Category Archives: Book review

Book of the year prize 2018

Barring the publication of something quite remarkable in the next couple of months, I can now announce the winner of the 2018 prize for ‘best book about Russia I’ve read this year’ – Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence and Politicisation by Ofer Fridman, a research fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Actually, the title Russian Hybrid Warfare is a bit misleading, as the book is not exclusively about Russia. Rather it’s about hybrid warfare in general, and more specifically about how it has been conceptualized and politicized in both Russia and the West. Readers will come away with a good understanding of how the term ‘hybrid war’ came into being, what people mean by it, and how it has been used, or more correctly misused, by various actors to serve their own political and bureaucratic interests. Russian Hybrid Warfare is succinct, solidly researched, clearly written and jargon-free, devoid of obvious political biases (a rarity in discussions of Russia these days), challenges clichés, and brings nuance and understanding to a field of study too often characterized by black and white simplicities. The one weakness of the book is that it is a little repetitious; Fridman enjoys saying the same thing more than once; he likes to tell us what he’s already told us; he says things over and over. But apart from that, I found nothing to fault. I realize that strategic theory isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but given how hybrid warfare has become part and parcel of public discourse in the past few years, everyone with an interest in international security should give this book a read.

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Book Review: Creating Russophobia

Russophobia – literally, fear of Russia, but more commonly understood as dislike or hatred of Russia – is not a new phenomenon. Academics have written a number of books about how citizens of various Western countries have viewed Russia over the centuries – Marshall Poe on early modern European perceptions of Russia, James Casteel on Russia in the imagination of Germans, David Fogelsong on Americans’ missionary attitude towards Russia, and so on. But until now the general phenomenon of Russophobia has never been comprehensively analyzed. This gap in the literature, as we academics like to say, has now been filled by Swiss journalist Guy Mettan, with his 2017 book Creating Russophobia: From the Great Religious Schism to Anti-Putin Hysteria. Or at least, partially filled, for while Mettan’s work contains much which is perceptive, it also suffers from certain biases which, I think, will make it more of a starting point for future studies of Russophobia than the definitive, final word on the subject.

A former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tribune de Genève, Mettan is an intelligent and well-informed observer who deserves to be taken seriously. He’s also very much a Russophile, as shown by the fact that he was granted Russian citizenship in the mid-1990s by the administration of President Boris Yeltsin. He complains of ‘widespread prejudices, cartloads of clichés and systematic anti-Russian biases of most western media,’ and states that the purpose of his book is ‘convincing readers that there is no need to hate Russia.’ While Creating Russophobia is founded on detailed research into centuries’ worth of Western writings on Russia, it is not, therefore, a neutral academic book, but one with a definite political purpose.

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Book Review: Pillars of the Profession

Historians Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff were born within a few days of each other in 1923, Pipes in Poland, and Raeff in the Soviet Union. After they left the lands of their birth (Pipes in 1939, and Raeff, aged only 3, in 1926), they found their way to America, where in due course they enrolled as PhD students together at Harvard University. Subsequently, Pipes wrote 20 books and 85 scholarly articles and book chapters; Raeff 7 books and 86 scholarly articles and book chapters. The University of Illinois’s Jonathan Daly remarks that they ‘must be counted among the most prolific scholars in the English language ever to focus on Russian history.’ For 58 years, from 1950 to Raeff’s death in 2008, they were also regular correspondents (minus a 14 year hiatus from 1959 to 1973 following what appears to have been a serious personal rift). Now, Jonathan Daly has collected and edited the Pipes-Raeff letters in a volume entitled Pillars of the Profession: The Correspondence of Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff, which is to be published by Brill next month. Given that I was rather a fan of Pipes in my youth (especially his two volumes on the Russian revolution), and that Raeff’s book Russia Abroad is one of the key works in the history of the Russian emigration, which was also the topic of my doctoral thesis, I snapped up the opportunity to get a copy of Daly’s book. I’m glad I did.

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Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff together at a conference in Italy in the 1950s – third row from the front.

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Book review: Russia’s Response to Sanctions

Do sanctions work? More precisely, have the sanctions imposed on Russia in recent years worked? Given the growing tendency of Western states to resort to economic sanctions against countries they dislike, these are important questions. In the case of Russia, sanctions are the main tool used by the West to express its opposition to Russian foreign policy, and more generally to the ‘Putin regime’. Discovering whether they are achieving their supposed objectives (whatever those may be) should be a priority for students of international affairs, as well as for politicians.

