Tag Archives: Putin

Book Review – Russia Rising; ‘Is Putin Gog?’

I don’t normally do a book review straight after another one, but I stumbled across something in my local Chapters bookstore which just cried out for commentary. The book in question is Russia Rising: Tracking the Bear in Bible Prophecy by Mark Hitchcock, a pastor and ‘Bible prophecy expert’ from Edmond, Oklahoma. His central thesis is that Russia is in the process of assembling a huge coalition which in due course will invade Israel and so bring about the ‘end times’ predicted in the Bible. Hitchcock admits that he can’t be sure exactly when this will happen, but he says (p. 137):

Whatever view one holds of the timing of the coming Russian invasion, one thing is certain – it will happen. … The timing of Russia’s offensive may be debated, but the truth of it is not up for discussion. God has spoken. And we see signs all around us that it could be very soon.

russia rising

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Book review: Orders to Kill

In her latest book, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, Amy Knight wishes to convince us ‘how scary and unpredictable Russia has become.’ (p. 3) To this end, her book recounts multiples instances in which, she alleges, the ‘Putin regime’ has orchestrated the murder both of ordinary Russian citizens and of prominent political opponents. Knight is a respectable author whose 1993 biography of Beria I found quite informative. In Orders to Kill, however, she has abandoned academic neutrality in favour of political activism. The result is far from satisfactory.

orders to kill

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Russia fails to remember Stalin’s victims

‘Fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ gets a lot of attention nowadays. But the thing about propaganda is that it’s best when it’s true. Likewise, media bias doesn’t normally consist of publishing identifiably false information. It more normally consists of slanted analysis and a confusion of fact and comment, combined with a highly selective choice of stories – it’s not that the stories are untrue, it’s just that one chooses only to publish those stories which support one’s political line while ignoring others which don’t.

Let’s take the example of the Russian state and its alleged rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin. In June of this year, the Western press seized upon a statement by Vladimir Putin during an interview with film director Oliver Stone in which he said that Russia’s enemies were using ‘excessive demonization’ of Stalin to attack Russia. The Times of London reported this, as did The Washington Post, the New York Times and, it goes without saying, RFE/RL. The story was in many cases combined with coverage of a Russian opinion poll which listed Stalin as the greatest person in Russian history to generate headlines like that of a photoessay in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Russia’s Reembrace of Josef Stalin.’

Now, it is of course true that Putin did tell Oliver Stone what was reported. And it is true that Stalin topped a poll of greatest Russians. But how many reporters covered other stories which pointed in a direction other than ‘Putin and the Russian people are reembracing Stalin’? Take, for instance, Putin’s attendance at the opening of the Sretenskii monastery, which I mentioned in a previous post, and which given the monastery’s dedication to the ‘New Martyrs’ had considerable symbolic significance? How many Western media outlets covered that story? According to Google: the BBC – no; The Guardian – no; The New York Times – no; The Los Angeles Times – no; The Washington Post – no; and RFE/RL – well, do I really need to say?

So what about the big Stalin remembrance story this week? You haven’t heard about it? Don’t be surprised. It didn’t feature in the English-speaking press. On 27 September, a new Garden of Memory opened at the former Butovo firing range to commemorate the 20,000 people executed there during the Great Terror of 1937-1938. There has been a memorial at Butovo since 2007, but it has now been expanded and a wall has been added listing the names of all the 20,000 known victims. But you wouldn’t know about it if you relied on the BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, and all the rest of them, none of whom uttered so much as a word about it as far as I can tell. (Nor for that matter did RT, apparently. Make of that what you will.) The New Times instead chose to publish a long piece about how the people of Crimea were coming to regret their decision to reunite with Russia. For all I know, everything the New York Times chose to say about Crimea is true but, like I said, it’s what stories you choose to publish.

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Priests bless the memorial to the victims of the Great Terror at Butovo

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The New Martyrs

No doubt you have come across the opinion that Vladimir Putin is resurrecting the cult of Josef Stalin. An example is this recent comment in the Ottawa Citizen:

In Putin’s world, Stalin was the hero who liberated Europe and under whose leadership, the occupied Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus and other Soviet satellites, prospered thanks to Soviet benevolence. Putin has crafted himself as Stalin’s heir, and as such, there’s little room for the ‘truth’ about the 30 million who were murdered by Stalin’s regime, let alone any other inconvenient fact about Soviet occupation or mass repression.

Last week, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to assess how true this may be. On Sunday morning we visited the Sretenskii Monastery in downtown Moscow. Like many other institutions of the Orthodox Church, it was destroyed during the Soviet era. In November 2013, a decision was made to rebuild it, and just a little over three years later, in May 2017, the new church in the centre of the monastery was consecrated.

