Back in June, my students and I had the good fortune to receive a guided tour of the Russian State Duma. The highlight for many of the students was a meeting with hockey legend (and Duma deputy) Vladislav Tretyak, but far more of our time was spent participating rather unexpectedly in an opening ceremony for a new institution – the Soviet Lifestyle Museum.
In my last post I drew attention to a strange schizophrenia in the way many commentators view Russia. On one hand, there’s what I will call model one, in which they blame the country’s problems and its supposed aggression on the authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. On the other hand, there’s model two, in which they consider these problems to be the product of some supposedly innate characteristic of the Russian people – the ‘Russian soul’, as it were. Model one often takes the form of extreme Putinophobia – that is to say a tendency to blame everything one doesn’t like about Russia on the malign character of the country’s president. Model two manifests itself in sweeping statements about Russians, which if made about another people might be considered racist. The two models tend to go hand in hand, but they’re not easily compatible – after all, if it’s all Putin’s fault, then the nature of the Russian character is irrelevant.
This schizophrenia is on full display in a controversial article published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled ‘The Putin I knew: the Putin I know’, it’s written by Franz Sedelmayer, a businessman who worked in the 1990s in St Petersburg, where he became well acquainted with the then deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin. In his article Sedelmayer recounts how Putin helped him set up his business. In 1996, though, Sedelmayer was a victim of ‘reiderstvo’ – raiding, or asset grabbing – when the Russian state illegally seized control of his company. Reiderstvo was pretty common back in the Yeltsin years, and it still happens, though one gets the impression that there’s not quite as much of it as in the 1990s and that Western businesses are safer than they used to be. Anyway, Putin apparently told Sedelmayer that there was nothing he could do to help him, and from that moment on their friendship was over. Putin changed, Sedelmayer writes. Previously, Putin ‘acted rationally and appeared to be sincere in his interest in St. Petersburg. He didn’t take bribes’. Now, though, he:
is in many ways similar to President Trump. Like him, Volodya makes decisions based on snap judgments, rather than long deliberation. He’s vindictive and petty. He holds grudges and deeply hates being made fun of. He is said to dislike long, complicated briefings and to find reading policy papers onerous.
Like Mr. Trump, the Mr. Putin I know reacts to events instead of proactively developing a long-term strategy. But in sophistication, he is very different. A former K.G.B. officer, he understands how to use disinformation (deza), lies (vranyo), and compromise (kompromat) to create chaos in the West and at home …. More than anything, he wants to be taken as an equal or a superior, trying to destroy anything with which he cannot compete.
There are quite a few unsubstantiated assertions here. And it’s all very personal. As so often, Russia is reduced to Putin – when things happen that we don’t like, it’s Putin’s fault. Thus Sedelmayer writes,
President Vladimir Putin of Russia celebrated the New Year by having an American tourist, Paul Whelan, arrested as a spy. Mr. Whelan was in Moscow to attend a wedding. But Mr. Putin needed a hostage as a potential trade for a Russian woman with Kremlin connections — Maria Butina, who had pleaded guilty of conspiring with a Russian official “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” So Mr. Putin grabbed Mr. Whelan, who has not been released.
Perhaps this is accurate, but then again perhaps not. How does Sedelmayer know that Putin personally ordered Whelan’s arrest – ‘Putin grabbed Mr Whelan’ (Really? He did it himself?) – and that he did so as a hostage to exchange for Maria Butina? Butina isn’t even charged with espionage, and given how long she’s already been in prison prior to trial, she’ll likely be out fairly soon anyway. There’s no obvious reason to want to exchange her.
All this falls firmly within model one. But like so many others, Sedelmayer can’t resist explaining matters also by model two. As he writes:
A couple of months ago Volodya tried — luckily, he failed — to insert a crony as head of Interpol, the international police organization, presumably so he could turn it into his personal posse. Of course he did. Corruption is in Russia’s DNA.
