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There are times when I near the point of total despair. This week’s Congressional hearings into alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election are such a moment.

Answering questions about Russia, FBI Director James Comey said the following:

He [Putin] hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was that he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

They engaged in a multifaceted campaign to undermine our democracy.

They were unusually loud in their intervention. It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew, that they wanted us to see what they were doing.

Their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of our entire democracy enterprise of this nation.

They’ll be back. They’ll be back, in 2020. They may be back in 2018.

Also, in response to the question ‘Would they like to see more Brexits?’, Comey said ‘Yes.’

These statements were described by the BBC as ‘things the FBI knows about Russia’. Note the use of the word ‘knows’. In a previous post, I pointed out the need to differentiate between fact and opinion. In his evidence to Congress, Comey didn’t say that these things were his opinion. He stated them as facts, as things he ‘knows’. Putin ‘hated’ Clinton; Russians’ mission ‘is’ to undermine American democracy; ‘Yes’, they do want more Brexits, etc.

But what evidence did Comey produce to support what he was saying? None. These were opinions, masquerading as facts, not actual facts. So the question which then arises is whether Comey’s opinions on Russia are ones we should trust.

The organization he heads – the FBI – is an internal policy agency. It isn’t its job to analyze Russia, Russian politics, or Russian politicians, nor does it have the expertise to do so. It doesn’t know what’s going on inside Vladimir Putin’s head; it doesn’t have an inside line to what Russians are thinking about their ‘mission’ and whether they want to undermine American democracy; it doesn’t have any particular knowledge about what Russia’s leaders think about Brexit.

Simply put, unless  he has been spending the last few years learning Russian, speaking to Russians, interrogating Putin and his ministers, reading Putin’s speeches, analyzing what well-researched publications have to say on the subject, and the like (which of course he hasn’t), Comey isn’t qualified to make judgments of these sorts. And he certainly isn’t entitled to present them as definite facts.

Nor are his Congressional interrogators any better.

Take this exchange between Comey and Representative Jackie Speier (who had previously called Igor Sechin ‘CEO of the Russian gas giant, Rosneft’):

Speier: Do you know anything about Gazprom, Director?

Comey: I don’t.

Speier: Well, it’s a – it’s an oil company.



It’s RosNEFT stupid! It’s GAZprom!

And what about Comey? One minute he’s telling us with 100% confidence that he knows exactly what they’re thinking in the Kremlin, something which even the most seasoned Kremlinologists would have to admit they don’t have the faintest clue about, and the next he’s admitting that he doesn’t even know what Gazprom is.

#$@&%*!  – He doesn’t know what Gazprom is!!! But yet, he ‘knows’ Moscow’s innermost secret plans!

These guys are clowns. They are beyond ignorant, because they are ignorant even of their own ignorance.





Nobody should take these hearings in the slightest bit seriously.

Charismatic legitimacy

In pre-revolutionary China, the Emperor’s legitimacy was said to derive from the ‘mandate of heaven’. On the one hand, proof that an Emperor had such a mandate came from his success. On the other hand, if the Emperor was unsuccessful, that was evidence that he did not have a mandate from heaven, in which case rebellion against him was justifiable.

In an article commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the February (March, new style) revolution, Russian conservative thinker Boris Mezhuev has developed a somewhat similar theory regarding the legitimacy of Russian government. Mezhuev notes that the revolution of February/March 1917 went beyond overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II and resulted in the complete destruction of the monarchy. Theoretically speaking, this didn’t have to happen, he says. It should have been possible to replace Nicholas with somebody else. Indeed, that was most people originally had in mind – some sort of revolution or coup d’etat which would result either in a change of government under the same Tsar, or in a substitution of one Tsar for another, while at the same time possibly producing a new more democratic form of constitutional monarchy. Why then, Mezhuev asks, did the revolution instead result in the creation of a republic?

