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Marching into oblivion

I’m not one of those people who look back on the Cold War with nostalgia. Whatever our current problems, they’re relatively mild to the threat of global nuclear war which used to seriously worry people back in the day. ‘When I were young’, as the saying goes, two massive armed blocs – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – stood face to face, ready to roll at a moment’s notice, while much of the developing world was wracked with proxy wars. It wasn’t a good time. But the very danger of it did have one positive effect – it concentrated minds and made the more sensible of them realize that ‘jaw, jaw is better than war, war’ and that it would really be to everybody’s benefit if agreement was reached to limit the upwards spiral of the arms race.

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Wishful democratic thinking

‘How coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings in the former Soviet Union’, says a headline in this week’s New Statesman, followed by the subheading ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’. That pretty much tells you the message that author Felix Light wants you to take on board – when it comes to dealing with the COVID crisis: ‘democracy good, authoritarianism bad’. It sounds nice. I’m a democrat. So are most of you, I imagine. We’d like to think that democracy works better than the alternative. But is it true?

‘In the former Soviet Union … if dictatorship is fumbling the coronavirus test, then democracy is passing with flying colours’, writes Light, contrasting the low infection and death rates in the ‘democratic’ Baltic states and Georgia with the higher rates in ‘dictatorial’ Russia, Belarus, and Central Asia (Ukraine doesn’t get a mention – perhaps Light can’t work out where to put it on the democracy-authoritarian spectrum, or perhaps it fails to fit his model). The reason, he says, is that ‘post-Soviet authoritarianism tends to mask relatively weak states. Even without a deadly viral pandemic, these regimes often find it difficult to perform bread-and-butter functions.’

There’s some truth to this, in that state capacity in many former Soviet states is relatively weak compared to, say, Western Europe or North America. But state capacity and democracy are not directly correlated. China has quite substantial state capacity, but isn’t democratic. Ukraine is considered more democratic than many other post-Soviet states but has perhaps the weakest state capacity of them all. Moreover, capacity is one thing; having the will to use it is another. When it comes to COVID-19, China has shown that it has both capacity and will; the United States, by contrast, has the capacity, but has shown relatively little will. Overall, looking at the data on which states have fared well and which states have fared badly during the COVID crisis, it’s very hard to see any correlation between success or failure on the one hand and state capacity on the other.

So let’s look at those statistics. Comparing them is difficult because some states do a lot more coronavirus tests than others, and so their higher infection rates may simply be a reflection of detecting a lot more asymptomatic cases. Also problematic is the fact that different countries use different criteria to classify the cause of death, with some putting the cause down as coronavirus if there’s even a suspicion that it might be, and others saying that it’s not an official coronavirus death if the deceased had the virus but actually died of something else. This produces wide differences in death rates from country to country. In the case of Russia, there are suspicions that the official death rate underestimates reality, perhaps by a factor of 2 to 3. There is some evidence to support this claim, based on the number of ‘excess deaths’ this year as opposed to last. However, this is hardly unique to Russia. According to the BBC today, the number of excess deaths in the past few weeks in the UK is around 50,000, whereas the official COVID death toll is about 28,000, suggesting that the official toll underestimates reality by a factor of 2. Given all these problems, the best we can do is accept that official statistics are questionable, but also recognize that the same errors arise across the board, and so take the data as a more or less accurate representation of comparative levels of infection and death.

And so what does the data tell us (focusing on death rates, as ultimately that’s what really matters)? Latvia has experienced just 19 coronavirus deaths, Estonia 61, and Lithuania 54. These seem like tiny numbers, but the population of these countries is very small too (Estonia being just 1.3 million). The death rates per million of population in these three countries are 8.3, 46.9, and 19.3 respectively, indicating quite a variation between them (Latvia doing quite well, but Estonia not so much).

Russia, meanwhile, has officially declared 2,305 coronavirus deaths, which equates to 16.5 per million inhabitants, a higher rate than Latvia, but much lower than Estonia, and a little lower than Lithuania. Belarus has declared 151 deaths, a rate of 15.9 per million – very similar to Russia, so again lower than Estonia and Lithuania. In Ukraine, there are 456 deaths, a rate of 10.1 per million. Kazakhstan claims only to have suffered 32 deaths, giving it a remarkably low rate of 1.74 per million. Uzbekistan says only 11 Uzbeks have died from coronavirus, despite a population of nearly 33 million, a death rate of 0.33 per million. And so on.