Putin’s friends are rumoured to be holding billions of dollars on his behalf. But when he retires, will his friends give him his money, Sedelmayer asks. Probably not, he replies:
Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve lived in Russia. Sharing’s not the Russian way.
‘Oh, those Russians!’ as Boney M said.
I have some sympathy with Sedelmayer. Like a lot of people in Russia in the 1990s, he got robbed. He has reason to feel bitter. But it wasn’t because ‘corruption is in Russia’s DNA’. And it wasn’t Putin that robbed him – it was Boris Yeltsin’s state. Sedelmayer would do better to analyze the causes of the anarchic lawlessness of the Yeltsin era and and to study the specific route that Russia took in the 1990s. That would require an approach closer to that adopted by Tony Wood in his book ‘Russia without Putin’. It would be more complex, but it would also be more helpful.
Instead we get a combination of model one and model two, both of which oversimplify. Mixing them together – by personalizing Russia’s problems while simultaneously blaming them on innate national characteristics – serves only to confuse and to reinforce simplistic prejudices which suggest that whatever differences we may have with the Russians are entirely their fault. But maybe that’s the point.
How does fake news get propagated? There are many answers. One is bad translations. Did Vladimir Putin really say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the ‘greatest tragedy’ of the 20th century? Many would say not. The official translation is that the collapse was ‘a major geopolitical catastrophe’, which though similar is actually very different. Did ex-President Ahmadinejad of Iran really say that Israel must be ‘wiped off the map’? Some say yes, but others like Juan Cole argue that what he actually did was express a hope that someday Israel would disappear – again similar, but fundamentally different. The point here is that dodgy, or at the very least contestable, translations can rapidly gain a life of their own and be accepted as absolute truth. They then spread far and wide as a sort of fake news.
Which brings us to this week’s revelation that Vladimir Putin was once an artilleryman. While at university, it seems, he had the rank of reserve artillery lieutenant. This previously unknown detail from Putin’s past soon appeared throughout the Western press. The Guardian, for instance, reported that,
Vladimir Putin has revealed that he commanded an artillery battalion during the Soviet period, a detail of his shadowy biography that was previously unknown.
Putin made the comment during a visit on Monday to St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, where he pulled the lever on a cannon that fires a daily salute at noon over the Neva River.
“I received the rank of lieutenant as an artilleryman, as the commander of a howitzer artillery battalion… 122mm [calibre],” Putin said, according to video footage posted by the Kremlin. He gave no further details.
Other press outlets leapt onto the battalion commander bandwagon. ‘Putin reveals for the first time that he commanded an artillery battalion,’ says the Daily Mail. ‘Vladimir Putin says he once commanded an artillery battalion,’ claims Newsweek. And so on.
Except Putin didn’t say anything of the sort.
An artillery unit consists of individual guns grouped together into batteries (normally four to eight guns per battery). Batteries are then grouped into battalions (which the Brits sometimes call regiments, though Russian regiments are larger, consisting of several battalions). Assuming six guns a battery, and three batteries per battalion, an artillery battalion might have 18 guns. That’s a lot for a junior reserve lieutenant to command.
The Russian term for an artillery battalion is ‘divizion’ (дивизион), which shouldn’t be confused with ‘diviziia’ (дивизия), which is the equivalent of the Western term ‘division’. But Putin did not say that he had commanded a divizion; he said he had commanded a ‘vzvod’ (взвод). More precisely, his exact words were: ‘ Я получил звание лейтенант как артиллерист, командир взвода управления гаубичной артиллерии’, which translates roughly as ‘I received the rank of lieutenant, as an artilleryman, commander of the control platoon of howitzer artillery’.
So Putin did not say that he commanded an artillery battalion. What he actually said was that he commanded a platoon.
Did anybody get this right? I’ve been able to find only one outlet which did – Sputnik News (though even this managed to screw things up by talking about an artillery ‘division’, which is probably a confusion with the Russian word ‘divizion’, i.e. battalion). Thus Sputnik tells us:
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 7 January that he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant as platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division.