The answer, he says, lay in Russians’ shallow understanding of monarchy and political legitimacy. Mezhuev calls this a ‘weakness of institutional thinking’. Russian government, he claims, was based upon a form of legitimacy which he terms ‘charismatic legitimacy’. This was focused on the personality of the ruler and perceptions of his success. A successful Tsar was legitimate. An unsuccessful one wasn’t.

Nicholas II’s fateful mistake, according to Mezhuev, was taking personal command of the army in August 1915. Although the Russian army ceased to retreat soon afterwards, and did win a major victory in 1916 in the form of the Brusilov Offensive, overall it failed to make significant progress with the Tsar as Supreme Commander. Nicholas thus came to be seen as illegitimate, in essence as lacking the ‘mandate of heaven.’ More than this, though, the monarchy as a whole lost its legitimacy. Failure in war ensured its downfall.

The same pattern repeated itself in Soviet times. The legitimacy of the Soviet system came to be associated with the head of the Communist Party. When the Party was led by someone who was clearly failing – Mikhail Gorbachev – not just Gorbachev, but communist rule as a whole lost its legitimacy. ‘People will look at the existing ruler’, Mezhuev writes, ‘and at the regime they lead, and ask: if you are like that, Mikhail Sergeevich, then we don’t need the USSR, and if you are like that, Nicholas II, then down with the monarchy’.

‘The problem’, continues Mezhuev, ‘is the idea that victory beats everything, that the victor should receive all. This idea destroys all institutions in a country, both democratic and monarchical. … Charismatic legitimacy is a recognition of the supremacy of the truth of revolution over the truth of historical legality’. A system founded on charismatic legitimacy carries the seeds of revolution within itself. Mezhuev concludes:

I am convinced that a republic can arise in Russia only as a result of a restoration, or more precisely, some sort of restoration or renewal of traditional monarchical legitimacy. Whether a monarch is restored or not isn’t important. What’s important is that people recognize that the power of tradition is more important than the power of force.

There is, I think, something to this. Basing the legitimacy of an entire system upon perceptions of a given ruler’s success is extremely risky. Furthermore, other sources of legitimacy such as elections can only go so far. Factors such as history, tradition, culture, and religion (which I imagine would fit within Mezhuev’s definition of ‘traditional monarchical legitimacy’) are extremely important.

Unfortunately for modern Russia, charismatic legitimacy remains an extremely important foundation of the political system. Indeed, the system almost guarantees this by concentrating so much power in the hands of the president. So far, Vladimir Putin’s enormous popularity has ensured that the political order established by Boris Yeltsin can survive. But what would happen if Russia had a president who not only lacked Putin’s charisma but was also an obvious failure? At that point, there is a danger that the whole system might come tumbling down.

If Mezhuev is right, therefore, the lesson of the Russian revolution may be that Russia’s long-term stability depends on how successful its rulers are in creating sources of legitimacy other than themselves. Given the catastrophic results of the revolutions of 1917, we must hope that they succeed.

A tale of two cities

‘Putin projects Russian might. A decaying town tells a different story’. So says Maria Antonova in an article in Sunday’s New York Times. Antonova comes from the town of Donskoi in Tula province, a few hours south of Moscow, and her grandfather was mayor in Soviet times. After the USSR collapsed, Donskoi’s industry collapsed too. Now, says Antonova, the town is ‘in a state of ruin’. Despite having a population of 30,000 ‘there is not a single café.’

With the help of Google, I decided to take a look. True enough, Donskoi appears to have just one restaurant (named ‘Plazma’), a very small shopping centre which on Google Street View seems to have a faux MacDonald’s burger bar named Mru, and the Viktoria café-bar on Ulitsa Lenina which portrays itself more as a bar than a café. So yes, eating and drinking choices in Donskoi are pretty meagre. Moreover, if you drive around the streets on Google Street View, it doesn’t look like a very prosperous place.

But Antonova doesn’t leave it at that. She goes on: ‘The problems here are common in provincial towns: potholed roads, ancient uitilities, and underfunded healthcare’. In this way, she portrays Donskoi as an example of all that is wrong in what is often called ‘Putin’s Russia’ – a land of decaying towns whose resources have been sucked away by Moscow to pay the war in Syria and for frivolities like the Sochi Olympics.

