Category Archives: Book review

Book review. Wartime: Stories from Ukraine

In the postscript to his new book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine, veteran British journalist Tim Judah explains that his objective was ‘not another straight history and not a political science-cum-analytical text … [but] a book which gave a flavour of what Ukraine is really like, and what its people have to say, especially outside Kiev. … What I wanted to do was mix people, stories, history, politics and reportage rather than explain why this event followed that one.’ I would say that he more or less succeeds in fulfilling his objective. If you are looking for something to give you a flavour of Ukraine, you may find this book interesting. But if you are looking for an explanation of why the country is wracked by civil war, you probably won’t find it here.

In pursuit of his goal, Judah travels to Lviv (Lvov, Lwow, Lemburg; Judah quite consciously mixes Ukrainian and Russian spellings of towns haphazardly), Ukrainian Bessarabia, Donbass, and Odessa. He describes what he saw and the people he met and throws in a lot of historical context as well. The overall effect is rather depressing; again and again we get pictures of seemingly irreversible industrial decline, most notably decaying cities and polluted lakes in Bessarabia and ruined mining towns in Donbass. Only in Odessa does Judah report any kind of economic success story.

‘What is odd is how much rubbish people believe’, writes Judah. The Ukrainians he talks to range from paranoid conspiracy theorists in the Donetsk People’s Republic to residents of Lviv whose understanding of Ukrainian history (especially of the Second World War) is decidedly selective. ‘In the east, one set of memories is propagated and in the west another,’ says Judah, ‘there is a history war and one full of bitterness and prejudice.’ In the author’s description of Ukraine, people with a fair and balanced understanding of their country are few and far between.

Judah attempts to be fair and balanced himself. For instance, he acknowledges that some Ukrainian leaders have far-right connections and that ‘the lionizing of [WWII Ukrainian nationalist leader] Stepan Bandera … did much to alarm and even embitter those in Ukraine whose fathers and grandfathers had fought in the Red Army against his movement.’ Nevertheless, in his efforts to explain why people believe so much ‘rubbish’, a clear bias does emerge, for his primary explanation is ‘Russian propaganda’, a theme he insists on returning to every few pages. It’s as if ‘the entire mainstream media were taken over by the Ku Klux Klan’, he writes. ‘What has happened on the Russian side of the info-war especially, bears a close resemblance to the experience of Serbs in the early 1990s’, he adds.  And so on. But Judah never asks why people chose to believe this ‘propaganda’, or (on the other side of the conflict) to ‘lionize’ Bandera.

I would have preferred Judah to draw more out of the conversations he had. Many of the descriptions are very short, and don’t reveal anything of great interest. None of them are likely to make a lasting impact on my view of Ukraine and its current problems. Overall, therefore, I neither liked nor disliked this book. I suspect that a few months from now, I won’t remember much about it.

Book review: Ukraine à fragmentation

Frédérick Lavoie is an independent journalist from Quebec, who speaks Russian and has spent his career reporting on the countries of the former Soviet Union. His new book Ukraine à fragmentation (which unfortunately is only available in French) takes the form of a long letter to Artyom, a real four year old boy from Donetsk who was killed by a Grad rocket in January 2015. Lavoie says that the purpose of his book is to explain to Artyom why his life was cut short. ‘I am not trying to prove the justice of any cause,’ Lavoie writes, ‘What concerns me is understanding and explaining to you why a conflict which could have remained purely political not military ended up with a rocket falling on your head.’

Lavoie divides his book into two sections: the first is an analysis of the events which led to the war in Donbass; the second is a description of a month-long trip to Ukraine in early 2015. Along the way, the author views the damage caused by government and rebel shelling, meets supporters of both sides in the conflict, and allows each their say.

Lavoie’s journey begins in Kiev, from where he goes to the former rebel strongholds of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, after which he enters rebel-held territory and attends Artyom’s funeral in Donetsk. He then travels to the port of Mariupol in southern Donbass before returning to Kiev and ending his trip in Lvov. Lavoie remarks that ‘my instinct tells me that the European model remains the best option for Ukrainians, even the Russophones of the east.’ Nevertheless, he comments that, ‘Everyone is to blame … for this vain and useless war,’ and it is ‘the revolutionaries of Euromaidan’ and the politicians whom they brought to power who receive the brunt of his criticisms.