‘It turns out, we are both artillerymen. I was promoted to lieutenant as an artilleryman, platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division… 122-millimetre [calibre]’, Putin stated.
I realize that this may appear stunningly pedantic. Battalion, platoon, what does it matter? It matters because in the first place, if you can’t get basic facts right, you don’t deserve to be trusted; and second, because it tells us something about how ‘fake news’ spreads. Someone says something which others consider a juicy story, and then they just repeat it. Along the way, nobody bothers to check the facts. The result is completely false headlines which will no doubt soon be repeated far and wide as established truth.
The battalion commander story was obvious nonsense. Anybody with a tiny bit of knowledge of military affairs should have realized that a reserve lieutenant could not possibly have commanded a battalion. The Guardian, which got it wrong, is of course a bastion of top notch journalism, despite publishing such bloopers as last week’s claim that Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker theory (that Stalin intended to attack Germany in 1941) ‘now has broad acceptance among historians’ (it doesn’t, and has been thoroughly debunked in great detail by Gabriel Gorodetsky and others). Sputnik, on the other hand, which got it right, is a purveyor of fake news and ‘disinformation’. Go figure!
I spend most of my time on this blog mocking all the exaggerated nonsense which passes for political commentary nowadays. It’s a rare day that I come across something which is both stimulating and well-written. Fortunately, this is one of those days. Via Facebook (which has its uses), I was pointed in the direction of an excellent article by Patrick Lawrence in this summer’s edition of the magazine Raritan Quarterly, of which I had not previously been aware. I can recommend it to you all, and you can find it here.
In my last post, I made fun of the demand that people should learn less about history and culture. Those making this demand clearly fear that an understanding of context will undermine the simple narratives they are peddling. This is how Putinversteher (someone who understands Putin) became a dirty word. Understanding is a bad thing. Patrick Lawrence comments in his article that,
None of our prevailing versions of Putin has any context. There is no trace of Russian history, political culture, national priorities, or national identity in any of them. In conversation I call this POLO, the power of leaving out, for it is perniciously effective. Leaving out context is an old trick among the propagandists – and of our press, we must at last recognize. It now turns our discourse into irrational nonsense.
Amen to that! But what is the context that we need to understand in this case? Lawrence argues that it relates to the fact that Russia was ‘a late developer’ compared to that part of the world which we call the West. This created a problem for Russians, as they had to answer the question ‘Was to modernize to Westernize?’ Answering that question in turn required them to engage in some soul-searching ‘for believable accounts of identity’. In response, says Lawrence, the great majority of Russians came to a common opinion: ‘Russians had to cut their own path into the modern. It was to be theirs alone, sui generis. They would have to think it through and make it.’
As it happens, this is an important theme in my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism. Lawrence makes the point, however, by citing examples from what one might call the political ‘left’ of Russian history – Alexander Herzen and the lesser known Mikhail Mikhailovsky. The fact that one can use examples from throughout the Russian political spectrum to make this point confirms its basic validity. While seeking to modernize, Russians have also sought to preserve (and one might even say, create) their own identity, in other words to modernize in their own way, while preserving what they value from their past. ‘There is plenty to suggest Vladimir Putin is well acquainted with this notion,’ writes Lawrence, ‘This modernizer is consistently attentive to the unmodern, and the unmodern in Russia is vast.’ [As an aside, I note that this sounds remarkably similar to Alexander Dugin’s idea of the archeomodern.]
According to Lawrence, this explains much of Putin’s behaviour. On the one hand, Putin wishes to modernize Russia. On the other hand, he is well aware that he governs a deeply conservative country in which people, as Lawrence says, ‘value order … above democracy’, and following the economic and social collapse of the 1990s (another vital piece of context) ‘want life to improve … but want little to do with Western neoliberalism.’ Governing in such a situation, ‘requires constant acts of balance,’ notes Lawrence. Putin isn’t an all-powerful autocrat. He ‘needs to build a broad consensus to get anything done.’ This explains many of his actions. The infamous legislation prohibiting the ‘propaganda of untraditional sexual practices’ to minors, for instance, can be seen as a kind of compromise which aimed to appease the conservative mood of the public while not going too far in the direction of a form of social control Putin is not actually interested in. Similarly in foreign policy, Putin’s instincts were initially pro-Western and he still insists on calling Western states his ‘partners’, but he is under consistent pressure from critics at home who ‘complain he is too slow in protecting Russia’s interests against the West’s repeated challenges to them.’ ‘These internal complaints’, notes Lawrence, ‘are part of the domestic politics Putin must manage.’