According to the University of Birmingham’s Richard Connolly, however, ‘do sanctions work?’ is the wrong question, or at least it’s a question that can’t be answered until other questions have been answered, most notably ‘what is the effect of sanctions on the targeted country?’ And to answer that question you have to consider other ones, such as ‘how exactly do sanctions impact the targeted country?’ That in turn requires one to investigate in depth the political and economic structure of the target to understand how it operates and how it responds to external pressure. Every country is different, and operates according to a set of ‘intricate relations’ between the state, its citizens, and the various institutions within it. As yet, however, studies of the sanctions imposed on Russia have not sought to take these into account, leading to simplistic analyses. As Connolly says in his new book Russia’s Response to Sanctions, ‘Policymakers and other public figures prone to making hyperbolic statements about the state of the Russian economy today, and then using those statements as a basis for formulating policy and attitudes towards the country, often appear to do so without the aid of even a rudimentary understanding of Russia and its economy.’

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Book review: The road to unfreedom

Timothy Snyder doesn’t like Donald Trump. Really, really doesn’t like him. He fears that under Trump, American (and also European) democracy may collapse into some sort of nasty fascist tyranny. And he wants us all to know who is to blame for this terrible state of affairs, so that we can defend ourselves against it while there is still time. And who is to blame? You know the answer, of course. It’s Russia.

Snyder explains all this in his new book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. You will have to excuse me. This is going to be a very long review. Snyder is quite a high profile intellectual in the United States. He’s doing a tour of the country, selling this book, and giving talks and media interviews. I doubt that many Trump supporters will read his book, but a fair number of middle class, liberal intellectuals will, and no doubt many of them will suck it all up, not realizing that they’re being conned. For that reason, The Road to Unfreedom requires a detailed response. Unfortunately, there’s so much wrong with it that I can’t adequately deal with it in just a few lines. So, it’s going to take a little time. Please bear with me.

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Book review: Everyday law in Russia

A while ago I met a businessman working for a large multinational corporation in Russia. Apparently, Russian tax officials are paid according to how many tax violations they report, creating an incentive to accuse companies of violating the tax code even when they haven’t. As a result, the Russian tax authorities regularly accuse this businessman’s company of breaking the law. According to him, every time that this happens his company takes the case to the Russian courts, and so far they have not lost a single case. Or to put it another way, on every single occasion the Russian courts have judged against the Russian state.

The businessman and I agreed that this wasn’t how the Russian legal system was generally portrayed. As Kathryn Hendley says at the start of her recent book Everyday Law in Russia, ‘Russia consistently languishes near the bottom of indexes that aim to measure the rule of law.’ In her book, Hendley examines whether theses indexes are justified and whether the common perception of Russia as essentially lawless is correct. To do this, she looks beyond highly publicized cases of allegedly politicized justice to see what ordinary Russians think about the courts and their experiences of them. The result is an extremely important book which challenges common stereotypes and should be read by anyone interested in Russia.

In previous book reviews, I have occasionally complained about the lack of evidence produced by authors to justify their claims. This is not a problem here. Hendley, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, backs her conclusion with prodigious research. She has analyzed surveys, carried out scores of focus groups and interviews, and spent 20 years observing Russian courts in action. What she says deserves attention.

After a brief historical and theoretical introduction, Hendley starts her analysis by examining survey data about Russians’ attitudes towards law and the courts. From this she concludes that, ‘The assumption that Russians have little respect for the law … is simply erroneous.’ The data suggests that the level of general trust in courts expressed in surveys doesn’t reflect Russians’ actual willingness to go to court. In general, Russians prefer to avoid litigating their disputes, but this is not due to fear that the courts are corrupt. One ‘surprising finding’, says Hendley, ‘is the unimportance of bribery.’ Rather, the reason that Russians prefer to avoid court proceedings is the ‘time, expense, and emotional energy required for litigation.’ In this sense, Russians are no different from people anywhere else.

To further make this case, Hendley first examines cases in which Russians have suffered damage from water leaking through their roofs from the apartments above them. This is apparently quite a common problem. As a rule, Hendley says, Russians prefer to settle such disputes without recourse to the law. Within the small-knit community of an apartment building, suing a neighbour is considered un-neighbourly and frowned upon. Generally, therefore, those who suffer damage in this way will speak to the person responsible and endeavour to get him or her to pay compensation without threatening court proceedings. Most of the time, this works. On the rare occasions when it doesn’t, those who have suffered damage often drop the matter as not worth the hassle. They go to court only when they feel that there is no alternative left to them. They are also more likely to sue people they don’t know well than those they are close to. The stronger the sense of community, the less likely they are to resort to formal law. That said, Hendley notes that the ‘informal norms’ which govern such matters are perhaps becoming somewhat weaker. The population of apartment blocks changes more rapidly nowadays than in the past, meaning that the sense of community is weaker. Also, as Russians become richer, they are finding legal proceedings more affordable. Consequently, resort to law to settle disputes is rising. Interesting also, Hendley writes that, ‘Prior experience with the courts seemed to embolden my respondents to go down that route again,’ suggesting that Russians are not too unhappy with their actual experiences with the law.

