled by powerful industrial and financial elites setting the boundaries of their political decision making.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. peter, perhaps it would be helpful if there were more academics and professors like mr. frye who were willing to critique our own society. and political system.. perhaps there are not very many of these… if not, i wonder why that is?? at any rate, i appreciate pauls observations on the book and think you are right to draw attention to what appears to me as well as an inherent weakness in our own system of providing a potentially brutal and devastating critique of our supposed superiority in this regard..

      it seems to me what we had 40 or 50 years ago has been slowly and steadily eroded and in jeopardy of being lost completely…. it is so much easier to talk of the apparent weaknesses of other countries, then our own.. i think this is part of the point you are trying to make… apologies if i am mistaken in this.. the fact the financial systems and institutions put in place via the bretton woods agreement after ww 2 – imf, world bank, bis, and other organizations like the un and etc, have all skewed in favour towards the usa, and to a lesser extent some other world powers also plays into this.. the world is changing and the loss of a unipolar world into a multipolar one evokes unease and angst.. it seems a fairly shallow response to express this unease by projecting negatively onto countries that seem set to take on more significant leadership rolls on the world stage some time later into the 21st century – russia and china being 2 examples that come to my mind..

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  3. “…but never defines what he means by democracy”

    Why, it’s easy: ‘democracy’ is a political system where at least 60% of the population disapprove of their legislature, and (roughly) 50% hate the head of government.

    Any place where 60+ percent of the governed are happy with the head of their government is ‘authoritarian’.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The problem with political “science “ is precisely that it is not science. People like Frye, who are basically political operatives, talk about “theories”and “models”, but these are just meaningless empty labels they make up as they go. Case in point is “personalist autocracy”. It has no discernible meaning other than a label for the extremely heterogeneous group of countries the US/West has a problem with: Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela are mentioned above (but not Saudi Arabia and other tyrannies the West is comfortable with). Real sciences have useful and meaningful definitions and concepts like “acceleration” or “impedance”.

    As a Hungarian natural scientist, who have lived in the West half his life, I have come to the conclusion that Western capitalism, even the liberal kind, is incapable of peaceful coexistence with any other political system. People talk about white supremacism, but it’s better described as Western supremacism. Bubble-dweller Westerners just think everybody else outside their bubble is a mumbling evil idiot. This self-serving ideology then gives them the right to colonize and “civilize” the peoples of faraway lands. This worldview just oozes from Frye’s book too. I even wonder if this Russia “expert” Frye speaks Russian at all. Probably not, but this is what passes for expertise in the West.

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  5. Dear Paul,

    Regarding the conclusion, “ The overall conclusion is that Russia suffers from the same weaknesses as other personalist autocracies, above all weak institutions. The result is widespread inefficiency.”
    As with most things in Russia, this comes down to bad PR. I would argue that this is a stereotype that does not apply fully to Russia these days, at a federal level.

    Differently to places such as Venezuela, where all the top jobs are for friends and loyalists, or even Turkey, where Erdogan’s son-in-law becomes the country’s finance minister, Putin has surrounded himself skilled, competent technocrats such as Mishustin, Sobianin, or Nibulina.
    They have streamlined and digitized large parts of the Russian state. As a result, corruption becomes more challenging, as the citizen does not deal anymore with a human directly, and the state can increase its revenues and ability to operate.

    The best example is the tax authority, Nalog. It reminds me of Singapore for its efficiency, customer-centricity, and speed. It is getting tough to hide income from the Russian tax authorities, as they see all the movements in your bank account in real-time.
    Even the Financial Times, which is no fan of Russia or Putin, has written praising articles about Nalog. For example here

    “ Russia’s role in producing the taxman of the future
    Aimed at shopkeepers rather than oligarchs, Moscow has the technology to record and tax real-time transactions.”

    https://www.google.ru/amp/s/amp.ft.com/content/38967766-aec8-11e9-8030-530adfa879c2

    Another example is how Western media maligned widespread CCTV systems across Moscow have had tangible results in apprehending criminals at the metro or enforcing traffic fines.