Seen this way, the policies Putin pursues can be seen as a response to Russia’s historical and domestic political context, not, as they are normally portrayed in the West, as the products of his own personal, malicious personality. And while Putin’s government is not democratic, in the purely procedural sense that we tend to understand it, Lawrence notes that ‘the majority of Russians consider that he acts broadly within Russian tradition.’ Putin’s rule, therefore, fits with a model of legitimacy in which ‘legitimacy tends to derive less from participatory political processes than from the provision of security, services, sound infrastructure, and altogether the prospects of well-being within the polity.’
Lawrence concludes that Western commentators are so obsessed with ‘the need to believe’ that they have acquired an ‘inability (or refusal) to see’ along with an inability to think. Alas, I think that this is all too true.
There are occasions when statements of the blindingly obvious are rather revealing, although not in the way that those making the statements intend. One doesn’t learn anything new about the specific matter being discussed – as it’s blindingly obvious, one knew it already – but one does learn something about the person making the statement, namely that it wasn’t so obvious to him or her. And that’s where it can get quite interesting.
Journalist Simon Saradzhyan has worked in Russia for 15 years, and is now part of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he runs, and writes for, the website Russia Matters. In his latest article, he has a go at explaining in what conditions Russian president Vladimir Putin is willing to endorse the use of force. He writes:
In my view, at least two conditions need to be in place for Russia’s leadership to seriously consider this option. They can be broadly defined as follows: First, Putin has to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests that he thinks cannot be neutralized by any means short of force. … The second condition for Russia to use military force against another country is that Moscow must have a reasonable hope that such actions would yield a net reduction in threats to Russia’s vital interests (“Condition 2”). This may not mean outright victory. But Russian leaders must be confident that the benefits of using force would outweigh the costs.
To prove this case, Saradzhyan refers to the deployment of Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015, and contrasts these with the non-use of force in cases such as Kyrgyzstan (2005 and 2010) and Armenia (2018). The first case (Georgia, 2008) is rather problematic because Putin wasn’t President of Russia at that time, and I’m not aware of any evidence that the decision to counter the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not Dmitry Medvedev’s. But that’s by the by. What really interests me here is Saradzhyan’s two conditions. Reading them was another of those occasions when I felt a powerful urge to say, ‘Well, duh!’. Putin, we’re told, only uses force when vital interests are at stake and a cost-benefit analysis suggests that benefits will outweigh costs. Of course! What else would you expect? After all, what’s the alternative? To wage war when vital interests are not at stake and when you don’t expect to end up better off? That would be crazy. All Saradzhyan’s thesis tells us is that in his opinion Putin is a rational actor.
So why are these two amazingly obvious conditions such a revelation? Why does Saradzhyan think that they will tell anybody anything that a rational person should not already expect? I see two possible explanations.
First, the image of Putin as irrational and unpredictable is so deeply embedded that an analysis which describes him as something different is considered revelatory, penetrating, and insightful rather than merely prosaic.
Second, Saradzhyan and his intended audience don’t understand that his conditions are simply common sense and should apply to everybody everywhere. And the reason why they don’t understand this is because those conditions are not Western practice.
And that’s where this article’s statement of the blindingly obvious becomes quite interesting. For, viewed this way, what this article explains to us is not the conditions under which Putin uses force so much as the conditions under which the West does so – when vital interests aren’t at stake, and when we end up worse off afterwards. Judging by this article, we’ve now become so used to this that anything else apparently comes as a big surprise.
