Category Archives: Book review

Book review: the lands in between

I’m told that the famous British journalist Bernard Levin was once fired from his job as a theatre critic after he failed to write about the play he’d been told to review but instead filed an article detailing the walk he’d taken after he left the play half way through. It was Levin’s way of saying how terrible the play had been.

I’m tempted to take the same approach with Mitchell Orenstein’s book The Lands in Between: Russia vs the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War, recently published by Oxford University Press (OUP). Is it really worth giving it attention it doesn’t deserve? It would be much more entertaining to tell you instead about my outing last Friday to Sergiev Posad. But I promised OUP that I would review it (though after this one, I doubt that they’ll send me any more books to read!). So I shall. If nothing else, it will serve to demonstrate what sort of stuff is now being propagated by serious publishing houses and how exactly the architects of the ‘New Cold War’ go about spreading fear among the general population.

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Book Review – John Helmer

The back of Australian journalist John Helmer’s memoir The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia contains an endorsement from Euromaidan Press describing him as one of a group of ‘Pro Kremlin leftists and liberals … who echo the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda’. I take it that Helmer, who reported from Russia for about 30 years, considers being insulted by Euromaidan Press a sort of compliment. The charge that he’s a ‘pro-Kremlin’ propagandist is not, however, unusual. A couple of years ago, Helmer hit the headlines here in Canada when he used his blog Dancing with Bears to spread the story of the Nazi connections of Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather. This was rapidly denounced by Freeland and Prime Minister Trudeau as ‘Russian disinformation’, as if Helmer was simply doing the bidding of the Russian government. A report by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institution about Russian disinformation similarly remarked that ‘Recent articles on Helmer’s blog also promote other Kremlin positions’, and commented that, ‘John Helmer is also a regular contributor to a well-known anti-Semitic, pro-Kremlin media platform called Russia Insider.’ (I suspect this isn’t true and Russian Insider has just republished stuff from Dancing with Bears). Suffice it to say that Helmer is not much loved by the Russophobic wing of the Western political spectrum.

You’d think, then, that The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia would be full of pro-Kremlin propaganda, painting Russia in glorious colours as a land of milk of honey. If so, you’ll be very surprised. This isn’t a book which makes Russians – or anybody else for that matter – look good at all. The first half is primarily an account of Helmer’s near-fatal dealings with the Russian aluminium company Rusal and its owner Oleg Deripaska. Helmer recounts how two Rusal agents attempted to bribe him to write a positive review of Rusal prior to the company’s attempt to sell shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. When Helmer refused to do so, but instead published articles indicating that Rusal was in financial trouble, three armed goons turned up at his apartment and attempted to gain entry. Wisely, Helmer and his wife refused to let them in, but instead called the police, who soon arrested them and found in their possession not only weapons but also incriminating documents linking them to Rusal. It seemed like a pretty clear case of attempted murder, and the police, according to Helmer, were keen to press charges.

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At that point, however, things changed. Somebody somewhere called some bigwig, and the initial policemen were taken off the case and replaced by new ones, who declared that the whole episode was just a misunderstanding and then let the goons off scot free. Helmer subsequently persuaded a court to order the police to reopen the case, but they never did anything more.

That wasn’t the end of Helmer’s problems. A few months later he was stripped of his official accreditation as a journalist, and so forced to leave the country. Subsequent attempts to obtain a Russian visa have all failed. He is, in effect, persona non grata and banned from Russia. His crime – stepping on the toes of the people with power and influence.

The second half of Helmer’s book covers a different story: accusations made by a washed-out former KGB agent Yury Shvets that Helmer and his wife had been Soviet spies. The story continued to circulate for years despite the fact that various newspapers had been forced to recant it and admit that there was no evidence to support it. Helmer uses the episode as a means of lambasting the journalist ethics of some of his colleagues, who don’t let such awkward things as the truth get in the way of a good headline. He ends his book with what may be said to an overall comment on the state of Western journalism:

Repeat a lie often enough and it will erase the truth as if it never existed. So long as the subject is a Russian one, this is the rule for all conmen and reporters to get away scot-free, with the cash.