You can, of course, take the Central Asian results with a pinch of salt, if you want, but even if they are a substantial underestimate, there’s no evidence to suggest that the death rate there is any worse than in the Baltic States. Likewise, if you accept the claim that Russia’s official statistics underestimate reality by an order of 2-3, and simultaneously believe that the Baltic figures are 100% correct, then Russia’s true death rate ends up being pretty much identical to that of Estonia. And if on top of all that, you accept the classification of the Baltic States as ‘democracies’ and the other post-Soviet states as ‘authoritarian’, then Light’s claim that democracy is coping with the virus crisis better than authoritarianism simply isn’t borne out by the data.

And this isn’t the case only in the post-Soviet space. Let’s say that the Russian and Belarussian statistics underestimate reality by 200%, so that there are actually about 6,000 coronavirus deaths in Russia, and let’s also say (which, as we’ve seen, we probably shouldn’t) that official statistics in Western democratic states don’t underestimate at all. That would give Russia and Belarus a death rate of around 50 per million, while giving Western states the following rates: United States – 258; United Kingdom – 495; Canada – 141; Spain – 580; Italy – 499; France – 403; Belgium – 777; Germany (considered a European success story) – 94; and so on. The picture is pretty clear: while the situation is far from universally rosy and there are certainly no grounds for complacency, compared with the democratic ‘West’, all states in the former Soviet Union have fared reasonably well. Why that is the case is an open question, but regime type appears to have nothing to do with it.

The COVID pandemic, says Felix Light, has ‘underlined democracy’s public health advantages’, and ‘has simply incentivised governments to make sound pandemic policy decisions’. For simplicity’s sake, let’s put aside the somewhat unsophisticated division of states into categories of ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’, and similarly for simplicity’s sake let’s accept Light’s formula for which states fit into which box (the West, the Baltics & the Georgia – democratic; the rest – authoritarian). Is it true, as Light claims, that ‘coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings’ and that ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’? As I said, it’s a nice story, and the democrat in me would love to believe it. But, unfortunately for Mr Light, the stats say otherwise. It’s just another case of wishful democratic thinking.

#DemocracyRIP and the narcissism of Russiagate

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. [Gone with the Wind]

It’s not been a great week for proponents of Russiagate conspiracies. A release of transcripts of meetings of the American House of Representatives Intelligence Committee revealed that person after person interviewed by the Committee denied having any knowledge of collusion between Donald Trump and his campaign on the one hand and the Russian state on the other. This was despite the fact that many of those so interviewed had claimed in public that such collusion had taken place. The discrepancy between their public and private utterances has rightfully been interpreted as further evidence that the whole collusion story was a fabrication from start to finish.

Collusion was only half of Russiagate. The other half was the allegation of Russian ‘interference’ in the US election, founded especially on claims that the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, had hacked and leaked documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). This allegation was based on research undertaken by a private company Crowdstrike, but now the Intelligence Committee minutes reveal that Crowdstrike couldn’t even confirm how the DNC data had been leaked let alone that the Russians were responsible. All they had, according to the testimony, was   ‘circumstantial evidence’ and ‘indicators’ – not exactly solid proof.

Given this, you’d imagine that this would be a good time for Russiagaters to slink off into a dark corner somewhere and hope that people forget all the nonsense they’ve been spouting for the past four years. But not a bit of it, for what do we find in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine than an article by Franklin Foer with the scary title ‘Putin is well on the way to stealing the next election’.

Foer is in some respects the original Russiagater. He was well ahead of the game, and in a July 2016 article in Slate laid out the basic narrative many months before others latched onto it. The article has it all: a scary title (‘Putin’s Puppet’ – meaning Trump); Vladimir Putin’s evil plan to destroy Europe and the United States; a cast of characters with allegedly dubious connections to the Kremlin (Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, etc. – you met them first in Foer’s article); Trump’s supposed desperation to break into the Moscow real estate market; allegations of Trump’s lack of creditworthiness leading him to seek shady Russian sources of finance; and so on – in short, the whole shebang long before it was on anyone else’s radar.

