All posts by PaulR

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, and the author of numerous books on Russia and Soviet history, including 'Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich: Supreme Commander of the Russian Army'

The Greenland Connection

US President Donald Trump has been rightly mocked in the past week for his alleged desire to buy Greenland from Denmark. What on earth put this crazy idea into Trump’s head, people rightly asked. Fortunately, we now have an answer, courtesy of The Guardian’s US columnist Richard Wolffe – Russia put him up to it! I see that until recently Wolffe was ‘vice president and executive editor of MSNBC.com’, which explains a lot – MSNBC having been the no. 1 cheerleader in the Russiagate scandal in the US. The Trump-Russia story long since jumped the shark, but somehow it keeps finding extra sharks to leap over. Let’s take a look at what Wolffe has to say.

Greenland doesn’t just bubble into Trump’s mind randomly … But it is very much on Russia’s radar. Earlier this year, Russia revamped its arctic circle military base on tiny Kotelny Island, which sits close to the shipping routes that are opening up as the polar region warms catastrophically.

There are unknown quantities of oil, gas and rare earth minerals in the arctic, and the region’s powers – Denmark among them – can either green light a global free-for-all or restrain the usual human plunder of one of the last pristine frontiers on the planet. You can guess where Russia sits on this spectrum of environmental concerns in the middle of our climate crisis.

It is one of the sickest Trump jokes that his half-baked idea of buying Greenland should be seen as American machismo when it is yet another sign of Putin’s puppet American presidency at work.

‘Lazy journalism’ was the response of a distinguished British guest I showed this article to at breakfast today. It was very typical British understatement. There’s no argument here, no flow of logic from facts to conclusion, just an assertion entirely disconnected from everything which has gone before. Why Russia’s Arctic interests should prompt it to persuade Trump to try to buy Greenland isn’t explained. In reality, the last thing Russia would want, in an era of US-Russian tension, is an expanded American presence in an area of great and growing important to the Russian economy. The idea that Trump wanting to buy Greenland is proof that he’s a Russian ‘puppet’ is beyond bizarre.

By now, of course, it’s no surprise that the editors at outlets like The Guardian seem to have lost all sense of responsibility when it comes to the case of Trump-Russia, and are happy to publish any type of drivel. But Wolffe’s article makes the mind boggle at the lack of intellectual competence required to gain top executive positions at MSNBC. Perhaps the only explanation for it lies in the realm of pop psychology. For according to psychological research, debunking conspiracy theories doesn’t stop people believing in them; in fact, believers who are shown that their theories are wrong  end up on average believing in them even more fervently. This article illustrates the point: the Trump-Russia connection has become an article of faith, a religious belief so absolutely true that all facts have to be bended to fit it, while all the evidence to the contrary serves only to reinforce the faith even further. Russiagate may be nonsense, but if this article is anything to go by, it has turned the brains of a large section of the political left into mulch.

Forget the Swedes; blame the Russians

There’s a guy I know who heads out to Sweden once in a while to study immigration policy there. The Swedes have made a real hash of things, he tells me. Above all, they’ve done a very bad job integrating immigrants into society. This has led to something of anti-immigrant backlash. Given this, you might imagine that if you were to undertake an examination of anti-immigrant political groups in Sweden, you would start with a detailed discussion of Swedish immigration policy and what’s gone wrong with it. Then you could understand why Swedes are receptive to anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Of course, you might do that, but then you’re not The New York Times. On Sunday, that most venerable of American newspapers devoted no fewer than two full pages to an analysis of the recent success of the Swedish far right party, the Sweden Democrats. The alleged cause of this success is evident from the article’s title – ‘The Global Machine Behind the Rise of Far-Right Nationalism’. If xenophobia is on the rise in Sweden, it implies, it’s got nothing to do with the Swedes. External forces are to blame.