Lavoie dates Ukraine’s fragmentation back to 30 November 2013 when Ukrainian police forcibly broke up a protest camp on Maidan square in Kiev in order to erect a Christmas tree. Violence was never used during previous demonstrations. Now it spiralled out of control. The protestors responded to their eviction by returning in force. Extremist voices became louder, and although they were a minority, ‘they led the charge’, and their tactics became more and more aggressive. In the process, says Lavoie, ‘Maidan made political violence acceptable’. As the father of one of the anti-Maidan protestors killed in the 2 May 2014 fire in Odessa tells him: ‘The revolution created a precedent. It showed that you could seize power with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and weapons. After that, Pandora’s box was opened. If you could do that in Kiev, why not also in Donetsk and Lugansk?’

The events of Maidan struck fear into many people in Crimea and Donbass. Whether these fears were justified isn’t important, Lavoie says. What mattered was that these fears existed. Addressing Artyom, he writes, ‘Your parents’ worries and those of millions of others about what happened on Maidan were not fictional. … They needed to be reassured.’ Instead, according to Lavoie, ‘Those who took power in Kiev suffered from a victor’s complex. They could not think of negotiating with those who opposed the changes. They had achieved their revolution at the cost of a hundred dead. They believed that they had won the right to impose their vision of the country. It was for the vanquished to adapt, to ally themselves with the victors, or to shut up.’ The result was war.

Towards the end of the book, Lavoie meets pro-Maidan liberals in Kiev. ‘They are young, intelligent, cultivated,’ he writes, ‘They are the incarnation … of the best in Ukraine. … And yet. When I talk about the causes of your [Artyom’s] death … they are suddenly intransigent, Manichean, even ignorant. They are selectively indignant. Their capacity for empathy, discernment and self-criticism stop where the front line starts.’ The only explanation they have for Ukraine’s fragmentation is the ‘external enemy’. Lavoie complains: ‘Whether it is a rebel leader or a grandmother at a loss in the face of the bombardment of her village, they don’t want to hear them. … They don’t want to know their reasoning, to understand how they shifted from neutrality to hatred of Kiev because of a shell negligently fired at their house.’

These people are well-informed, says Lavoie, ‘except for the conflict in the east. On that subject, reasoning is reduced to one word: Putin.’ ‘The revolutionaries will tell you that this isn’t a civil war, but purely and simply a foreign invasion,’ he says. But this isn’t the whole story. As he writes, ‘Without Russia’s aid the rebels could not have resisted the Ukrainian forces for more than a few weeks. But without substantial local support, rebellion would never have taken root in Donbass.’ The problem is that ‘Kiev … will not admit its responsibility.’

The author concludes: ‘As long as the victors of the revolution deny their share of responsibility for the current tragedy, Ukraine can only continue to fragment.’

At a presentation Lavoie recently gave in Ottawa, a Polish diplomat delivered a long rant denouncing him for ignoring what the diplomat considered the real cause of the war in Donbass – Russia. I fear that this reaction may be fairly typical, and that Lavoie’s message will fall on deaf ears. This is a shame. The message needs to be heard. I encourage Frédérick Lavoie to have his book translated into English so that it can reach a wider audience. It deserves to.

Putin. Hitler. Dictator. Evil.

Former world chess champion and current Russian opposition politician Garry Kasparov has a new book out, entitled Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped.  Russians aren’t its target audience. Rather, it is aimed at readers in the Western world who might be thinking that it would be better if their countries talked to Russia and tried to find common ground in order to solve mutual problems. Forget it, says Kasparov. Don’t be deluded. Talking is a sign of weakness, and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin will exploit any weakness to expand his ‘dictatorship’ and ‘invade’ even more neighbouring countries. The West, Kasparov argues, has to abandon its ‘cowardice’ and unite firmly against Russia and Putin before it is too late and ‘winter’ arrives.