    I do not doubt that many Russian regions have widespread inefficiency and corruption, but this is changing and is something where Putin does not get any credit at all. Instead, we read about “Soviet crumbling structures,” “sluggish bureaucracy,” and “pervasive corruption” whenever western observers talk about the state of the Russian state.

    These days, it is instead a country such as Germany that I associate with state inefficiency, with its widespread use of fax machines, reliance on paper, and excessive bureaucracy, as anyone who needs to make a tax declaration, get a construction permit, or even get registered in a city such as Berlin can confirm.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. These days, it is instead a country such as Germany that I associate with state inefficiency, with its widespread use of fax machines, reliance on paper, and excessive bureaucracy, as anyone who needs to make a tax declaration

      rriveramx, we can do our annual tax declaration and regular VAT declarations electronically since 1996.

      Otherwise, we have strong data protection and privacy laws. I am not sure, I am a fan of the-fully-transparent-citizen or the “gläserne Bürger” as we call it in German. But it is no doubt an elegant system Mishustin created.

      Russian VAT is only 4%???
      The Russian authorities are seeking to extend technology-led tax collection into the informal economy, where low-income self-employed people — for instance childminders or workers in the gig economy — earn small sums that have rarely been scrutinised, even though these payments are subject to income tax. Those that sign up to a new smartphone app pay 4 per cent of turnover, deducted automatically from their bank account, on services.

      ********
      But yes, curious to what extent fax machines are still used around here. I was quite stunned too when I learned from the media that some state health authorities still transfer their data via fax to the central federal authority on matters. Health belongs into the state’s legal and administrative competence and below that the respective municipal unit within the different established state structures. It seems there never was an urgent need to create a structure for easy data exchange network for health departments. The tax authorities surely have one. As there are other federal networks for state databases on business and NGO’s. A database I found helpful occasionally. Nice to have access from home.

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  6. “Another example is how Western media maligned widespread CCTV systems across Moscow have had tangible results in apprehending criminals at the metro or enforcing traffic fines.”

    again, critique of others without acknowledging ones own country’s flaws:
    The United States has 15.28 CCTV cameras every 100 individuals, followed by China with 14.36 and the United Kingdom with 7.5. Other top 10 countries include Germany with 6.27 cameras per 100 individuals, Netherlands 5.8, Australia 4, Japan 2.72, France 2.46 and South Korea 1.99.
    India, Russia, and Brazil have reported data about their CCTV Cameras in just some cities. This is why the results will be surprisingly below the average of other countries. Russia has around 196,000 CCTV cameras installed between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
    https://aithority.com/news/top-10-countries-and-cities-by-number-of-cctv-cameras/

    or by city:

    Tokyo, Japan – 39,504 cameras for 37,393,129 people = 1.06 cameras per 1,000 people
    Delhi, India – 429,500 cameras for 30,290,396 people = 14.18 cameras per 1,000 people
    Shanghai, China – 1,000,000 cameras for 27,058,480 people = 36.96 cameras per 1,000 people
    São Paulo, Brazil – 4,823 cameras for 22,043,028 people = 0.22 cameras per 1,000 people
    Mexico City, Mexico – 87,000 cameras for 21,782,378 people = 3.99 cameras per 1,000 people
    Dhaka, Bangladesh – 16,000 cameras for 21,005,860 people = 0.76 cameras per 1,000 people
    Cairo, Egypt – 750 cameras for 20,900,604 people = 0.04 cameras per 1,000 people
    Beijing, China – 1,150,000 cameras for 20,462,610 people = 56.20 cameras per 1,000 people
    Mumbai, India – 9,800 cameras for 20,411,274 people = 0.48 cameras per 1,000 people
    Osaka, Japan – 2,120 cameras for 19,165,340 people = 0.11 cameras per 1,000 people
    https://aithority.com/news/top-10-countries-and-cities-by-number-of-cctv-cameras/
    Moscow doesn’t even show up among the top 20…

    I think the biblical advice still holds true:
    Matthew 7.5:

    Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Peter, do not tell Western media that the so-called “authoritarian tech” is pervasive in our pristine Western democracies.

