Category Archives: Book review

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.

snyder book

Continue reading Book review: The road to unfreedom

Advertisements

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.

hahn

shore

Continue reading Two books on Ukraine

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.

long hangover2

Continue reading Book review: The Long Hangover

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.

orders to kill

Continue reading Book review: Orders to Kill

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.

collusion

Continue reading Collusion

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.