Category Archives: Book review

Book review: Skripal in prison

You all surely know the story. Sergei Skripal, a one time officer in the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, was recruited by the British intelligence service MI6, and worked for a while as a British spy before being caught by the Russian authorities and imprisoned. He was then released as part of a spy swap and went to live incognito in Salisbury, England, where he carried on his life peacefully until one day a couple of GRU officers, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, travelling under the pseudonyms Petrov and Boshirov, flew to the UK and smeared a nerve agent known as Novichok on the door handle of his house. The poisoning almost killed Skripal and his daughter, Julia, but both eventually survived. Also poisoned was a police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who entered the Skripals’ house to investigate. He too survived. Less lucky was another resident of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess, whose boyfriend Charlie Rowley gave her a perfume bottle he found somewhere in town. The bottle contained the Novichok used by Petrov and Boshirov to poison Skripal. Sturgess died after spraying herself with its contents.

That’s the official narrative, which most people accept. John Helmer, though, doesn’t believe it. Ever since the original poisoning he’s been penning pieces on his blog, Dances with Bears, casting doubt on the story being provided by the British police and government. Now he has assembled his pieces into a book entitled Skripal in Prison, which lays out the case against the theory that the Russians were behind the Skripal poisoning.


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Book review: Between two fires

I’ve been reading a lot recently – let’s face it, apart from watching TV and working out on the basement exercise machines, there isn’t much else to do during the coronavirus lockdown. And one of the things I’ve been reading a lot about is the Constitutional Democratic (or Kadet) Party, which was Russia’s leading liberal political organization in the early years of the twentieth century. The Kadets have long since been consigned to Trotsky’s infamous dustbin of history, but my reading has turned out to be surprisingly relevant to the book I’m reviewing today – Joshua Yaffe’s Between Two Fires. It’s all a matter of political compromise.

The thing you have to grasp about the Kadets is that they were often rather dogmatic. As one Russian historian puts it, ‘The Russian liberal of the early twentieth century wasn’t able to abandon the role of idealistic oppositionist and recognize realities and the necessity of compromise’. Looking back on events, one Kadet, Prince V.A. Obolenskii, summed up the prevailing attitude in this way:

We thought the following: the authorities were hostile to the people. Thus, any official in state service, however useful, was in the final analysis harming the people as he was strengthening the power of the government. Besides which, we saw before us a whole series of people of very left wing convictions who had entered government service and gradually got accustomed to compromise and lost their oppositional zeal.

Between 1905 and 1917, the refusal to compromise with the Russian state had catastrophic consequences. On various occasions in 1905 and 1906, the Kadets were offered a role in government under first Sergei Witte and then Pyotr Stolypin, but always refused the offer, preferring instead to seek the complete destruction of the autocracy. Likewise, instead of using Russia’s new parliament, created in 1905, to propose constructive reform measures, they chose instead to block Stolypin’s reform program and use the parliament as a soap box for denouncing the government. Eventually, in 1917 they got their wish and saw the hated autocracy destroyed. But it didn’t do them any good, as they themselves were swept away by the tide of revolution just a few months later.

The more sensible of the Kadets understood that they were making a huge mistake, that compromising with the state, however much you dislike it, is often a much better option than seeking its overthrow. As shown in another book I’ve just finished reading – a biography of the prominent Kadet jurist and politician Vasily Maklakov – Maklakov repeatedly urged his colleagues to understand that democracy would never be possible in Russia unless people learned the art of compromise. But his fellow Kadets paid no attention. They paid for it dearly.

The lesson of all this is pretty clear, but reading Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, it seems that there are some who would prefer that Russians again adopted the principles of the Kadets. For the theme of the book is the moral dangers of compromising with the Russian state (thus the subtitle ‘Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia’), and while Yaffa states that he doesn’t condemn those who choose to cooperate with the ‘Putin regime’, it’s pretty obvious that he thinks that it’s not a good thing.


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Book reviews on the Russian military

As paranoia concerning all things Russia continues to grip much of the Western world, it’s worth spending some time examining the Russian military, and its purpose, capabilities, and understanding of war. Fortunately, two recently published books provide us with an opportunity to do so, and I have therefore decided to review them together.