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  7. I really have to thank you for your book review of Richard Connolly’s book RUSSIA’s RESPONSE TO SANCTIONS. This sounds like another book well worth a read because no man rules alone and it is very evident to all but the ignorant and the obtuse that Russia is a very different place from how it was under Brezhnev much less Stalin. Any dictator (it is an almost exclusively male preserve) needs a coalition to keep him in power and when you have a country and system such as exists in Russia this is very broad indeed. Putin is also constrained, in a good way, because he significantly broadened the set of elite and ‘mass’ stakeholders in the system. This means he has to balance a lot of competing priorities. It also explains why Putin’s ministers are at dully competent or even very good like Lavrov. In a country as vast as Russia he cannot hope to overview everything at once and is dependent on competent subordinates – who also are hopefully representative of key interest groups – to actually ensure that anything gets done.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Forgive me for plugging my own post, sort of off-topic but mainly not (if the theme is “Political Science”). I personally see “Political Science” not so much as a science, but more like Office Politics at the Highest Level, which is how I approached this story by Russian reporter Evgeny Krutikov, writing about the trials and tribulations of his own dad in the early 1950’s. I split the story into 5 easily digestible chunks, and I hope somebody out there enjoys it, even though it’s not really pleasant.

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    1. Back in the day, at least one US university called it “Politcal Studies”. It’s a soft science open to interpretation, along the lines of believing that David Johnson and those sucking up to him are the best objective arbiters of what is and isn’t the best Russia related commentary

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      1. Political “science” is not science, not even soft science. It has zero predictive capability and objectivity. It’s nothing more than ideology, personal opinion/preference, just like economics, another non-science. These subjects being offered at universities doesn’t make them science. One can also get a university degree in religion, so what. Although I admit, religious dogma produces more accurate forecasts than either polsci or economics.

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      2. lots of matters in the humanities aren’t meant to be predictive. … Natural science hasn’t any predictive capacities beyond the limits of the empirically proven either. What is light? A particle or a wave? Grand unified theory?

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  9. I was wondering whether Paul Robinson could review a new book by Sean McMeekin – Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II.

    A completely ridiculous and bonkers book from the book’s summary on the Amazon page.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I wasn’t aware of this one.

      Next on my list is Marlene Laruelle’s ‘Is Russia Fascist? ‘, but McMeekin is a possibility for after that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Frankly, Laruelle comes across as an overrated embarrassment in terms of what does and doesn’t get propped in North American establishment academic and media circles.

        Is America fascist, seeing the heavy handed censoring approaches of the Biden admin, along with its mass media accomplices, sugar costing such manner with disinformation?

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      2. McMeekin’s STALIN’S WAR and The RUSSIAN REVOLUTION: A NEW HISTORY might be read back to back if you have the stomach for it. To me from the chapters of both I have read it seems a little more like McMeekin would be a fruitful source for one of your posts on ingrained Russophobia distorting scholarship.

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      3. Why? Offhand, I seem to recall her saying something spacey on a panel saying that contemporary Russia geopolitically appeals to blue collar types.

        From a quality control perspective, numerous others deserve more attention than her.

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      4. saying that contemporary Russia geopolitically appeals to blue collar types

        And that one statement triggered you? Only this utterance was needed to judge her? Doen’t even need context? Told you all you need to know?: She surely isn’t on the side of the “deplorables” vs the elites?

        How would you classify yourself, blue, white or pink collar type?

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      5. OKay, tell me why she’s so worth the time, given the other options out there.
        Simple, Mikhail.

