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.


Friday object lesson #12: dominoes

My Soviet roommate gave me these dominoes in 1987. I learnt a lot of colourful Russian language playing games with him and others! I have often wondered why the lid says ‘Domino’ and ‘made in USSR’ in English.


Hard pounding in Donbass

The war in Donbass is turning more and more into a war of artillery. Between May and August, large amounts of territory switched owners as first the government forces and then the rebels carried out dramatic manoeuvres. For the last few months, however, the front lines have hardly moved, and in the past week the volume of artillery fire has reached unprecedented levels. As the Duke of Wellington allegedly said at the Battle of Waterloo, ‘Hard pounding this, gentlemen, let us see who will pound the longest.’

The lack of manoeuvre, the dominance of the artillery, and the seemingly pointless battles over tiny pieces of territory – most notably Donetsk airport – increasingly resemble the First World War, with the important exception that combat is taking place not in the countryside but in cities. Civilians, therefore, are suffering in large numbers. A hundred years ago, generals dreamt of breaking through ‘the mud and blood to the green fields beyond’, as the motto of the Tank Corps put it. If the warring parties in Ukraine are unwilling to make peace, the only way for the suffering to end is for one or other of them to achieve this.

Right now, the rebels appear to have the initiative. In the past week, they have captured the new terminal of what remains of Donetsk airport, entered the nearby village of Peski, taken ‘checkpoint 31’ in Lugansk Province, and advanced a short distance towards Mariupol. This has been made possible by what appears to be a substantial increase in military support from Russia (above all, there must have been a supply of a copious volume of artillery shells). But is not clear how far Russia is willing to go. The signals are confusing. On the one hand, Russian officials have been uttering what sound like threats, saying that in escalating military activity the Ukrainians have made a blunder which they will regret; on the other hand, the Russian government has announced that it wishes to work to produce a new ceasefire. Russia seems to be willing to give the rebels what they need to avoid defeat, but it doesn’t seem to be willing to give them what they need for victory.

The resources available to the Ukrainian state far outweigh those available to the rebels – a population of some 40 million people, and huge stores of military equipment left over from the Soviet era (much of it in a poor state of repair, but theoretically usable given a bit of effort). Were Ukraine to wage total war, committing its entire population and economy, it could crush the rebellion (albeit with enormous bloodshed, and assuming that doing so did not provoke a massive Russian response). Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko recently announced a new round of conscription designed to increase the size of the armed forces to 250,000. This is not total war, and insufficient to defeat the rebels. Knowing that anything more would produce serious social, economic, and political problems, Kiev is still fighting its war half-heartedly.

Imperial Russia’s most famous military theorist, M.I. Dragomirov, commented that war consisted of two components: the physical and the moral. Put another way, war is a matter of mass and of will. The rebels have the will, but not the mass. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have the mass but not the will. For the stalemate to be broken by military means, one or other of these has to change.

Is irrationality a bad thing?

For the next three months, this blog will track my university course ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, with a post each week on the subject of that week’s class. The aim will be to analyze what makes politicians act in what seem to be irrational ways in their dealings with other countries.

Is irrationality a bad thing? That depends in part on how you define rationality. For the purpose of this post, I will limit myself to a definition which relates to process. A rational decision, according to this definition, is one reached on the basis of evidence rather than faith or emotion, and one for which the evidence has been weighed against several hypotheses to determine which best fits it. This is called ‘analytical reasoning’, and it is the sort of rational decision making which is taught in business schools and military academies – don’t prejudge the answer, collect as much evidence as possible, compare it objectively to several possible courses of action, analyze the costs and benefits of each course, and then pick the option which has the best cost-benefit ratio.

The reason for teaching businessmen and military officers to reason in this way is that it supposedly leads to the best results. It seems obvious that it should: after all, a better informed, properly reasoned plan of action should be better than a snap judgement. In his 1989 book Crucial Decisions: Leadership in Policymaking and Crisis Management Irving L. Janis argued that when political leaders use analytical decision making, they make better decisions. For instance, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 was a product of poor decision making processes in the American government, with President Kennedy failing to consult widely, consider alternatives, or analyze the likely outcome of his plan. By contrast, Kennedy succeeded in navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis precisely because he did use analytical reasoning.