Not wanting to let a good story go to waste, Foer has been on it ever since, and gained a certain amount of notoriety when he broke the ‘story’ that US President Donald Trump was secretly exchanging messages with the Russian government via the computer servers of Alfa Bank. Unfortunately for Foer, it didn’t take more than a minute or three for researchers to expose his revelation as utter nonsense. This, however, didn’t seem to shake him. In the world of journalism there appears to be no such thing as accountability for those who publish fake news about Russians producing fake news, and so it is that Foer is back on the Russiagate wagon with his new piece in the Atlantic, warning us that it’s bad enough that Putin elected Trump once, but now he’s going to do it all over again.

The basic theme of Foer’s latest is pretty much the same as in his original article of July 2016. Back then Foer informed readers that, ‘Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West – and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump’. ‘The destruction of Europe is a grandiose objective; so is the weakening of the United States’, Foer went on, keen to let us know that Putin’s aims were nothing if not extreme (‘The destruction of Europe’ no less!!). Now, nearly four years later, he tell us breathlessly that ‘Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system’ (How does he know this? Does he have some special dream detection equipment he’s snuck into the Kremlin? Alas, Foer doesn’t tell.) According to Foer:

It’s possible, however, to mistake a plot point – the manipulation of the 2016 election – for the full sweep of the narrative. Events in the United States have unfolded more favorably than any operative in Moscow could have dreamed: Not only did Russia’s preferred candidate win, but he has spent his first term fulfilling the potential it saw in him, discrediting American institutions, rending the seams of American culture, and isolating a nation that had styled itself as indispensable to the free world. But instead of complacently enjoying its triumph, Russia almost immediately set about replicating it. Boosting the Trump campaign was a tactic; #DemocracyRIP remains the larger objective.

#DemocracyRIP?? Seriously? Where does Foer get this? I’m willing to offer him a challenge. I’ll pay him $100 (Canadian not US) if he can find anywhere, anywhere, any statement by Vladimir Putin or another top official in the Russian Federation in which they state any sort of preference for what sort of political system the United States has, and in particular state a preference that the USA ceases to be a democracy. If he can’t, he’ll have to pay me $100. I’m confident I’ll win. The truth, as far as I can see, is that like Rhett Butler, they don’t give a damn. America can be a democracy, or an autocracy, or any other thing as far as they’re concerned, as long as it just leaves them alone. Insofar as thinking Russians do discuss the matter, I get a strong impression they generally regard the problem not as being that America is a democracy so much as being that it isn’t, not really, as actual power is seen as lying in the hands of special interests and some sort of version of the ‘deep state’. More democracy, not less, would be the preferred solution.

So where does all the nonsense about Putin wanting to destroy democracy come from? It certainly doesn’t come from anything he’s ever said. And it certainly doesn’t come from a serious examination of Russia’s true potential. Russia can no more destroy American democracy than it send a man to Alpha Centauri. And its leaders know that perfectly well. So why do Americans think that Putin is lying in his bed, ‘dreaming’ about the ‘destruction of Europe’, the ‘weakening of America’ and ‘#DemocracyRIP’? I’ll hazard a guess – it’s a serious case of narcissism. America believes it is the centre of the universe, and it also imagines itself a democracy, and so it thinks that American democracy must be what’s at the centre of everybody else’s universe too. Well, sorry, Franky boy, it just ain’t so. #DemocracyRIP?? In your dreams, perhaps, but certainly not in Putin’s.

Crisis? What Crisis?

Back in 2014, Paul Starobin wrote an excellent article analyzing what he called the ‘“Russia is Doomed” syndrome’, which is manifested in persistent claims that Russia is on the verge of collapse. This perspective, said Starobin, ‘is grounded in unreality. Russia isn’t going anywhere. Critics tend to exaggerate its ailments or fail to place them in proper context.’ One should add to this that the ‘Russia is doomed’ narrative applies not just to Russia as a whole, but also to the system of government and the person of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. They are all perpetually on the edge of extinction.