        She addresses basic subjects/themes/issues I find interesting too. Takes some type of closer look at matters that to me seem to form one or the other unreflected center of our larger present debate storms. Put another way, Western stereotypes in dealing with Russia? Obviously connected as in the case below to issues I want to get a closer look at myself?

        I found her book on Russian Nationalism, helpful. …

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  10. My view:

    Russia is a pretty complex state, in which somewhat different modes of governance essentially coexist. It also appears quite well run to me, infrastructure progress in particular is outstanding.

    I also hold the somewhat mystic view that Russia is “joining the west” right now, ironically enough as the “west” is leaving the “west”.

    The isse with the west is that it is, essentially as Plato predicted, turnign into an Oligarchy (different spehres of the west are in different positions on the democracy-oligarchy axis), now, Oligarchys are not such bad governments as long as they are accountable.

    The issue is that the Democracy to Oligarchy transition in the west essentially happend with well, a dumbing down of the west elected leaders, so that they becomes more controllable by their oligarch puppetmasters.

    As the puppets are formally responsible, they get replaced when their masters mess up, but their masters are not replaced, and continue to make mistakes. As such, there is very limited accountability in the west for the actual elite, and as such their competence is declining quickly.

    The still considerable strength of the west overall (mostly inherited and currently getting squandered) ironically increases the accountability of Russian/Chinese elites, and thus increases their competence. Russian Elites do not beleive that they can afford western levels of incompetence, or the west will eat them, so they do not allow western levels of incompetence.

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  11. Dear Paul, sorry about the off-topic, but this seems like an important developement. Anders Åslund and Leonid Gozman at the Atlantic Council have written a PLAN for Russia! https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/russia-after-putin-report/

    “We need to start discussing now how a new state should be built on the ruins of the old system”, they say. Why the Atlantic Council needs to plan out Russia’s future isn’t even a question – who else could possibly do it? Clearly not the wretched Untermenschen who live there?!

    The PLAN includes the following major steps, among others:
    * …. Russia should abandon its presidential system…
    * …. dissolve the Federal Security Service (FSB), the principal security agency of Russia…

    But the heart ❤ of the PLAN is this:

    “….Russia has all along been overcentralized… In the process of decentralization, separatist tendencies will be reinforced and some regions may want to secede from Russia. The new government has to be prepared to handle such developments. Therefore, the mechanism for secession should be clearly delineated in advance in new laws…”

    What’s going on in those people’s heads?! Who do they think they are?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This paragraph caught my attention considering Paul’s strong expertise on Russian conservativism:

      “The late dean of Russian history in the United States, Richard Pipes, emphasized the strong conservatism in Russian history.26 But Russia also has an impressive liberal tradition, represented by people ranging from Alexander Herzen to Petr Struve. Pipes’s contemporary counterpoint, the late Martin Malia, saw Russia as part of Europe.27 As early as 1767, Empress Catherine the Great stated: “Russia is a European power.”28 Russia has European cities and the majority of the population always preferred a European style of life. Russian and European cultures have always influenced one another and they continue to do so. Russia has a strong authoritarian tradition, but that was also true of South Korea and Taiwan, and they did become democratic after they had developed sufficiently economically and socially.”

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    2. Russia should abandon its Presidential system and Parliament. They should replace it with a Senate, a Congress, a Supreme Court, and an Electoral College. Then they would be just like American democracy – LOL!

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      1. I was just sharing with a friend those exact thoughts – kinda:

        America should abandon its system involving a Senate, Congress, Supreme Court, and Electoral College and adopt the Chinese system of democratic meritocracy. Then they would be just like Chinese meritocracy – and then they might aspire to becoming #1 in the world, loved by all – LOL!