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Sretenskii Monastery, Moscow

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Tsar Vladimir

Speaking on the ‘Rossiia’ TV channel, Metropolitan Ilarion, chairman of the department of external relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, declared:

It is my opinion that a person who is anointed to reign by priests, a person who receives not merely a mandate from electors to rule for a defined period, but receives sanction for his rule from God through the Church, and remains such for life until he passes power to his successor, is, of course, a form of government which is positively recommended by history and has many advantages compared with any electoral form of government.

No surprise here. The Orthodox Church has long had a preference for monarchy, although its bishops don’t normally proclaim it quite so openly. But who is to be Tsar? Aleksandr Prokhanov has an answer. Responding to Metropolitan Ilarion, he noted that the huge crowds which lined up in the Moscow rain recently to greet the relics of St Nicholas showed that the monarchical spirit was reviving in Russia, and that the time was right to raise the issue of restoring the monarchy. Ideally, the new Tsar would be a descendant of the Rurik and of the Romanovs, but there was no such person in Russia. A new dynasty would therefore have to be created. Prokhanov has a candidate in mind to start it:

It must be a special person; some kind of sign, some sort of sacrament, must be upon him. Vladimir Putin is such a person. In one of his addresses to the Federal Assembly he said that the sacred centre of Russian statehood, of Russian power, returned to Russia along with the return of the Crimea. He had in mind Khersones, where the baptism of Rus took place. And this magical, miraculous, mystical act, when the light of Orthodoxy poured through Prince Vladimir into all the vast expanses of Russia, first from the Carpathians to the Urals, and then beyond the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, this mystical act brought the holiness of Christ into Russian statehood. And the Crimea, restored to Russia by Putin, has brought this holiness into the very centre of Putin’s power, Putin’s statehood. That is why by this act, in some undefinable and undogmatic way, Putin carried the icon lamp of mysterious, mystical light into Russia, into the Kremlin, into his office, into his own mansion. He was chosen for this. He confirmed this choice. And in a very conditional way he was anointed, not by the Patriarch, not in the Uspenskii Cathedral, his coronation was accomplished without the presence of the Bishops. It was accomplished in a mysterious, mystical manner, when the lamp of Crimean Khersones returned in his hands to Russia. And he stood with this lamp, having lit it up with a mysterious light. Thus, in circles close to the Patriarch, in circles dreaming of monarchy, recognizing all the difficulties of restoring monarchy in Russia, more and more often one hears the name of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as a possible first monarch in the Putin dynasty.

Like a lot of Prokhanov’s stuff, this is all a bit OTT. And I’m sorry, Aleksandr, but I have news for you. It ain’t gonna happen. Putin has made it very clear that he has no interest in becoming Tsar, and besides the mass of the Russian population doesn’t seem too interested in the idea. Still, I think that I may use this quotation when I give a talk on the subject ‘Russia and Ukraine’ to the annual symposium of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies in September. For it gives a sense of how much some Russians value Vladimir Putin and the annexation/reunification of Crimea. For sure, most of them don’t view these things in the same kind of mystical-religious fashion, but they value them pretty highly nonetheless. The lesson I will draw is clear: if anybody really imagines that there will be ‘regime change’ in Russia, or that Russia will someday return Crimea to Ukraine, they’re living in an even stranger fantasyland than Aleksandr Prokhanov.

Large and complicated

Today Russian TV broadcast the 15th annual ‘Direct Line with Vladimir Putin’, in which the Russian president spends four hours answering questions from members of the public. There were no shocking revelations; no new policy initiatives; no changes in direction. In this way, it was a typical Putin performance – measured, pragmatic, and cautious.

The caution revealed itself in Putin’s answer to a question about to when he would go if he had a time machine. It would be better not to go anywhen, was the answer; there’s too much risk of messing up the timeline. The same caution could be seen in answers about the economy (it’s getting better, but the situation is still hard, and the path ahead is difficult), about relations with America (we can work together, but it’s not really up to us and depends on internal American politics), and about Ukraine (refraining from openly expressing support for pro-Russian elements as that could complicate their position).

Putin tiptoed around delicate questions: he seemed to hint that he disapproved of Natalia Poklonskaia’s denunciation of a new film about Tsar Nicholas II, but said that he didn’t want to get in an argument with her; he stated that St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg ought to be a cathedral not just a museum, but didn’t say outright that the Orthodox Church ought to own it; and he noted that many historical Ukrainian nationalists favoured a federated Ukraine, but didn’t actually say that he believed the same thing himself. In this way, many things were implied without being stated outright. Again, it was a cautious approach. Confrontation and controversy were avoided.

Several other things struck me.

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Discourse analysis

What people say does not necessarily indicate what they really think. Nor does it necessarily give a clue to their future actions. That said, if somebody says the same thing consistently over a long period of time, one has reasonable grounds for concluding that his or her statements reflect a genuine belief and that they reflect more than just immediate advantage. For this reason, there is value in analyzing politicians’ discourse. In different ways, a couple of recent pieces of Russia-related scholarship prove this point.

