Category Archives: Book review

Book review: The Long Hangover

Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent on The Guardian, has a new book out, entitled The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. It advances the thesis that … and this is where I run into a problem because he never explicitly says what his thesis is. But it’s sort of something like this: in an effort to unite the Russian people and raise the country’s patriotic spirit, Vladimir Putin has focused on a narrative of victory, above all victory in the Second World War. This focus has contributed to a situation in which Russians have failed to come to terms with the negative aspects of their Soviet past. This in turn helped to provoke and sustain the war in Ukraine.

I say ‘sort of something like this’ because it’s never fully developed. Instead, what Walker gives us is a series of stories of events he has witnessed and people he has interviewed. Weaving them together is the theme of historical memory. These stories are all rather negative in character, in the sense that they focus entirely on the bad aspects of Russia’s (or more often the Soviet Union’s) past. Walker, for instance, visits Kalmykia and discusses the deportation of the Kalmyks in the Second World War; goes to Chechnya and discusses the Chechen wars of the 1990s as well as the deportation of the Chechens in 1944; goes to Magadan and visits old Gulag sites; and goes to Crimea and talks about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

The patriotic mood associated with celebrations of victory in the Second World War have made Russians unwilling to confront these dirty secrets of their past, Walker claims. This, he suggests, goes a long way towards explaining Russia’s behaviour today. Walker rounds off his book with descriptions of his visits to war-torn Ukraine and of his interviews with rebel soldiers and leaders. Essentially, he says, Russians are suffering from a ‘long hangover’ from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s efforts to unite the nation by celebrating victory in 1945 is making it harder for the country to get back on its feet by perpetuating this hangover. Simply put, the idea is that if you celebrate 1945 then you start thinking that maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad after all, and next, before you know it, you’re starting a war in Ukraine.

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Book review: Orders to Kill

In her latest book, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, Amy Knight wishes to convince us ‘how scary and unpredictable Russia has become.’ (p. 3) To this end, her book recounts multiples instances in which, she alleges, the ‘Putin regime’ has orchestrated the murder both of ordinary Russian citizens and of prominent political opponents. Knight is a respectable author whose 1993 biography of Beria I found quite informative. In Orders to Kill, however, she has abandoned academic neutrality in favour of political activism. The result is far from satisfactory.

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Collusion

The investigation into suspected collusion between US President Donald Trump and the Russian government has claimed its first three victims: one (Paul Manafort) for completely unconnected money laundering charges, and two (George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn) for lying to investigators about things which were not themselves criminal, and which are therefore crimes which would never have happened had there never been an investigation. To date, the evidence of direct collusion between Trump and the Russians is looking a little thin, to say the least. Now, into this maelstrom steps Guardian reporter Luke Harding with his book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russian Helped Donald Trump Win.

Collusion spends over 300 pages insinuating that Trump is a long-standing agent of the Russian secret services, and hinting, without ever providing any firm evidence, that Trump and his team acted on orders from the Kremlin to subvert American democracy. I’ll be honest, and admit that I picked this book up expecting it to be a series of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and to be utterly unbalanced in its analysis, and in that sense I’m not an unbiased reader. At the same time, I was interested to see if Harding had come up with anything that everybody else had not, and was willing to give him a chance. I needn’t have bothered. For alas, my worst suspicions proved to be true, and then some.

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Which is worse? The book or the reviews?

I have yet to read Masha Gessen’s new book, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. To be honest, I’m not sure that I will. The use of the word ‘totalitarianism’ in the title is so extreme that it rather discredits the product before one even looks at it. But, whatever the book’s merits or demerits, it surely can’t be worse than a couple of reviews of it I’ve read in the last few days.

Originally, I was going to write about a review by Heather Mallick in The Toronto Star. It’s got it all: Putin is a murderer (it’s all Putin, as if there’s nobody else in Russia); he’s ‘stocking hatred’ of gays; and he’s ‘trying to rebuild the cult of Stalin’. You know the drill by now. Mallick throws in a few other complaints. Apparently, there’s ‘no reliable traffic system’ in Russia. I’m not sure what that’s all about. But, just as I was about to pen a few words about Mallick, I stumbled across something else. No doubt you’ve had this sensation. You see something, and you know, you just know, that this is the one. It’s too perfect to miss. That’s how I felt on reading a review of The Future is History in this Sunday’s New York Times book review section by none other than Francis Fukuyama (he of the ‘End of History’). Rightly or wrongly, Fukuyama is considered one of the great minds of our time. Ho, ho. I’m beginning to giggle already. It’s worth reading this one. It’s a real gem!

The first half of Fukuyama’s review is fairly anodyne, but it really gets going at the bottom of the third column, where he writes:

This is what the Putin regime represents: an entire society psychologically damaged and unwilling to come to terms with its own past, leading to a widespread depression and belief that the country has no future.

I’m guessing that Fukuyama isn’t just making this up, but it is copying it from Gessen, but it’s psychobabble tosh nonetheless. ‘An entire society psychologically damaged’ – where’s the evidence for that? As Fukuyama points out, Gessen’s book consists of a survey of seven Russians, one of whom is the Levada Centre’s Lev Gudkov. So, let’s test the thesis by going to the Levada Centre’s website. What do we see there? What do Gudkov and co. tell us about Russians’ view of their future. Top left is a chart entitled ‘Evaluation of the state of things in the country’. And what do you know? Just under 60% of Russians think that their country is headed in the right direction. Only about 30% of Russians think that their country is headed the wrong way. Yet, Fukuyama says that there’s ‘widespread depression and a belief that the country has no future.’ Go figure!