Not everyone agrees with Janis, however. In class this week, we shall discuss Gary Klein’s 2011 book Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. Klein points out that experts rarely use analytical decision making. While data is important in making good decisions, the expert only needs a limited amount. Research suggests that anything beyond that actually undermines decision making. Horse racing experts, for instance, make better decisions about which horse will win a race if they have just four or five pieces of data about the horse and the race conditions than if they have many more. Also, good decision makers don’t actually consider lots of alternative courses of action. Generally, they consider only one or two. They follow not their reason but their ‘gut’, an instinct based on experience. The experienced fire fighter or pilot, facing a crisis, can act immediately and decisively, reasoning not analytically according to the model above but through analogy with his previous experience. Analytical reasoning, says Klein, has its place, but generally it isn’t the best way of doing things.

Is Janis or Klein right? It depends. The fire fighter encounters fires on a regular basis. He acquires enormous experience in a relatively predictable environment. He has numerous examples to compare to the one he is currently encountering. He also, quite probably, doesn’t have the time to engage in analytical decision making. Relying on his ‘gut’ may well be the best way to go.

That does not mean, however, that the same is true at the political level. Take, for instance, a finance minister tackling an economic recession: how many previous recessions has he experienced as finance minister? Given that these come around only once a decade or so, probably none. He doesn’t have the experience to rely on ‘gut’.  Moreover, economics is a lot more complex than fire: one recession is not necessarily at all like another.

Now, take things to the level of international affairs. Some more routine matters, such as international trade, may resemble each other sufficiently for a politician to gain real experience in them, but such matters tend to be extremely technical and not easily subject to instinct. Meanwhile, serious international crises are never the same twice. How much experience do Western politicians have which is relevant to dealing with the crisis in Ukraine? Not a lot – there haven’t been any cases similar to the Russian takeover of Crimea, and none of the current Western leaders were in power the last time there was a war in Europe (twenty years ago in the Balkans). Lacking experience of their own to refer to, politicians who fail to engage in analytical reasoning have to fall back on historical analogy. Modern Russia is thus the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union; Putin is Stalin or Hitler, etc. The problem is not only that these analogies are faulty, but that policies based upon them fail to take into account the actual circumstances of the present day. The result is policies which fail to achieve their stated aims.

In short, politics isn’t fire fighting, and politicians are not fire fighters. Politicians simply aren’t experts in the way that other professionals are, or at least their expertise is in politics and not in making decisions on specific issues. Their decision making instincts are not reliable in the way those of other professionals may be. I remain unconvinced, therefore, that relying on those instincts is better than relying on reason.

Cossacks: ‘Putin is our Emperor’

During the Russian Civil War, Atamanshchina bedevilled the anti-Bolshevik White Armies. The leaders – Atamans – of the Cossack forces which made up a large part of the White Armies often refused to take orders from the General Staff officers who notionally commanded them. Areas controlled by Cossack troops suffered numerous depredations, including pogroms. Atamanshchina came to symbolize all that was wrong about White rule, most notably its lack of central authority and its lawlessness.

In a recent post, I remarked that the future of the rebel republics in Ukraine depended upon their ability to centralize authority and build properly functioning states. The omens are not good. Atamanshchina appears to be alive and well today in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), with much of the LPR under the control of Cossack forces who refuse to accept the authority of the republic’s government led by Igor Plotnitsky. News reports in December that the main Cossack leader, Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn, had left the LPR and returned to Russia sparked speculation that he had been ordered out by someone powerful in Russia in an effort to strengthen Plotnitsky’s authority. Last week, though, Kozitsyn gave an interview claiming that he continues to command Cossack forces in the LPR, albeit from inside Russia. ‘Nobody has the right to deprive me of command’, Kozitsyn said.

In his interview Kozitsyn claimed that his troops control 80% of the LPR. He does not recognize the LPR, he said, ‘it is a utopia.’ Rather, he added, ‘We say that we are part of the Russian Empire. Today we recognize Putin as our Emperor.’ I wonder what Putin thinks of that.