Today was a busy day in Moscow for us. Our first stop was Red Square, where we tried to get into Lenin’s mausoleum. However, the queue was huge and moving very slowly, so after a short while we gave up. Nearby Manezh Square looked like it had been invaded by Danes.
The highlight of the day was to be the evening football match, so to fill time in the absence of Lenin, we went to the Cosmonautics museum at VDNKh, which I found mildly interesting. Then lunch, after which we returned to our hotel to get the match tickets. I didn’t know that Russia had a Hockey Hall of Fame, but it turns out that it does, and as it was right next to our hotel, we popped into it for a few minutes. Here’s a picture of the hockey jersey of a certain ‘Putin, V.V.’.
And then there was the game: Denmark v. France. What a disappointment. The large number of Danish fans provided a colourful atmosphere in the Luzhniki stadium, but before long they weren’t making a lot of noise – not because their team was losing, but simply because the game was decidedly dull. The longer it went on, the clearer it became that both teams, but particularly Denmark, were very happy with 0-0. In the last 30 minutes or so, whenever the Danes got the ball and looked set to attack, they stopped, paused, and then passed the ball sidewards or backwards. It was one of the most negative displays of football I’ve seen. It ended 0-0, satisfying the players, but leaving those watching rather dissatisfied.
Tomorrow we head off to Kaliningrad. I’ll provide an update after the England-Belgium game on the 28th.
[Trigger warning: Clicking on the links below and reading the articles revealed thereby is likely to induce severe nausea. Readers are advised to have a dose of Gravol nearby to suppress any unwanted symptoms.]
Maclean’s is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, that’s to say it’s a glossy magazine with lots of photographs mingled together with analysis of domestic and international events. In recent times, it’s been a reliable source of foaming-in-the mouth Russophobic commentary, but this week’s it’s outdone even itself by printing no fewer than three articles involving Russia, each one every bit as bad as the other.
The first comes from columnist Terry Glavin, who’s one of those strange left-wing human rights activists who give the impression that they truly believe that the world can be divided up into simple categories of good and evil and that the problem is that the good people aren’t doing enough to physically exterminate the evil ones by every means possible. The fact that the actual consequences of toppling dictators wherever you think you find them often end up being tragic doesn’t seem to register in their thought processes. Glavin’s latest piece in Maclean’s is a case in point. Its content is pretty clear from its headline: ‘Putin is the new Stalin. Here’s why his poisonous gangland oligarchy will prevail,’ Coming across a title like that generally induces something approaching a state of nausea. You know that it’s going to be really hard to read what follows, and your natural tendency is to turn away and have nothing more to do with it. It takes a strong stomach to digest stuff like this, but sadly it’s my job, so I do. It’s not pleasant.
The article is essentially one Putin cliché after another. Glavin tells us that the reason that Putin will win Sunday’s presidential election is that his ‘primary challenger was conveniently disqualified from running for office’; that ‘Journalists are frequently found among Putin’s domestic critics who end up dead’; and that, ‘Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008.’ The facts that the ‘challenger’ in question (Alexei Navalny) has yet to register above 2 percent in any opinion poll; that there’s little to no evidence linking Putin to murders of journalists and that the rate of such murders is far below what it was under Boris Yeltsin; and that Dmitri Medvedev was President of Russia at the time of the Georgian war and that in any case Georgia started it, are ignored. Glavin says also that in Syria ‘6,600 civilians have been killed by Russian bombers.’ I can’t say whether that is true or not; maybe it is. Urban warfare is bloody. But I wonder how many civilians have been killed in Syria and Iraq by NATO countries (particular the USA, UK, and Turkey). Why does Glavin pick out Russia as particularly guilty in this regard? He doesn’t say, but rounds off his article with the following gem:
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the new Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.
Stalin, as I’m sure you all know, led a revolutionary movement which completely transformed Soviet society, including massive industrialization and forced collectivization. The latter so disrupted agriculture as to cause a famine in which perhaps 6 million people died. Meanwhile, Stalin oversaw the Great Terror in which some 700,000 people were executed. And somehow Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the same. What utter drivel! Why on earth is this stuff published?