You can get a flavour of this from titles of books published by Western journalists this past decade, such as Ben Judah’s  ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin’ (embarrassingly published just before Putin’s ratings rose to record highs following the annexation of Crimea), and Richard Lourie’s ‘Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash’ (neither of which has yet come about). Whenever anything happens which suggests that everything is not going 100% swimmingly well in Russia, then out come the keyboard warriors to flog another screed telling us all how the end is nigh, Putin’s popularity is tumbling, and regime change is just around the corner.


Continue reading Crisis? What Crisis?

Psychological connections

For whatever reason, a single subject keeps cropping up in my readings of late – the alleged psychological deviance of the Russian people. I’m not quite sure how to thread it all together, so I plan just to ramble through some of the things I’ve come across, and hope that something coherent comes out of it.

A while back the journal Russian Review asked me to review a book by Moscow academic Sergei Medvedev entitled The Return of the Russian Leviathan. The review appeared in print this week. Medvedev is an outspoken critic of the ‘Putin regime’ and, as one might expect, his book – which is actually a collection of op-ed articles – is relentlessly negative in its depiction of Russia. This is clear from the very first essay which tells readers that, ‘All around there are ever more dead villages … The people you come across are increasingly wretched. They wander aimlessly along the roadside … with a look of hopelessness … everything is dissolving into oblivion.’ That’s modern Russia for you! Everything is ‘hopeless’.  As you can see, Medvedev isn’t exactly even-handed in his approach, although it must be said that he does write extremely well. I note in my review that, ‘As op-eds go, those in this book are exemplary – colourful, hard-hitting, and penetrating.’ ‘But’, as I also say, ‘an op-ed is not a work of scientific research, and readers should treat Medvedev’s arguments with caution.’

If there is a single argument running through Medvedev’s book it is this: that there’s something deeply wrong with the Russian psyche. Medvedev writes of the ‘mass infantilization of public consciousness’, an ‘embittered, alienated and provincial consciousness’, ‘an undeveloped mass consciousness’, and the ‘archaic, pre-rational and mystical condition of our national consciousness’. Russia, he says, is ‘a society mired in lies, cynicism and lack of trust, having lost all hope for the future.’ Its defining characteristics are the ‘syndrome of trained helplessness’ and the ‘condition of resentment,’ defined as ‘the moral of slaves.’ You get the theme: Russia as a whole, says Medvedev, ‘is in desperate need of collective therapy.’

It turns out, though, that he’s not the only one saying this. If you go the book section of the latest edition of the Russian Review, just above my review of The Return of the Russian Leviathan you’ll find a review of Andrei Kovalev’s memoir Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin. Reading it, I had an odd sense of déjà vu, as all the same criticisms as I had made of Medvedev popped up again. Kovalev is a retired Soviet/Russian diplomat of what one might call ‘liberal’ inclinations, who like Medvedev is keen to expose the evils of modern Russia. In the process, comments reviewer Robert English, he ‘engages in some questionable psychiatry of his own’. English cites Kovalev as saying that, ‘Russia is sick. Its illness is complex and psychosomatic in character. This presents itself, among other ways, as manic-depressive psychosis accompanied by acute megalomania, persecution complex, and kleptomania, all compounded by dystrophy.’ Kovalev’s position, according to English, is that ‘The opinion of most of the population is irrelevant since their “slave psychology” makes them easy to brainwash and everything is decided by the KGB-silovik elite in any event’. ‘It would make any but the most extreme Russophobes blush’, English concludes.

What Medvedev and Kovalev have in common is their belief that Russians have ‘the moral of slaves’ (as Medvedev puts it) or the ‘slave psychology’ (in Kovalev’s words). This is a centuries-old trope, dating back at least as far as the sixteenth century writings of Sigismund von Herberstein, but as I found out in something else I read this week, the idea got a more general boost from the infamous Frankfurt School of scholars, which came up with the concept of ‘The Authoritarian Personality’.