Second, Hendley looks at how Russians deal with the aftermath of motor accidents. Once again, she finds that they prefer to settle matters through informal mechanisms, especially because they distrust insurance companies, which are felt to try to minimize claims and drag their feet in paying out. Issues of power and corruption affect the way Russians deal with motor accidents much more than in the instance of apartment leaks. When there is a clear difference in the wealth and power of those involved, the weaker party is very likely to choose to do nothing. Nevertheless, Hendley says that the ‘ most commonly cited obstacle to going to court’ was not fear of corrupt judges but the difficulty of proving one’s case. In reality, concludes Hendley, ‘ordinary citizens get a better shake in courts. It is in their cases where judges are able to apply the law without fear of political repercussions.’

Third, Hendley describes how Justices of the Peace (JPs) in Russia approach their task. JPs act as judges in the lowest rung courts and deal with three quarters of all civil cases. As described by Hendley, they are overwhelmed by an enormous workload which causes them to deal with cases with great rapidity. She concludes, ‘What I found in the JPs was a judicial corps that was characterized by patience and efficiency, but where political courage was nowhere to be found.’ In the very small minority of cases where the last point matters, this is a severe weakness, but overall Hendley says, the political unimportance of most of their cases means that ‘what marks JP courts as unique is their relative independence.’

Fourth, and finally, Hendley describes litigants’ experience of JP courts. Too often, she says, they lack knowledge of what is required. Few Russians hire a lawyer, largely because they don’t think that they need one. Litigants, Hendley says, ‘go into the process with an undeserved bravado that, according to my observation, quickly crumbles when subjected to questioning from JPs.’ Nevertheless, the data suggests that ‘litigants are generally satisfied with their experiences of the JP courts’, even when they don’t get the result they want. According to Hendley, ‘Over 80 percent believe that JPs are well trained and competent. Only 10 percent said that their judge had been biased.’

Hendley concludes that it is wrong to consider the rule of law to be something that a country either has or doesn’t have. In Russia’s case, it is better to recognize the existence of a ‘duality’. On the one hand, the vast majority of cases are mundane and do not interest those with wealth and power. In such cases, ‘the parties can reasonably expect the case to be decided according to the written law.’ On the other hand, there are a small number of cases which attract unwanted attention. In such instances, power rather than law determines the outcome. But, Hendley notes, cases of the second type ‘actually amount to a drop in the bucket.’ Most people most of the time will have their cases dealt with fairly. This is true even when they are suing, or are being sued, by the Russian state. Less than one percent of defendants in criminal trials are acquitted, but in other cases the state does much less well. As Hendley writes,

State agencies are frequent litigants in civil cases, both as plaintiffs and defendants. Both in JP and other courts, they are more likely to lose these cases than are private actors. Their victory in administrative cases involving private citizens, such as traffic violations and fines for noncompliance with various laws, is far from automatic. The same is true in the business setting. Economic actors’ challenges to their treatment by the tax and other regulatory authorities are frequently successful.

It turns out, therefore, that the positive experience that my businessman acquaintance has had with the Russian courts is far from unusual. Kathryn Hendley remarks that this doesn’t mean that Russian courts are perfect. But for the most part, they’re not nearly as awful as people imagine them to be. Hendley is to be congratulated for making this clear, and one must hope that her findings become much more widely known.

Two books on Ukraine

In my last post I wrote of the difference between popular and academic history. Two recently published books about Ukraine provide an opportunity to explore this distinction further. These are Gordon Hahn’s Ukraine over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the New Cold War, and Marci Shore’s Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution. The former is a densely packed analysis of the causes and consequences of the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 and the subsequent civil war. The latter is a more impressionistic, jounalistic examination of what one might term the spirit of the revolution. Hahn gives a long, detailed and balanced account, replete with context and theory. Shore gives a short, superficial, but light and personal version of some of the same events. Because of this, Shore is likely to get many more readers, but if you’re prepared to put in the effort, Hahn will give you a much deeper understanding of what went wrong in Ukraine. Academic history is harder going than popular history, but ultimately more rewarding.

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