More clichés come in the second article, written by Scott Gilmore and entitled ‘Russia is a mess but it’s still playing the West.’ Gilmore tells us that, ‘Russia is a mess … It has one of the worst incidences of alcoholism in the world and one of the highest suicide rates. … the fertility rate has crashed. … The population size peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining ever since.’ What Gilmore fails to mention is that the rates of alcoholism and suicide have declined dramatically in Russia in the past 20 years. The fertility rate did indeed ‘crash’ in the 1990s, but it has since somewhat recovered, and currently stands at about 1.75 children per couple. That’s not sufficient to maintain the current population, and Russia faces some definite demographic issues, but its fertility rate is actually considerably higher than that of most other European countries (the European average is about 1.6). Moreover, because of immigration and rising life expectancy (currently the highest ever in Russian history) the Russian population has actually increased slightly in recent years. Gilmore’s claims are simply untrue.
Oddly, Gilmore thinks that although Russia is in terminal decline, it is beating the West hands down in the international arena. He writes:
The Russian state is falling apart. Putin, in an effort to regain some control over his country’s failing fortunes, is attempting to destabilize the West. And he is beginning to succeed, by ignoring the new rules of internationalism. … We need to step up our game. … We need a more determined and aggressive strategy.
Again, what utter drivel! The Russian state is not ‘falling apart’, not in the slightest. Moreover, the idea that Putin is trying to ‘destabilize the West’ is a fiction (Russians, including Putin, generally stress stability and believe that it’s the West which is doing the destabilizing). So too is the concept that Putin is doing so in order to prop up his failing country (which isn’t, after all, ‘failing’ in quite the way imagined). As for the ‘new rules of internationalism’, I admit that I don’t know what Gimore is talking about. What I do understand is the call for a more ‘aggressive strategy’. It sends a chill through my bones. Have we not been aggressive enough already?
The drivel continues in the third Maclean’s article, this one written by Stephen Maher and entitled ‘Donald Trump failed a simple test on his Russian ties.’ Maher begins by saying:
Donald Trump’s sudden Twitter firing of Rex Tillerson on Tuesday is the moment that it became impossible to maintain the fiction that Trump is not in some way in league with Vladimir Putin … if there was any real doubt about the relationship, Tillerson’s firing removed it.
Why is this? According to Maher, it’s because ‘Tillerson … was fired the day after he denounced Russia for the attempted assassination of a former double agent in Britain.’
One wonders where Maclean’s finds such authors capable of writing such extraordinary nonsense. I realize memories are short, so I remind readers that just a few months ago Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State was being touted as proof that Trump was in the pay of Putin – Tillerson, after all, had business connections with Russia and had even been granted a medal by Putin. But now the fact that he’s been fired is proof that Trump is a Russian agent. It’s Putin Derangement Syndrome taken to a whole new level of insanity.
Maher is clearly not up to date with the latest developments in studies of Russian military strategy, for he entertains his readers with an explanation of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.’ Had he been on the ball, he would have known that Mark Galeotti, the inventor of the term ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, has recently admitted that there is in fact no such thing. But, as in all the other articles, mere facts are not important. We are fighting Russian ‘disinformation’ after all.
Like Gilmore, Maher thinks that the West is losing its struggle against Russia. ‘The EU, NATO, and the United States have all been dramatically weakened,’ he says. Really? I can’t say that I see it. Where’s the evidence for this fantastic claim? If there’s a sunny side for NATO, continues Maher, it’s Canada. As he explains, ‘In Canada, likely because of the political clout of our Ukrainian diaspora, there has been no opening for the Russians.’ Thank goodness for the members of the Ukrainian diaspora, bravely fighting to protect the world from the terror of Putin, just as their grandfathers bravely fought to protect the world from the evils of Putin’s hero, Joseph Stalin, 70 years ago.