But is Donskoi typical?

Just three kilometres from Donskoi is another town – Novomoskovsk, the local administrative centre. With the help of Google, I was able to discover that: Novomoskovsk has several shopping malls including a swanky new 18,000 square metre shopping centre (the ‘First Shopping Centre’) on Trudovye Reservy Street. It has a 3-D cinema; a real MacDonald’s; multiple restaurants; and no shortage of cafés: the Sinyor Pomidor; the Pomegranate Seed; Lyuks; Robin Sdobin; and so on.

Pervyi shopping centre, Novomoskovsk

In short, while Donskoi does indeed appear to be a bit of a dump, Novomoskovsk (which is within walking distance of Donskoi) seems to be doing fairly well. Drawing sweeping conclusions about the state of modern Russia from the sole example of Donskoi is, therefore, rather misleading.

To draw a parallel, it’s a bit like when Donald Trump visits some particularly depressed rust-belt town in the USA and uses it to suggest that America as a whole is in terminal decline. The New York Times really dislikes that tactic, and spends a lot of its time denouncing it. It’s rather ironic that it should think that the same ploy is valid when it comes to Russia.

Book review: Holy Rus’

The Russian Orthodox Church is generally portrayed in the West as corrupt, deeply reactionary, and totally subordinate to the state. Yet while there is an anti-clerical element in Russia which shares this point of view, in general Russians regard their Church very favourably. Meanwhile, over the past 25 years the number of Russians self-identifying as Orthodox has increased from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population. How can we explain why Russians have turned in such large numbers towards an institution which is supposedly so rotten?

The obvious explanation is that the Russian Orthodox Church isn’t as bad as it is made out to be. This, in essence, is the argument of John Burgess’s new book Holy Rus’. Burgess, an American Calvinist theologian, has spent several years examining the Orthodox Church close up and seeing what it is that is actually doing. From this, he concludes that:

When we examine the Russian Orthodox Church only in terms of its compromises with and subservience to the state, we miss the extraordinary religious renaissance that is taking place on the ground far away from official meetings between the president and the patriarch. Major initiatives in education, social ministry, historical commemoration, and parish life are helping the Church reach deeply into Russian society. Whatever the Church’s faults and failures – and they are real – I have seen how Russia is the better for the Church’s efforts to bring its values into society.


Continue reading Book review: Holy Rus’

Infamous Putinphile

My old University of Toronto friend Bill Szuch, who produces the UkeTube youtube channel, has published a rather fun interview with Taras Kuzio denouncing the ‘Russophiles’ and ‘Putinphiles’ in Canadian universities. The roll of honour is: myself (apparently I am ‘infamous’, which pleases me no end); Ivan Katchanovski (author of a well-known study of the shootings on Maidan); University of Ottawa’s Chair of Ukrainian Studies Dominique Arel (who I am sure will be most surprised to be listed among the Putinphiles); Mikhail Molchanov of St Thomas’ University; and Carleton University’s Piotr Diutkewicz. John-Paul Himka also gets a mention.

One thing which puzzles me is why Kuzio thinks that I am ‘anti-American’. What he gets right, however, is that there are quite a few Canadian academics – including several whom Kuzio didn’t mention – who don’t follow the normal Kremlin-bashing line and who have put forward alternative perspectives about the war in Ukraine as well as other issues (see, for instance chapters in this and this). In fact, it is interesting that scholarly analysis of these issues tends to be much more sober and balanced than what you read in the press.

Anyway, watch and enjoy below.


Friday book # 55: Russia against Napoleon

Today’s book is Dominic Lieven’s history of the struggles between Russia and France, 1807-1814. Lieven, who comes from a distinguished family of Baltic German nobles, is an excellent scholar. His journalist brother Anatol is one of the saner voices to comment on Russian affairs in the Western media.