This was the title of a book published in 1950 in the United States on the basis of research originally conducted in Germany in the 1930s before the School’s members fled from the Nazis. Supposedly, the authoritarian personality reflects ‘personal insecurities which result in the superego adhering to externally imposed conventional norms, and unquestioning obedience to the authorities who impose and administer the social norms of society (authoritarian submission).’ From this theory emerged the ‘F-Test’, which supposedly reveals how disposed one is towards fascism. Unfortunately, when the F-Test was tried out on Nazi war criminals, they didn’t score particularly highly, but that rather significant snag didn’t stop it having some influence, and the idea spread that authoritarianism could be explained by a certain personality type.

I wasn’t previously aware of this, and it goes some way towards explaining the logic of Yuri Levada and his research into the ‘Soviet man’ (Homo sovieticus), which is a sort of social scientific effort to measure the allegedly authoritarian personality and ‘slave mentality’ of the Russian people. Levada died in 2006, but the research centre which bears his name continues his work, and this week it issued a new survey as part of its ‘Soviet man’ project, with results which are either somewhat encouraging or somewhat alarming, depending on your point of view.

According to the latest survey, Russians have become more tolerant toward groups such as gays, prostitutes, and feminists, but less tolerant toward religious sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the one hand, only 32% of respondents said that gays and lesbians should be ‘isolated from society’ compared with 37% five years ago, thus giving rise to the headline of ‘increased tolerance’ (although it should be pointed out that another 18% think that gays and lesbians should be ‘liquidated’). On the other hand, 41% think that members of religious sects should be ‘isolated from society’ and another 21% think that they should be ‘liquidated’, an increase since the previous survey.

All this talk of ‘liquidation’ and ‘isolation from society’ doesn’t suggest a very liberal state of mind among the Russian people (75% think paedophiles should be ‘liquidated’, 9% think the same of feminists!). If you take this survey at face value, it’s more than a little scary. The question therefore arises of whether one should take it at face value. As I mentioned in a previous post, Levada’s methodology has been criticized as ‘colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer’. Unfortunately, I’m not qualified to say how true that it is, but one does wonder what Russians think they are saying when they reply that they want to ‘liquidate’ people, and one also has to wonder whether 21% of them really would want to ‘liquidate’ Jehovah’s Witnesses if some survey didn’t ask them to consider it. It could be that their attitudes really are quite scary. Or then again maybe not. I’m not sure.

In an article in Kommersant, political scientist Aleksei Makarkin commented that the language and practice of isolation and liquidation comes from Soviet times, but a really interesting book I read last week suggests an even earlier, and perhaps more surprising source, positing that the Soviets got the language from pre-revolutionary liberal psychiatrists and sociologists. In short all this talk of ‘isolating’ people has its origins in the liberal human sciences.

In Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930, Daniel Beer examines how late Imperial liberal intellectuals took on board Social Darwinist ideas of ‘degeneration’ and argued for the need for drastic measures to restore the health (ozdorovlenie) of the Russian people. According to their logic, social conditions had the effect of producing forms of social deviancy (crime, alcoholism, laziness, etc), which were then reproduced in offspring (through a Lamarckian system of biological evolution), leading to the gradual degeneration of the nation over several generations. This process applied to the richer classes (whose privileged lives produced degenerate people) as well as to the poor. Making matters worse, a process of ‘moral contagion’ meant that the degenerate morals of the deviant tended to spread to the healthy elements of the population, gradually infecting all. The only solutions were a) a radical altering of the social and economic system, and b) measures to ‘isolate’ the morally degenerate in ‘special institutions’ in a type of ‘indefinite preventive detention’. In this way, liberals became supporters of decidedly authoritarian measures. According to Beer, the Soviet regime then picked up on these theories and ‘began to universalize the principle of social defense’, in which society defended itself by isolating ‘corruptive elements’ from the rest of society.

Thus, concludes Beer, ‘Russian liberalism … proved to be the unwitting architect of significant features of the project that triumphed over it.’ If so, it may not have been a coincidence. As Isaiah Berlin argued in his famous essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, if you take the line that people can’t be free because they’re not able to reason properly, then you can justify all sorts of repressive measures. In this way, the pursuit of liberty leads to its destruction. It’s an irony worth bearing in mind whenever the talk turns to the moral failings of the people.