This framing of the issue reflects the peculiar obsessions of The New York Times. First and foremost amongst these is Donald Trump. You’d think by now that Times readers would be getting bored of being told that Trump is the root of all evil. ‘We’ve got the point’, you’d expect them to tell the editor, ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ But it seems that there’s always something new that you can blame Trump for. And so it is that the Times begins and ends its article on the Swedish far-right with references to the American president. All was quiet in the the Swedish town of Rinkeby, we’re told, until Trump made reference to a story on Fox News about the town’s problems with immigrants. No sooner had Trump spoken than, wham!, ‘several dozen masked men attacked police officers’. Having started the article with Trump, the Times then finishes it with him, referencing the visit of the Sweden Democrat’s leader to a conference in the United States, which served as ‘a measure of how nationalism and conservatism have merged in Mr. Trump’s Washington.’

So there you have it – Swedish xenophobia is Trump’s fault. Or at least partly. For in fact the article doesn’t speak about the president very much. Instead it focuses most of its attention on another of The New York Times’s obsessions, and you don’t have to have prophetic vision to guess what that is – yes, you’re right, the Russians!!

How are the Russians to blame for the rise of the Swedish far right, you might ask? According to the Times, the answer is that ‘foreign state and nonstate actors have helped to give viral momentum to a clutch of Swedish far-right websites.’ For the most part, ‘foreign’ in this context means ‘Russian’. As the article notes,

To dig beneath the surface of what is happening in Sweden, though, is to uncover the workings of an international disinformation machine, devoted to the cultivation, provocation and amplification of far-right, anti-immigrant passions and political forces. Indeed, that machine, most influentially rooted in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and the American far right, underscores a fundamental irony of this political moment: the globalization of nationalism.

What is the evidence for this claim? The article struggles to provide much. As it admits, in the last Swedish general election,

there was no hacking and dumping of internal campaign documents, as in the United States. Nor was there an overt effort to swing the election to the Sweden Democrats, perhaps because the party, in keeping with Swedish popular opinion, has become more critical of the Kremlin than some of its far-right European counterparts.

That’s a bit of a blow to the overall thesis. But the Times is not to be deterred. For apparently, ‘At least six Swedish sites have received financial backing through advertising revenue from a Russian- and Ukrainian-owned auto-parts business based in Berlin.’ Six websites no less! That obviously explains why the Sweden Democrats won 18% of the vote in the last election. But there’s more. For, ‘There were other sites, too, all injecting anti-immigrant and Islamophobic messaging into the Swedish political bloodstream.’ The problem for The New York Times is that, as it admits, ‘Russia’s hand in all of this is largely hidden from view.’ But that doesn’t matter, because ‘fingerprints abound.’

Ah! Fingerprints! And what might these be? Well, one website ‘swaps material with the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik’. Another ‘publishes work by Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist Russian philosopher who has been called “Putin’s Rasputin”.’ (At this point, any even moderately well informed Russia-watcher should be screaming in dismay at the repetition of this misleading trope.) Yet another website has published a far-right German commentator who has appeared on RT. And finally, the founder of another website ‘readily admits to having contributed to an RT subsidiary’ and has a Russian girlfriend. Enough said.

As you can see, it doesn’t really add up to much. (After all this website has cited Sputnik and published an interview with Dugin, and I’ve appeared on RT, but that doesn’t make this blog part of a far right ‘international disinformation machine’ – perhaps I should get a Russian girlfriend!) The worst that the article can come up with is an allegation that a crew from the Russian TV station NTV paid some youths in Rinkeby to pretend to riot so that it could film them. I can believe it, but all it really shows is that some Russian journalists have a really poor sense of professional ethics. Overall, a dodgy broadcast on NTV, some reposting of Alexander Dugin, RT, and Sputnik on far-right websites, and the rather peculiar advertising strategy of a German auto-parts company don’t go very far in explaining the spread of anti-immigrant sentiment. Perhaps they’ve made a very minor difference on the margins, but returning to my friend’s analysis above, one suspects that internal Swedish causes are far, far more significant.

