Category Archives: Book review

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.

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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.

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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.

Overcoming the Soviet legacy

It’s hard to think of books saying what a great place Russia is. Occasionally an author makes a real effort to understand and empathize with the Russian people (Hedrick Smith’s 1976 tome The Russians stood out as a Cold War example), but in general anybody who gets information about the country from what’s in the local branch of Chapters, Barnes and Noble, or Waterstones will most likely decide that Russia is an absolute dump which just keeps getting worse.

Two books which I have just finished reading are no exception: Oliver Bullough’s The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, published in 2013, and Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, which came out at the end of last year.

Bullough intertwines a biography of Soviet dissident priest Dmitry Dudko with descriptions of Stalin’s Siberian labour camps and the later, more subtle, repressive techniques of the KGB, along with an analysis of Russians’ predilection for alcohol. He paints a picture of a nation suffering from a severe psychological illness, which has manifested itself in mass drunkenness, a low fertility rate, and early deaths.

In contrast, Golinkin’s book is an amusing and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny description of his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1989. By his own account, Golinkin seems to have been traumatized for life by the anti-Semitism he and his family experienced in their home town of Kharkov. As a young boy, he skipped school and stayed at home, so afraid was he of leaving his apartment. His youth in the Soviet Union left him with a pervasive sense of fear and self-loathing. This perpetual anxiety comes across as almost a perfect model of the psychological trauma which Bullough claims was the product of communist rule. Golinkin describes the corruption required to navigate the complex process of obtaining a Soviet exit visa, and the tyranny imposed on emigrating Soviet Jews by the guards on the Soviet-Czechoslovak border. Golinkin makes it absolutely clear that he was delighted to leave ‘Russia’ (as he insists on calling it, even though Kharkov is in Ukraine), and shares his opinion that the United States, where he eventually settled, is a glorious bastion of freedom and opportunity compared to the ghastly country he left behind.

Both books are well worth a read. Bullough’s book, written in a journalistic style, is often as much about him as about his ostensible subject, but it is well researched and tells an interesting, important, and original story. Golinkin’s, meanwhile, is quite deliberately about the author, but also informative about the history of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.

The subject of both works is very much the Soviet Union. However, it would be all too easy to read them and come away with the impression that contemporary Russia is the same. In particular, Bullough’s talk of impending demographic catastrophe may induce some readers to believe that rampant alcoholism and a declining population are still crisis issues. Yet, in fact, the situation has been improving since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Figures out this week, for instance, say that, ‘Alcohol consumption has decreased on average, plunging from 16.2 liters per capita annually in 2008, to 11.6 liters in 2013. The death rate from alcohol poisoning has dived to 8.9 people per 100,000 in 2014, down from 9.7 people one year earlier.’ Suicides have also declined. All of this is having a knock-on effect on Russian demographics. As Mark Adomanis has regularly pointed out, Russian fertility has increased markedly in recent years, as has Russian life expectancy. Russians are living longer than ever before. Surveys suggest that Russians are also happier than ever before. In short, the spiritual malaise Bullough describes is gradually being fixed. These two books, therefore, should serve not to reinforce prejudice about Russia but rather to remind us of the appalling legacy of communism and thus to put the problems of today’s Russia in the correct context.

Nothing is true

A few weeks ago, I criticised a report by Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev which alleged that Russia was using information as a weapon of war against the West. The problem with Weiss’s and Pomerantsev’s report, I argued, was that they were guilty of the same thing themselves, through a series of distortions which made Russia seem far more threatening than it really is. Having just read Pomerantsev’s new book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, I find myself thinking the same thing again.

Nothing is True is the author’s account of his time in Russia as a producer of reality TV shows. The book is as much about Pomerantsev as it is about Russia, and is shaped by his own profession. Russia, he seems to suggest, is like one of his TV programs, where the reality portrayed is never quite as real as it is made out to be. He moves through a world of surreal beings: the rap-loving, autocratic politician; the novel-writing gangster; the young model destroyed by a cult, all of whom exemplify the corruption that lies at the rotten heart of the largest country on Earth.

How much of what he describes is peculiar to Russia is very much open to question. Take, for instance, Pomerantsev’s account of the life of Ruslana Korshunova, a model who committed suicide after falling into the clutches of the cult-like ‘psychological training’ organization The Rose of the World. As Pomerantsev admits, The Rose of the World based its techniques on those practised by similar organizations in the United States. All his account really does, therefore, is demonstrate that vulnerable Russians fall prey to charlatans in exactly the same way that Americans do. It doesn’t show that there is something particularly rotten about Russia. Rather, the story seems to demonstrate the opposite.

What is most likely to attract readers to this book is its style. Pomerantsev’s prose is colourful and lively. Nothing is True is an entertaining read. But there is a reason why academics don’t write like this, and instead footnote everything so that they can justify what they are saying. That can make for very dull reading, but at least the reader can have some confidence in what is on the page. Here it often seems that the author sacrifices truth for style. He entertains through hyperbole and what sometimes appears to be invention.

One becomes aware of this just seven lines into the first page. Describing Moscow’s economic boom at the start of the 21st century, Pomerantsev writes, ‘Never had so much money flowed into so small a place in so short a time.’ This is not a promising start. In the first place, Moscow isn’t exactly ‘small’; and second, lots of other places have experienced enormous booms. Where is Pomerantsev’s evidence for his statement? He doesn’t provide any. It is pure hyperbole.

This isn’t an isolated example. This is just how Pomerantsev writes. ‘The only values in this new Ussuriysk were cars and cash’, he says (p. 27). The ‘only’ ones, for everybody in the entire city? Really? And how does he know? ‘Black Widows still make it up to Moscow with rhythmic regularity’, he writes  (p. 57). Actually, they don’t – attacks by female Chechen terrorists in Moscow are pretty rare (the last was in 2011, and you can count the total on the fingers of one hand), and in any case there is nothing ‘rhythmic’ about their timing. In Moscow, ‘There isn’t a building that we walk past that wasn’t the scene of execution squads, betrayals, mass murders.’ (p. 110). Seriously? Mass murder in every building in Moscow?? And so on, and so forth.

One might object that none of this matters – it is just decoration; the basic stories are true. This isn’t an academic treatise but a work of art, and not a photo-realist one moreover, but an impressionist one. Although it doesn’t show you reality, through its distortions it reveals the truth beneath in a way that only art can do. Well, maybe. However, Pomerantsev never tells us that that is what he is doing. For over 200 pages, he seeks to persuade us that nothing in Russia is quite what it seems. But his book isn’t quite what it seems either.