The Man Who Knows Who Too Much About Russia is replete with conspiracy, shady characters, and murky goings-on. The picture it paints of Russia is hardly a positive one. Rather, it’s portrayed as a country in which oligarchs are happy to murder journalists, and use their influence to subvert the judicial process and to persuade the government to have those they fail to kill expelled from the country. Helmer doesn’t even let Vladimir Putin off the hook. It is surprising, he says, that Western observers ascribe such power to a man ‘of such smallness’, ‘who does what the oligarchs’ interests dictate’. Overall, Helmer concludes, Russia is ruled ‘by small men scheming at crimes, and defeating their enemies, domestic and foreign, who are not less small and criminal themselves.’

It’s somewhat surprising, therefore, that the more Russophobic elements of the Western commentariat are so keen to portray Helmer as a Russian propagandist. He is clearly nothing of the sort. But the last part of the phrase quoted above provides a clue. He lambasts the Russians. But he portrays Westerners as no less corrupt. He complains at length, for instance, that the Australian authorities failed to protect him when warned that his life was in danger because they didn’t want to alienate Deripaska and Rusal, who were investing large sums of money into the Australian economy. Helmer is an equal opportunity critic. And in the current political climate that is unacceptable. One is either with us or against us. Any signs of whataboutism, or any criticisms of the prevailing Western narrative which indicate that you’re not 100% on our side, are proof positive that you must be a fully paid up Kremlin agent. It is, of course, absurd, but alas it seems that that’s the way it is.

Overall, then, I’d say that if you’re the sort of person who likes moral clarity, and is looking for a black and white tale with good guys and bad guys, this book isn’t going to be to your liking. There aren’t any good guys here. But if you’re of a more cynical frame of mind, relish stories of conspiracy and all-round corruption, and tend to think ‘A plague on all your houses,’ then The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia will probably be right up your alley.

Book review: Putin’s world

There are books which remain in my memory because they’re good. There are others which I remember because they’re awful. And then there are those I soon forget about, because they’re just kind of middling – solid, but uninspiring. Angela Stent’s new book, Putin’s World: Russia against the West and with the Rest, is one of the latter. Stent is an old ‘Russia hand’, having flitted in and out of government and academia in the United States for many years, including a stint as National Intelligence Officer for Russia. In Putin’s World, she examines Russian foreign policy and seeks to explain ‘how Putin’s Russia has managed to return as a global player and what that new role means.’ She generally does a competent job, starting with some historical context, and then going through Russia’s relations with various countries, such as Germany, Ukraine, China, and Japan, before coming on to US-Russia relations. Those who don’t know much about Russian foreign policy could learn a lot from all this. But as someone who has already studied the subject, much of it was already rather familiar and I had to will myself onwards in order to finish it. If it had been truly terrible, with outrageous propositions such as in Luke Harding’s Collusion or Timothy Snyder’s Road to Unfreedom, it would actually have been rather more interesting. As it was, I found it respectably ok, but a little dull.

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Book Review: Moscow Rules

Here goes with another long book review (of what is actually quite a short work, which I read in a single afternoon). But bear with it. As so often, the book, while not revealing much of value about Russia, does provide valuable insight into how Russia is viewed by its Western critics.

Keir Giles of Chatham House in the United Kingdom wants to enlighten us about Russia, and has written a book, Moscow Rules, to that end. A clue to his thesis lies in the subtitle: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. According to Giles, the problem in East-West relations is that Russia is ‘confronting’ the West. Why? Because, basically, Russians aren’t like us, they’re ‘un-European’. They’re innately ‘expansionist’, distrustful of the West, untruthful, and authoritarian. The West should rid of itself of any delusions that it can live in peace with Russia, and instead focus on deterrence and containment.

Giles notes that Westerners have been surprised by Russian behaviour under Vladimir Putin. But they shouldn’t be. One can see a ‘remarkable consistency of specific features of Russian life over time,’ meaning that Russia today is just an extension of Russia in the past. The problem, in short, isn’t Vladimir Putin, it’s what one might call ‘eternal Russia’. As Giles says, ‘throughout the centuries, Russia’s leaders and population have displayed patterns of thought and action and habit that are both internally consistent and consistently alien to those of the West.’ Russia, claims Giles, is ‘a culture apart’, and ‘Russia is not, and never has been, part of the West, and thus does not share its assumptions, goals, and values.’

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So what distinguishes Russia from the West?

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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.