The first step towards fixing any problem is working out what caused it. So, if you consider the rise of ‘populist’ forces a problem, what you have to do is work out why people are discontented with the alternative. And that means that those responsible for the policy agenda of the past must do some serious self-examination in order to determine where they’ve gone wrong. If this New York Times article is anything to go by, they’re not ready to do so. They’d rather blame external actors, maintaining the myth that everything is hunky dory, and that they haven’t made any mistakes; it’s just that there’s some demagogues and foreign powers stirring up trouble. But obviously everything isn’t all hunky dory, or people wouldn’t choose to listen to the demagogues. I understand why people like to blame it all on Trump and the Russians: they thereby absolve themselves from any responsibility for society’s ills. But it’s still a bad idea – for it detracts from a proper understanding of our troubles. And in doing so, it detracts from finding a solution.

More on asymmetric rules

A much extended and revised version of my paper on symmetric and asymmetric rules in the international order has now been published in Russia in Global Affairs. You can read it here.

I am currently on vacation in the exciting urban centre of Kitchener, Ontario (once called Berlin, but patriotically renamed during World War One) – thus the lack of posts this week. Normal business should resume next week.

 

No better nature

The term ‘Russophobia’ gets bandied about a lot at the moment. This annoys the hell of out people who get criticized as Russophobes. ‘Russophobia’, they tell us, is a smear used by the Kremlin and its proxies to smear critics of the ‘regime’. As such, it ought to be eliminated from public discourse. The online outlet Meduza, for instance, recently stated that the word ‘Russophobia’ has Stalinist roots and ‘is actively used by the Russian authorities for propaganda objectives’. According to Meduza, it would be better to use the term ‘anti-Russian’, as it fits with the phrase ‘anti-American’, which generally has political but not racial overtones.

Meduza nevertheless admits that Russophobia isn’t entirely fictional and that you can spot examples by uses of markers like ‘always’, ‘unchangeably’, ‘centuries’, and so on. Meduza’s point, therefore, is not so much to deny Russophobia as to make a politically-founded linguistic argument about the correct choice of word to describe it. By contrast, Brian Whitmore (who I’ve yet to hear say anything nice about Russia) takes a much harder line. Linking the use of the word ‘Russophobia’ with  anti-Semitism, he remarks that:

Russophobia is not just a smear the Kremlin aims at anybody who has the temerity to criticize Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime. The use of the term is part of a carefully calculated disinformation strategy aimed at stigmatizing any and all critiques of the government as chauvinistic assaults on all Russians. It’s effectively a systematic attempt to smear and discredit Kremlin critics as racists.

‘Rascist’ is probably the wrong word. As Sean Guillory notes, ‘Russians are not a race’. Guillory concedes that the idea of Russophobia can be used by the Russian government to discredit critics. At the same time, he continues, ‘Russophobia does employ racist language and concepts’. It endows not just the Russian state but the entire Russian nation with negative characteristics. Does Russophobia of this sort exist? Too damn right it does. Take the following example:

russophobia

In an interview for the Estonian think tank, the International Centre for Defence and Security, Keir Giles of Chatham House laid out 10 principles for dealing with Russia, including this gem:

‘8. Do not hope to appeal to Russia’s better nature. It doesn’t have one.’

Giles can’t defend himself by claiming that he’s just talking about the current Russian government, for the basic principle of his book Moscow Rules, from which these principles are drawn, is that there is a sort of ‘eternal Russia’ which continues over the centuries regardless of regime or individual ruler. It’s not Putin who doesn’t have a better nature, Giles is telling us, it’s ‘Russia.’

The fact that this analysis is coming out of Britain’s most prestigious think tank is more than a little disturbing. It’s Russophobia pure and simple – a negative stereotype of an entire nation taking the place of reasoned discussion of the actual roots of current East-West tensions. It deserves to be called out.