Kasparov advances this thesis by means of a rapid history of Russian politics from the late Soviet era onwards, interspersed with personal anecdotes. But although the book is notionally about Russia, it is really about Putin, with whom Kasparov appears to be obsessed. In fact, Winter is Coming is little more than a prolonged expression of hatred against the Russian president. The title of this blog post tells you all you really need to know about it. Kasparov thinks that Putin is Hitler; he is a dictator; and he is evil. In fact, the word ‘Hitler’ appears 32 times in the book. Kasparov also regularly uses words such as ‘dictator’, ‘dictatorship’, ‘totalitarianism’, ‘autocrat’, and ‘despotism’, and pursuing another theme, likes to talk about ‘appeasement’, ‘appeasers’, and ‘Chamberlain’. Subtlety is not his forte.

Thus we learn from Kasparov that:

Continue reading Putin. Hitler. Dictator. Evil.

Imperial Gamble

Two years ago this week, protests began in Kiev against the government of Viktor Yanukovich. Their result has been the dismemberment of Ukraine, a war in Donbass, and a series of economic sanctions levied by Western powers against the Russian Federation. In discussing Western responses to the Ukrainian crisis, journalist Marvin Kalb remarks in his new book Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Brookings Institution Press, 2015) that, ‘What was not done was for high-level policymakers to study, if only briefly, the long and intricate history of Russian-Ukrainian relations. … In all this history, Ukraine, as Russia’s “little brother”, lived in a close but uncomfortable and contentious relationship with its “big brother”. One always was tied to the other, a record of intertwined interconnections.’

Kalb’s book attempts to make up for this deficit by charting the history of Russia and Ukraine from the time of Kievan Rus through to today, and then seeking to explain why Russia has acted the way that it has, and what all this might mean for the future. In principle, this is quite a good approach. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Continue reading Imperial Gamble

Stalin and Stalinism

Paul Grenier’s recent post on this blog about historian Nikolai Starikov and his whitewashing of Stalinism generated a record number of comments. Stalin’s legacy remains a hot topic. As it happens, a new biography of the Soviet ruler has just come out.

Authored by Russian historian Oleg Khlevniuk, Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator is based on years of research in the Soviet archives. Khlevniuk’s unparalleled access to Stalin’s papers well justifies the production of yet another Stalin biography. That said, the Stalin he describes is a very familiar one, a man who ‘was cruel by temperament and devoid of compassion’, and who ‘favored terror and saw no reason to moderate its use.’ Those who are already well versed in the dictator’s story will not find anything surprising in this book. Nonetheless, it is a useful reminder given attempts by people like Starikov to play down Stalin’s brutality and the awfulness of his legacy.

Continue reading Stalin and Stalinism

What Putin really really wants

Political commentators regularly line up to tell us ‘What Putin wants’ (see for instance this, this, and this). In the early years of Putin’s rule, analysts tended to the view that Putin was non-ideological, and that he was above all a pragmatist, perhaps even an opportunist. More recently, though, there has been a tendency to regard the Russian president as having become more conservative in his outlook. Yet, despite this, there have been very few serious efforts to attempt to understand his beliefs. For the most part, ‘What Putin wants’ is assumed to be self-evident, based on the particular commentator’s own attitude (normally very negative) towards the actions in question. Little genuine research is done to back up the assertions. In particular, the conservative ideas dominating much of contemporary Russian discourse remain understudied, as do their historical and philosophical roots. ‘As a result,’ I wrote in an article a few years ago, ‘Western commentators nowadays, lacking any knowledge of Russia’s conservative heritage, are unable to place contemporary Russian government within the correct intellectual context.’

A new book by veteran historian Walter Laqueur, entitled Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West, constitutes a rare effort to come to grips with the subject. Drawing on a solid knowledge of Russian intellectual history, Laqueur attempts to analyze the ideology guiding the current leadership of the Russian Federation, and thereby to answer the question ‘What is Putinism?’