        You will appreciate this …

        recommended here

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      2. By way of further background:

        In 1840, Thomas Carlyle delivered a series of six lectures that were collated into the book “Heroes and Hero Worship” (1841). In “Chapter 5 – Hero as Man of Letters” Carlyle writes [remember this is 1840]

        “By far the most interesting fact I hear about the Chinese is one on which we cannot arrive at clearness, but which excites endless curiosity even in the dim state: this namely, that they do attempt to make their Men of Letters their Governors! […] There does seem to be, all over China, a more or less active search everywhere to discover the men of talent that grow up in the young generation. […] The youths who distinguish themselves in the lower school are promoted into favorable stations in the higher, that they may still more distinguish themselves,–forward and forward: it appears to be out of these that the Official Persons, and incipient Governors, are taken.”

        Who would have thought that Thomas Carlyle was virtually pre-empting the script of the rise to power of President Xi Jinping?

        • Xi Jinping: Scholar in a cave – CGTN

        Carlyle continues in the very next paragraph:

        “These are they whom they try first, whether they can govern or not. And surely with the best hope: for they are the men that have already shown intellect. Try them: they have not governed or administered as yet; perhaps they cannot; but there is no doubt they have some Understanding,–without which no man can! Neither is Understanding a tool, as we are too apt to figure; “it is a hand which can handle any tool.” Try these men: they are of all others the best worth trying.–Surely there is no kind of government, constitution, revolution, social apparatus or arrangement, that I know of in this world, so promising to one’s scientific curiosity as this. The man of intellect at the top of affairs: this is the aim of all constitutions and revolutions, if they have any aim. For the man of true intellect, as I assert and believe always, is the noble-hearted man withal, the true, just, humane and valiant man. Get him for governor, all is got; fail to get him, though you had Constitutions plentiful as blackberries, and a Parliament in every village, there is nothing yet got!—”

        More on how China chooses its leader:

        • Selection and election: How China chooses its leaders

        “very much in line with the Confucian system of meritocracy”

        • How do Chinese leaders get elected?

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      3. That’s very interesting, Julius! Carlyle was a brilliant writer and political analyst. What he is describing appears to be a meritocratic civil-servant system of developing political leaders. Makes more sense than promoting some slack-jawed prince charming who was born in the royal household.

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      4. But seriously, it’s so preposterous, I’m just at a loss what to think! Are those people nuts? Do they live in a parallel universe? Is it some sort of provocation designed to elicit a response? What in bloody hell is it?!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. some slack-jawed prince charming who was born in the royal household.

        … some ‘charismatic’, well-trained on marketing and how to make the masses love him or her is better? Just asking.

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    3. What’s going on in those people’s heads?! Who do they think they are?!

      hard to say. Technocrats? A Greek online friend on the Greek-Eurocrisis used that term once. … I didn’t quite understand. Guess this is how he meant it: People that assume they can handle material matters without understanding context?

      e.g. to pick up indirectly on Peter Moritz comment above:
      Neoliberalism and the Law in Post Communist Transition
      The Evolving Role of Law in Russia’s Transition to Capitalism
      By Ioannis Glinavos, Routledge 2010.

      On the other hand, forget where, recently I read something where technocrat was used positively. Someone that knows how to handle his job? Question is in whose interest?

      ******
      We do have variants of this mindset over here too.

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      1. Hey Moon, I never knew the word “technocrat” had such negative connotations! I even went to Oxford dictionary to look it up, and here is what it says: “Technocracy – government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts.” This rings true to me. I guess being a scientist myself, I always regarded technical expertise as a good thing.
        And the couple who authored the Atlantic Council article are ANYTHING BUT elite technical experts. They are either complete idiots or unscrupulous researchers using their access to high-profile outlets in order to, essentially, conduct experiments on people. I am guessing quite a few high-level Russians have read it, and they likely became extremely annoyed. And it likely contributed to ratcheting up the level of hostility another notch. And maybe for someone it was just that straw that broke the camel’s back, and what if that someone is the one who will at some point decide whether the missiles should go up in the air. NOT smart. Definitely not a technocrat’s move.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There are of course technocrats and technocrats. Consider Kafka or the traces he left in literature. 😉 I was semi-ironical.