But it gets better. One of the characters analyzed by Gessen is Aleksandr Dugin.  Fukuyama mentions Dugin’s eclectic intellectual background, and then adds ‘From there, Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’

Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!

He, he, he, he, he!

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

Or as I said in another post, ‘#$@&%*!’

Yup, good old Frankie sure is one of the finest minds of our era. ‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ My sides are cracking. (For those of you who don’t know, Eurasianism is generally considered to have been ‘invented’, if that is an appropriate word, by Nikolai Trubetskoi, Pyotr Savitsky and others in the 1921 volume Exodus to the East.)

‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ !!!!

You’ve got to give to Francis. He sure knows how to tell ‘em.

And then, just to display his vast knowledge a bit further, he says: ‘Today, he [Dugin] would like to cast himself as the unofficial ideologist of the Putin government.’

The tears are pouring down my face! My ribs are aching! Go read my interview with Dugin, Frankie-boy. Right at the end. I ask him about his influence. And what does he say? ‘I have no influence. I don’t know anybody, have never seen anyone, I just write my books, and am a Russian thinker, nothing more.’ So, sure, he would ‘like to cast himself as the unofficial ideologist of the Putin government.’ That’s the way it is.

Fukuyama goes on to add some other nonsense, but I think this is enough. You get the point. I’ve read some pretty bad book reviews in my time, but I’m pretty certain this is the worst. Why the New York Times would give a book like this to somebody like Fukuyama to review I can’t imagine. (Because the book has ‘History’ in the title?) It’s not like he has the slightest bit of knowledge about Russia. And that’s the problem. So much of this Russia stuff is written by people who haven’t got a clue. As a result, they approach the subject with a totally uncritical mind. Is Gessen’s methodology sound? Can one really draw broad sweeping conclusions about Russia from an analysis of seven very untypical people? And are those conclusions in any case valid? These are the sort of critical questions one would expect a reviewer to ask? But neither Mallick nor Fukuyama try.

Having said all that, Fukuyama made my day. ‘Dugin invented something called Eurasianism.’ I’m still laughing.

Book review: Ukraine in the Crossfire

Who’s to blame for the war in Ukraine? The great majority of Western politicians and security experts have no doubt. It’s Russia. The war in Donbass is not a civil war, but ‘Russian aggression’. If enough pressure can just be exerted on Moscow to get it to change its behaviour, the violence would stop, Donbass would rejoin Ukraine, and the country could march happily towards its inevitable future as a prosperous, free, and democratic member of the community of European nations.

A minority of commentators has a different point of view. One of them is Dutch journalist Chris Kaspar de Ploeg. In his new book Ukraine in the Crossfire, de Ploeg does not seek to whitewash either Russia or deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, and admits that Russia has provided significant support to the Donbass rebels. Nevertheless, he points the finger of blame for Ukraine’s problems quite firmly at the United States of America. ‘The war in Ukraine serves to keep the EU [European Union] in line with the wider US agenda,’ he argues.

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Book Review: Should we fear Russia?

Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, is one of the more even-handed commentators on Russian foreign policy. On the one hand, he isn’t much of a fan of the ‘Putin regime’, and knows how to speak the sort of critical language required to confirm one’s reputation as a respectable thinker in the West. On the other hand, he avoids most of the hyperbole generally associated with commentary on things Russian, and isn’t one of those ‘non-systemic opposition’ types who gives the impression that Russia’s interests are best served by abject surrender to the United States. In light of the West’s current rampant Russophobia, his short (120-page) book Should We Fear Russia? is very timely .

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Book Review: Transcaucasia

Although I write a lot about current events, I am by training a historian, so it’s nice sometimes to take a break on this blog from contemporary problems and look instead at times past. I was pleased, therefore, to receive from Pietro Shakarian a copy of Baron August von Haxthausen’s Transcaucasia and the Tribes of the Caucasus, a translation of which has just been republished with an introduction by Pietro and a foreword by Dominic Lieven.

A Westphalian aristocrat, Haxthausen visited Russia in 1843, and on his return to Germany wrote several volumes describing his impressions. These are most famous for having extolled the virtues of the peasant commune, and having thereby exerted a powerful influence on Slavophile and Populist thought in Imperial Russia. This particular volume, however, consists of two different works, Transcaucasia and the much shorter Tribes of the Caucasus, which as their titles suggest focus on parts of the Russian Empire outside of Russia itself, especially Georgia and Armenia.

Haxthausen describes in great detail the countryside through which he passed, the people, their customs, dress, food, villages, social and government structures, irrigation systems, and so on. He recounts local legends; meets Nerses, the head of the Armenian Church; spends time with the great Armenian literary figure Khachatur Abovian; and describes the religious beliefs of the Yazidis. His descriptions do tend a bit towards an outdated sort of racial generalization (Tatars, he says, ‘have quite a passion for stealing’, and so on). On the whole, though, his descriptions of the Caucasian peoples are sympathetic and understanding.

Transcaucasia is quite long – 300 pages. Non-specialists might prefer the shorter Tribes of the Caucasus (70 pages). The book’s main audience is likely to be those studying the history, sociology, and ethnography of nineteenth century Georgia and Armenia. They will find much in it of value.

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