The first is Oscar Jonsson’s The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace, which argues that in recent years the Russian understanding of war has undergone a fundamental change. Since around 2012, Russian military thinkers have become increasingly convinced that non-military means of political influence, such as economic sanctions and information/propaganda, can be as powerful in their impact as military means, and that therefore the boundaries between war and peace are ‘blurring’.


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Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.


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Book Review: The Russia Anxiety

It seems that scarcely a day goes by without a major news story which in some way or another portrays Russia as the international bogeyman. Just yesterday, for instance, we had a completely pointless story in The Observer about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting an ‘ex-KGB agent’ (actually newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev) at a party in Italy. Meanwhile, today’s copy of The Times reports that an as-yet-to-be-published British parliamentary report says that, ‘Russian interference may have had an impact on the Brexit referendum, but the effect was “unquantifiable”.’

What both these stories have in common is that they’re utterly meaningless. Prime Minister meets newspaper owner! So what? And what does it tells us that interference ‘may’ have had some impact, or may not, and that anyway it’s ‘unquantifiable’? Nothing at all. So why were these stories published? The logical answer is that it’s because putting ‘Russia’ into a story automatically lends it some air of malign mystery and makes it look like something untoward is going on. In other words, such stories make headlines not because they’re truly newsworthy but because they tap into what British academic Mark Smith calls ‘the Russian Anxiety’.

In his new book ‘The Russian Anxiety: And How History Can Resolve it’, Smith describes the anxiety as a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard. Sometimes, Westerners fear Russia; other times they just view it with contempt (‘a gas station masquerading as a country’); and other times they prefer to ignore it entirely. The anxiety takes the form of a cycle: fear turns into contempt, then disregard, then back into fear again. And it ‘comes and goes’ according to circumstances. Still, says Smith, ‘The Russia Anxiety is a historically deep-seated feature of international relations’, and it has a very negative effect on how Western states treat Russia, creating tensions which do not need to exist.

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Book review: Putin v. the People

I’d been struggling for several days thinking of how to review Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson’s book Putin v. the People, when I stumbled across a post on the blog Duck on Minerva which provided me with a way to do it. The post points out that political scientists are obsessed with methodology but spend very little time thinking about ontology. I normally avoid words like ontology and tell my students not to use them if they don’t want to be penalized, but here I’ll make an exception. Essentially what’s being said is that political scientists are deeply concerned about how they study things, but don’t often stop to reflect whether the things they’re studying are actually things at all.

Greene and Robertson seek to explain why the Russian people support Vladimir Putin. There’s a pretty simple explanation for this, well expressed today in the following tweet by Russia-based business journalist Ben Aris:


If we now go to back to issues of ontology and ask what the ‘thing’ is that Putin v the People studies, we discover that it isn’t this thing – it isn’t a Russia which has enormously improved in the past 20 years. Rather it’s something quite the opposite – a Russia with a pretty awful government, and with a people whose lives are fairly miserable, and who are experiencing an overall sense of ‘desperation’. It’s also a Russia in which there is a pervasive atmosphere of falsehood, which means that everyone is living in a world of ‘lies’ and ‘fantasy’. Thus the ‘thing’ which the authors of Putin v the People wish to explain – their research question, as it were – isn’t ‘Why do Russians support Putin given the “enormity of the improvements” their country has experienced under his leadership?’ but ‘Why do Russians support Putin given how much everything in Russia sucks?’ Of course, they don’t put it in quite those words, but the overall tone of the work very much comes across that way. And unsurprisingly, the answers the authors provide reflect the underlying negative ontology – i.e. the authors’ negative understanding of the nature of Russia’s being.

putin people

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Book review: Dealing with the Russians

‘How do you deal with a problem like the Russians?’ It’s a question which seems to dominate public discourse nowadays, with the Russian Federation elevated to the status of Enemy Number One in much of the Western world. Oxford University’s Andrew Monaghan has an answer – ‘not like we’ve done so far’. In his last book, The New Politics of Russia, he attacked the mainstream Western view of Russia as ‘narrow, simplistic, and repetitive’. Now, in a new book Dealing with the Russians, he lambasts the Euro-Atlantic security community for its approach to the ‘Russia challenge’. ‘The problem Russia poses is being misdiagnosed and the responses, therefore, poorly framed,’ he argues. It is time for the ‘retirement of the worn-out and out-of-date repetitions, and the tired clichés and template phrases that currently dominate the public policy lexicon.’ What we need, says Monaghan, is ‘fresh thinking.’


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