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  12. “Russia has a strong authoritarian tradition” as if i.e Germany has a long democratic tradition.
    How much influence aside from electing in cycles the representative of the financial/industrial oligarchs do the NATO nations populace have in actuality?
    How much influence can the ordinary citizens in any of those countries actually wield?
    Does anyone really still believe that democracy in nations whose organization of production are based on capitalist principals is either long-term viable or actually functioning when the interest of the oligarchs are the ones driving the political agenda?
    To me those are idealistic illusions not supported by reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I live in the UK and I get to vote twice every decade for the same thing (neoliberal disaster capitalism) I can vote for the guy with the red tie or the guy with the blue tie. Do I live in a democracy? No, of course I don’t.

    Russia is a country with a 1000 year history (more or less) it is more democratic now than at any other time in its history, true? Yes, of course.

    Whenever there is a real choice in the West, like 2019 in the UK for instance, the entire corrupt force of the state and its propaganda organs in the press – including those of the US – as Mike Pompeo offered and contributed to the undermining of the Labour Party, to destroy and smear all opposition. (still they received 15 million votes to the Tory 17 million but due to the toxic first past the post voting system got nothing for it)

    Do I live in a democracy? Of course not.

    Any difference between the UK and Russia? Nope, sure doesn’t feel like it.

    The West is in the worst crisis we’ve seen since the 1920s and has no answers and no strategy. Books like this are 3 a penny, what we lack is self critique, what we get is arrogance. America and the UK will be on their knees well before Russia, that is a 21st Century certainty. If the West could even bear to leave the 20th century we might start to see some progress but no fear of that. The 21st Century is the Eurasian century, can’t be stopped, much of that is down to Eastern vision and brilliance, strategic and otherwise but quite a lot of it is down to Western arrogance, greed and stupidity. Writing books about these issues are worth reading, the rest is meaningless, irrelevant drivel. “Don’t look at us, look at them”

    They hate Putin because for 20 years he has run rings round them all, humiliated them actually, probably without intention, it’s just so easy to expose their weakness and lack of intelligence. What I think it’s about is tolerance, Russia welcomes the westerners and gives them jobs or lets them ply their trade (jounalists, teachers etc) who then criticise Russia, something which is simply not tolerated in the US for example. This type of amorality puzzles me, it is a sure sign that the book isn’t worth reading, not because Russia is beyond criticism, it isn’t, but because all professionalism goes out of the window and what we get is the regulation personal attack book title, a dire attempt to sell units, from the Luke ‘MI6’ Harding, Ben Judah school of baseless, infantile, fact free, smear pulp fiction.

    Rather you than me Paul.

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  14. It seems to me that the only difference between Mr. Frye and the rest of the Western oligarchy’s intellectual efforts is his actual first hand exposure to Russia and Russians.
    And even so, his class and national roots skew his analysis.
    Russia is progressing despite an increasingly overt economic and proxy war by the US, UK and their vassals.
    Russia’s population and economy is a fraction of the US alone, much less the coalition ranged against it.
    And yet that nation is, if not prospering, moving forward despite all obstacles being placed before and around it.
    How does that denote inefficiency or a weak state?
    From my view: the post World War 2, international economic order is in the process of shifting. The internal rot in the United States and Europe has progressed to the point where the additional expenses of an outsized military and health care cost structure for the former and an outsized bureaucracy for the latter are affecting the overall health of the respective polities, and the elites responsible for this state of affairs are vainly trying to regain their past glories rather than either addressing the root causes or adjusting to changed circumstances.
    In the meantime, thank you for your review.
    I will continue to lament the increasingly ham-handed and generally worthless state of Western intellectualism and media.

    Liked by 1 person

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