Does labelling people Russophobes discredit them, as Meduza and Whitmore complain? Yes, of course it does. For sure, many critics of the Kremlin make perfectly valid criticisms, are far from Russophobes, and don’t deserve to be labelled as such. Others, though quite clearly do. If that discredits them, all the better.

 

A Tale of Two Museums

Back in June, my students and I had the good fortune to receive a guided tour of the Russian State Duma. The highlight for many of the students was a meeting with hockey legend (and Duma deputy) Vladislav Tretyak, but far more of our time was spent participating rather unexpectedly in an opening ceremony for a new institution – the Soviet Lifestyle Museum.

soviet life
Display case for Soviet Lifestyle Museum

Continue reading A Tale of Two Museums

Floreat gens togata!

EtonShield

Britain has had 54 Prime Ministers. Tomorrow, it gets its 55th, and the 20th to have passed through the hallowed portals of The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor (though only the second to have been one of the ‘tugs’ – the gens togata or ‘gowned ones’, as the school’s intellectual elite, the King’s Scholars, are known). What can we expect from Boris Johnson? Will he save Britain from its current political chaos, or will he lead it further into the abyss? I can’t say that I know the answers, and my mind is somewhat divided. I can’t help but like and admire the guy. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if he’s really who one wants to run one’s country. A few memories help to explain why.

Boris combines brilliance and eccentricity in equal measure, as I witnessed in about 1986 when I stumbled across him one day in the Gladstone Room of the Oxford Union hosting a group of visitors from the Netherlands. Boris was clearly at a loss as to what to do with the Dutch, but on seeing me he summoned me over and launched into a hymn of praise to Eton’s founder, King Henry VI:

Rex Henricus, sis amicus

Nobis in angustia;

Cujus prece, nos a nece,

Salvemur in perpetua.

Continue reading Floreat gens togata!

Homo Sovieticus

Over the years many issues have divided Russian conservatives and Russian radicals. One of these has been the relative importance of individuals and institutions. This is something of a simplification, but broadly speaking conservatives have tended to the view that individuals come first, while radicals have said that institutions do. In the eyes of conservatives, it is fatal to establish democratic or liberal institutions in a society where the people are uneducated, have a poorly developed legal consciousness, and the like. The first step in reform therefore has to be improving the people. The schema of the likes of Uvarov and Pobedonostsev, therefore, was a process of very gradual enlightenment, after which political reform might eventually be allowed. Until then, power would have to remain in the hands of those who were already enlightened – i.e. the aristocracy. The schema of the radicals, by contrast, was to smash existing institutions. Only then could decent people finally be created.

Despite these differences, conservatives and radicals have long had one thing in common – they hold the ‘people’ (narod) in low regard (as I say, this is a simplification; there are obvious exceptions). For the conservatives, the unenlightened nature of the people is an excuse not to surrender power; for the radicals, it is an excuse to destroy the hated system and to create a ‘new man’.

These attitudes prevail to this day. An example of the radical view comes in an article entitled ‘Russia’s Moral Disaster’ published on the website of the Estonian International Centre for Defence and Security by the Finnish writer Jukka Mallinen. Its basic theme can be deduced from the subtitle ‘Russians cannot tell good from evil.’ Mallinen notes that the patriotic resurgence in Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea ‘has made the intelligentsia take a new and deep look at morals and the Christian faith in Russia.’ He quotes the ‘poet and philologist Olga Sedakova’ as saying that the roots of Russia’s alleged moral crisis lie deep in the Russian personality. As Mallinen says, Sedakov ‘thinks that Russians have a special relationship with evil-the inability to tell it apart from good. In the West, the relationship with evil is unambiguous, but in Russia it’s vague: nothing is declared definitively evil. Complicated explanations lead to making friends with evil.’ Russians, in effect, can’t tell wrong from right. 