Last week, in my capacity as co-supervisor, I attended the successful defence of a doctoral thesis in Montreal. The student analyzed how leading members of Russian political parties represented in the State Duma had discussed Russian relations with Georgia and Ukraine from 2000 to 2014. The findings were quite revealing. Consistently, Vladimir Putin and other leading Kremlin officials were much more moderate in their foreign policy discourse than the rest of Russia’s political elite. In an extreme case, back in 2001, when Putin elected to support George Bush in his Global War on Terror, even Yabloko denounced him for being too friendly to the Americans.

The dissertation laid out in great detail how members of the so-called ‘systemic opposition’ have repeatedly criticized the Kremlin for its ‘soft’, ‘pro-Western’ foreign policy. Eventually, in the face of the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin changed its line and adopted the opposition’s positions. While one cannot say for sure that opposition pressure, rather than external events, were responsible for the change in the Kremlin’s discourse, the findings seriously undermine the commonly-held view of Russian politics as lacking opposition and an independent public opinion. It also undermines the view that so-called ‘Russian aggression’ is all the fault of the ‘maudit Poutine’, as one might say in Montreal. In fact, Putin comes across as decidedly moderate on foreign policy issues, but subject to considerable pressure from a much more radical elite public opinion, to which he has had to respond. All this indicates at least some form of ‘democratic’ process.

The second work of discourse analysis was published this month by the academic journal Intelligence and National Security. Written by Stephen Benedict Dyson and Matthew J. Parent, and entitled ‘The Operational Code Approach to Profiling Political Leaders: Understanding Vladimir Putin’, the article subjects Vladimir Putin’s speeches on foreign policy to a form of quantitative analysis to answer three questions:  a) is Putin a rogue leader? b) what motivates him? C) is he a strategist or an opportunist?

I will confess that I am not a huge fan of quantitative analyses of this sort, which I think are far more subjective than they like to pretend (both in how the data is coded and how it is interpreted), lending a gloss of scientific objectivity to what are actually subjective opinions. I also think that question a) above is indicative of an inherent bias (why not phrase it in terms such as ‘do Putin’s views on foreign policy fit or diverge from the mainstream among international politicians?’, or something similar, rather than put in loaded terms like ‘rogue’?). I am also not at all sure that the methodology used can really answer question c), which needs a more detailed qualitative approach. That said, the results are not entirely without value.

In answer to question a), Dyson and Parent conclude that ‘Putin … speaks more like a mainstream than a rogue leader when his comments on all foreign policy topics are aggregated.’ Dyson and Parent fail to define ‘mainstream leaders’, but I assume that they mean by this Western politicians. In other words, Putin isn’t very different from Western leaders in his view of the world .

As to question b) (what motivates Putin), the authors note a strong desire for control, driven by a dislike of disorder.  Dyson and Parent conclude, ‘Our profile … supports the interpretation that Putin’s military interventions in particular toward Chechnya, Ukraine, and Syria, are fundamentally about his perception that chaos and state weakness are existential threats’. This fits with my own analysis.

Finally, in answer to question c), the authors determine that Putin is more of an opportunist than a strategist, based on changes in his attitude towards NATO/US pre- and post-Ukraine. I find this the weakest part of the analysis. The authors admit that ‘there is no direct measure of “strategist” vs. “opportunist” in the operational code construct’, so they are going beyond what their methodology really permits. Moreover, the change in Putin’s rhetoric towards NATO and the USA post-Maidan may not just be an opportunistic justification of his chosen policy but reflect genuine irritation with Western policy as well as other factors (such as those discussed in the doctoral dissertation above). That said, it does somewhat undermine the idea that Putin has been following an unchanging strategic plan from day 1 of his first presidency.

Dyson and Parent rather weaken their aricle, in my opinion, by bringing in some unnecessary discussion of Putin’s alleged ‘thuggishness’. Putin’s rhetoric about terrorism, they note, is extremely harsh, and he is willing to be quite violent in his response to the terrorist threat. This, they say, justifies the label of Putin as a ‘thug’. But Putin is hardly alone in his attitude to terrorism. Name me the Western president or prime minister who doesn’t condemn terrorism in harsh terms, Many of them are also quite willing to use violence. In fact, Western states have used force much more often than Russia over the past 15 years. So, why aren’t they ‘thuggish’? Bringing in value-laden words like this distorts what is meant to be a quantitative analysis and suggests a hidden bias. This has a strong effect on the policy suggestions at the end of the article, which lack validity as a result.

Having said all that, the two works described above do have something in common. Together, they paint a picture of the Russian president as holding views of the world and of foreign policy which are quite moderate and not very different from those of his Western counterparts. This is certainly not the Putin we normally see described in the press.