Knocking down Lenin

‘Ленин живёт’ (‘Lenin lives’), the signs in the Soviet Union used to say. Lenin was ubiquitous. His picture looked out from posters and from the front of newspapers. Every town seemed to have a ‘Lenin street’, a ‘Lenin square’ and, of course, a Lenin statue. In the last decades of the Soviet Union, Lenin represented the good side of communist rule, as opposed to the bad side represented by Stalin. Introducing his glasnost’ and perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev, claimed to be going back to the original values of Leninism, which he said had been distorted by later Soviet rulers. Lenin was beyond reproach.

In reality, Lenin was an ideological zealot who regarded most of his countrymen with contempt, and imposed his own vision upon them with extreme violence. ‘Comrades! The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity,’ Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik party in Penza in the midst of the ‘Red Terror’, ‘You must make an example of these people. 1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Seize all their grain. 4) Designate hostages in accordance with yesterday’s telegram. Do this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks, and that we will continue to do so.’ This was Lenin – a brutal despot, who brought ruin upon his country. Stalinism was not an aberration; it was a natural evolution of Leninism.

The revolution last year in Ukraine brought with it a spate of demolitions of Lenin statues. Many Ukrainians, especially those of a ‘pro-Western’ inclination, believe that Ukraine’s dismal economic and political progress since independence is a product of a ‘Soviet mentality’ which continues to exercise a powerful influence, particularly in the east of the country. Knocking down Lenin statues strikes a blow at this mentality, and clears the way for a new one.

Many other Ukrainians, however, accept the myth of the ‘good Lenin’, and view the Soviet Union as something not entirely bad. It defeated the Nazis in the ‘Great Patriotic War’; it provided jobs and security; it is a key part of who they are. Attacks on Lenin are attacks on them.

This week the former rebel stronghold of Slavyansk in the province of Donetsk made headlines again when a group of activists tried to demolish the local Lenin statue, but were blocked by a war veteran who stood in front of the monument to protect it. Ukrainian troops then told the would-be demolition team to disperse. Lenin was saved.

Saving Lenin in Slavayansk
Saving Lenin in Slavyansk

I cannot think of anything positive to say about Lenin, consider communism wrong in theory and disastrous in practice, and view the continuing Soviet mentality as something which Ukraine would be better off without. But I also understand that other people see things differently. Ukrainians do not have a unified comprehension of history. Some have no problem with statues of Stepan Bandera, but object strongly to those of Lenin; others the opposite. If they are to live peacefully together, they have to tolerate one another’s viewpoints, however mistaken these may be. My problem with the Lenin-smashers, therefore, is not that they dislike the Soviet Union, but that they are attempting to forcibly impose their view of history upon others when those others are not ready to accept it. Knocking down Lenin smacks of contempt of others’ most cherished beliefs.

To digress a little: as I have shown in my book Aiding Afghanistan, communist economists used to think that economic development was just a matter of capital accumulation. Provide Third World countries with capital, and their economies would grow, the theory went. After a while, the communists realized that this wasn’t the case: social and political institutions were the most important thing – successful investment was impossible if these institutions acted as barriers to growth. In Afghanistan, the communists then took this logic to mean that what was holding the country back was the existing institutions – the landlords, the mullahs, and all they stood for. They had to be smashed as a precondition for progress. So the communists went around smashing them. The result was counter-revolution. The communists’ analysis wasn’t wrong, but their solution was. The institutions were indeed a barrier to progress, but the people didn’t like seeing them destroyed and rose up in arms to stop this from happening. Attempting to force change produced war.

The Lenin demolition crews in Ukraine are somewhat similar, and symbolize the broader attitude which has produced war in that country. They may be right about the negative effects of Soviet nostalgia, but their efforts to do something about it cause more harm than good. If there is one thing worse than bad institutions it is people trying to smash them without having the agreement of others to do so. Much as I dislike Lenin, therefore, on the whole I tend to the view that, at least for now, he ought to be allowed to stay.

Russia, the West, and the world

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