The sense that Russians are morally deficient is commonly associated with the concept of the ‘Sovok’ – the Soviet personality, often also known by the phrase ‘Homo Sovieticus’. The idea that society could only progress by ‘smashing the Sovok’ was a popular theme in the rhetoric of pro-Maidan liberals in Ukraine in 2014. Smashing the Sovok required total de-communization, a renunciation of Ukraine’s Russian ties, and a complete reorientation of the country towards Europe. Through institutional revolution, a new Ukrainian person could be built, and the country could finally prosper.

The same idea is often to be found in discussions of modern Russia. In an article just published in the academic journal Slavic Review, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of King’s College London notes that Homo Sovieticus is associated with a host of negative personality traits allegedly instilled in Russians by 70 years of Soviet rule. These supposedly include being excessively obedient to authority, lacking in choice and initiative, and duplicitous. The persistence of these negative traits explains why Russia has failed to transform into a ‘normal’ democratic society and to develop ‘the autonomous liberal self’ which supposedly characterizes the Western individual.

But is any of this true?  In her article ‘Was There a “Simple Soviet” Person? Debating the Politics and Sociology of “Homo Sovieticus”,’ Sharafutdinova expresses scepticism. The popularity of the concept of Homo Sovieticus, she argues, owes much to the work of Russian sociologist Iury Levada and his successor as head of the Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov. Levada popularized the idea that there was a simple ‘Soviet type’ through a large survey project he conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The problem, says Sharafutdinova, was that ‘the foundational assumptions of the project were deeply political’, and the survey methodology ‘was itself colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer.’ Levada’s survey was based on a totalitarian model long rejected by Western sociologists and assumed that the overarching political system was the single most important factor determining individual personality. ‘This approach did not allow for recognizing human (whether individual or collective) agency and reflexivity, and promoted a flat, mechanistic version of the individual.’ It also ‘identified exclusively negative features’ and was ‘coupled with a tendency to idealize western society’.

Much better, according to Sharafutdinova, was the work of a less well-known sociologist, Natalya Kozlova. Rather than use surveys, Kozlova made use of a ‘people’s archive’ consisting of documents such as ‘letters, postcards, memoirs, and personal journals of ordinary people’, in order to explore the realities of everyday life. Whereas Levada ‘viewed Soviet citizens as a brainwashed and corrupted emanation of the system (cogs), or its victims, Kozlova viewed individuals as actors involved in complex social games.’ In the process, she was able to determine the existence of values ‘such as altruism, compassion, and [a] sense of justice expressed in the “little” Soviet person’s everyday life.’ Her documents showed, for instance, how Soviet people reacted to problems such as shortages with strategies such as ‘exchange’ ‘based on the moral economy of selfless giving and obligation, on heartfelt closeness and ethical grounds.’ In short, the Soviet person was not as devoid of ethics as Levada claimed.

Overall, Sharafutdinova concludes, ‘the political nature of Levada’s project … stigmatized the Soviet man rather than explained him.’ A much more sophisticated understanding of personality is therefore needed. Unfortunately, ‘the model of the simple Soviet person seems to have acquired dominance as a frame of reference for Russian intellectuals’ who regard the ‘masses as slaves/sheep/bydlo’. Intellectuals thereby ‘lock Russia … into its present (and even past) condition’, arguing that democratic reform is impossible in Russia due to Homo Sovieticus. In this way, they have inadvertently ended up on the same side as the conservatives.

None of this is to say that the institutions have no effect on individual personality and that Russia’s imperial and Soviet pasts have not left some psychological legacy which in some way influences current developments. But Sharafutdinova’s article demonstrates clearly the need to avoid stereotypes, and acts as an excellent rejoinder to the kind of essentialism put forward by Mallinen and Sedakova. Simplistic slogans such as ‘Russians cannot tell good from evil’ hinder our understanding of current events far more than they assist them.