Laqueur’s answer is that it isn’t fascism, but it is something close to it – a paranoid, nationalist, far right doctrine, made up of six components: ‘religion (the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, Russia’s holy mission, the third Rome, and the New Jerusalem), patriotism/nationalism (with occasional leanings towards chauvinism), geopolitics Russian style, Eurasianism, the besieged-fortress feeling, and zapadophobia (fear of the West).’ Underlying the contemporary search for Russian identity, Laqueur says, is a ‘conviction that Russia is not Europe and that there is a giant conspiracy to destroy Russia. Accompanying it is another set of beliefs that whatever went wrong in Russia is the fault of foreigners.’ Laqueur concludes that ‘Among the Russian weaknesses is the fatal belief in all kinds of conspiracy theories and strange ideas, such as neo-Eurasianism, neogeopolitics, confabulation, and zapadophobia, accompanied by an enduring persecution mania and the exaggerated belief in a historical mission.’ In these circumstances, a ‘retreat from authoritarian rule toward a more democratic system seems … unlikely.’

To reach this conclusion, Laqueur embarks upon a potted history of Russian politics, and then upon a rather rambling examination of various other subjects including conservative and far right philosophy, demography, post-Soviet attitudes towards Stalin, and Russian foreign policy. The effect is somewhat incoherent, as the text leaps backwards and forwards in time and space and from topic to topic. But an overall theme does emerge, namely that a lot of Russians believe in a lot of really crackpot ideas.

In some respects, I agree with this. I share, for instance, Laqueur’s negative appraisal of Eurasianism. The reactionary pronouncements of some high-ranking members of the Russian Orthodox Church are also fair game. And Laqueur’s observation that Russian political culture has a paranoid streak is accurate. There are, however, some weaknesses in his thesis. In the first place, he doesn’t do a very good job of showing that the loopy rantings of far-right philosophers and historians really have an impact on how Russia’s rulers think, let alone prove that they have any impact on their behaviour. He says, for instance, that the Russian government’s current alleged support for Eurasianism (which I think in any case is much exaggerated) ‘has to do in part with their aversion toward Europe, which (they feel) rejected it, but it is also a reflection of the immense popularity of the ideas of Lev Gumilev’. But are the ideas of Lev Gumilev really ‘immensely popular’? I can’t say that I see any strong evidence for that assertion. Laqueur then goes on to say: ‘Putin and his colleagues believe that the long search for a new doctrine has ended and that in [Ivan] Ilyin they have found the prophet to present their much-needed new ideology’. But is that really so? I have suggested elsewhere that Putin is fond of Ilyin, but it is not clear how many others share his preference, and in any case Ilyin could hardly be said to be the sole source of the modern ‘Russian idea’, even if it could be shown that such a thing exists. It also makes little sense on the one hand to claim that modern Russia is Eurasianist in orientation and on the other hand to say that Ilyin is the country’s prophet, given that Ilyin most definitely was not a supporter of Eurasianism.

Laqueur does not appear to like the conservative trend in Russian thinking, and as a result emphasizes its negative side to the detriment of anything positive which might be found in it. One can see this in his treatment of Ilyin, which concentrates almost entirely on the favourable things the philosopher had to say about fascism. But there is more to Ilyin than that. Similarly, while it is true that contemporary Russian politics contains more than its fair share of crazy talk, not all Russian conservatives are loony conspiracy theorists. As Paul Grenier showed in a recent article, ‘anti-Western Eurasianism is part of contemporary Russian conservatism. But it is only one part.’  Russian conservatism, Grenier notes, is very varied, and its adherents contain many intelligent, creative, and in some instances even quite liberal people. It deserves a deeper and if not sympathetic, at least more empathetic, analysis than Laqueur is willing to give it.

Grenier comments that, ‘If we wish to understand Russia in something like its true complexity, we have to take the trouble to listen to it, to let it speak in its own voice instead of constantly projecting onto it all our own worst fears.’ Laqueur’s Putinism doesn’t do this. My worry is that rather than deepening its readers’ understanding of Russia, this book will serve only to convince them that Russians really are a bunch of crazies with whom no civilized conversation is possible.