Tag Archives: Russia

Meddling schmeddling

You may have missed it in the all the excitement around the world, but Canada has a general election coming up in October. As you know, elections equal Russian meddling. They’re when our Eastern friends pull out all their computer bots, fire up their trolls, and start spreading shedloads of disinformation in order to confuse and disorientate us, so that we lose our faith in democracy  and then we … we … well I’m not sure what we’re meant to do then; the ultimate aim of it all rather defeats me. We vote for one party which is 100% anti-Russian rather than for another party which is 100% anti-Russian? Is that the point? Because here in Canada, that’s basically the choice on offer. Those pesky Russkies can confuse us all they like with their dezinformatziia, active measures, and maskirovka, but at the end of the day we’re still going to end up electing somebody determined to prove that he or she is more anti-Russian that the next guy or girl. Meddling, schmeddling – it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference to the result.

None of this stops the fearmongers, however, and so it was that yesterday the Canadian press was happily quoting a new report from the University of Calgary, saying that, ‘Russia could meddle in Canada’s election due to “growing interest” in Arctic’. Now, I’ve been saying for a while now that these worries are exaggerated, but for some reason ‘Professor at University of Ottawa says it’s a load of nonsense’ doesn’t generate any headlines, whereas ‘part-time lecturer in Calgary says it’s so’ is national news. Well, so be it. We all know that the press has its biases. So rather than rely on the media, I thought I’d better check out what the report in question actually has to say, and it turns out that it’s not quite what you’d imagine, at least not entirely.

The report is written by one Sergey Sukhankin who is said to be ‘a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation’ in Washington DC, and to be currently ‘teaching at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University (Edmonton)’. According to his Linkedin page, he has a 3 month contract to teach a single course at the former, and a 9 month contract as a lecturer in the latter. He’s also listed as an ‘Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies (Kyiv).’ Anyway, he starts off his report encouragingly enough by declaring that he aims ‘to give a more balanced and nuanced picture of the situation, particularly with regard to Canada’, and it is a ‘tactical error … to label as disinformation or propaganda every news item emanating from Russia. This creates the perception of a Russian disinformation machine that is much more powerful than it really is.’ Personally, I would say that it’s not a ‘tactical error’, it’s just plain wrong, but at least Sukhankin isn’t trying to overdo things. But this praiseworthy restraint doesn’t mean that he wants us to let down our guard. No, he says, ‘the peril is real’, ‘the West … must stick to confronting the Kremlin’, and (and this is the bit which got the headlines):

The Kremlin has a growing interest in dominating the Arctic, where it sees Russia as in competition with Canada. This means Canada can anticipate escalations in information warfare … Perceived as one of Russia’s chief adversaries in the Arctic region, Canada is a prime target in the information wars, with Russia potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election.

There’s a leap of logic here which I must admit I failed to understand. Why does ‘competition’ in the Arctic ‘mean’ that Canada ‘can anticipate escalations in information warfare’, let alone ‘meddling’ in the election? Why does the one necessarily lead to the other? I don’t see it.  It would only make sense if the second part (the meddling) helped achieve some objectives in the first part (competition in the Arctic) but Sukhankin doesn’t show how they would. He just connects two unconnected things. But we’ll get back to the Arctic a little later. For now, let’s return to the report.

This essentially has two parts. The first is a fairly standard summary of the general argument that Russia is engaged in some sort of information war designed to undermine the West from within. It makes reference to the normal vocabulary of Soviet active measures and the like, as well as to the conventional list of sources, such as Peter Pomerantseve, Michael Weiss, and Edward Lucas (not the most reliable types in my opinion). In short, it doesn’t add anything new. By contrast, the second part, which specifically focuses on alleged Russian information operations against Canada, is much more interesting.

Russian disinformation about Canada, says Sukhankin, is centred on four themes:

  1. ‘Canada as a safe haven of russophobia and (neo)fascism.
  2. ‘Canada as part of the colonial forces in the Baltic Sea region’.
  3. ‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’.
  4. ‘Canada as a testing ground for the practical implementation of immoral Western values.’

The extent to which these could all be called ‘disinformation’ is debatable (‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’ doesn’t seem entirely inaccurate to me). But the key point Sukhankin makes is that these themes reflect the Russian government’s own internal, domestic political priorities – i.e. its desire to convince its own citizens that its policies are right, by means of discrediting others. In general, says Sukhankin, Russian propaganda targets ‘the following audiences, prioritized from the greatest to the smallest’.

  • The Russian domestic audience
  • The post-Soviet area (including the russophones in the three Baltic States)
  • The Balkans and east-central Europe
  • Western and southern Europe
  • The U.S.
  • The rest of the world

Canada, therefore, falls into the lowest priority of targets. This reflects the fact that, as Sukhankin says, ‘Russians don’t see Canada as a fully independent political actor’. To be frank, we’re not high on Russia’s information war hitlist. The Russian government doesn’t care that much about us, and it cares even less about our internal politics. Consequently, says Sukhankin, while the Russian media and social media do publish anti-Canadian stories, the point of them isn’t to ‘meddle’ in Canadian internal affairs. Rather, he says, in what to me is the most crucial statement in his report:

Russia’s anti-Canadian propaganda, which still plays a marginal part compared to other theatres, is primarily tailored for domestic Russian consumption – it is not designed for a Canadian audience. [my underlining]

Here, therefore, we run into a huge problem. We’re told to fear the genuine ‘peril’ of Russian disinformation, and Russian ‘meddling’ in Canada’s election, but we’re also told that Russia doesn’t actually care very much about Canadian internal affairs and that in any case Russian disinformation isn’t targeted at Canadians. It seems to me that you can’t have it both ways. If it’s not targeted at Canadians, then it doesn’t constitute meddling, interference, or anything else of the sort. The logical conclusion of Sukhankin’s analysis is that we should calm down a little and stop worrying so much.

That, however, would not fit with the current zeitgeist. Although his logic points him in one direction, Sukhankin apparently feels a desperate need to nonetheless throw in something about the dangers of Russian interference in Canadian internal affairs. So all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, and unconnected with anything else, in his final paragraph he suddenly throws in a quotation from the head of that most neutral of trustworthy academic sources, the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Alexandra Chiczij, saying that, ‘The Kramlin’s propaganda machine will increasingly target our country with anti-Canadian fabrications in an attempt to sow discord, conflict, and to undermine our democratic institutions.’ Sukhankin then adds that this might happen ‘during the 2019 Canadian federal election.’ No evidence to support this claim – which is entirely at odds which everything which preceded it – is produced. Why would Russia suddenly become so interested in Canadian internal affairs? Sukhankin thinks he has an answer, ‘from this author’s point of view, Moscow’s next theme could be the Arctic’, he says. But since this is his last paragraph, he doesn’t have time to develop this thought. As I said, it just comes out of the blue.

It’s also rather odd. As I said earlier, it’s not at all clear why interfering in Canada’s election (exactly how, Sukhankin never makes clear) would promote Russia’s interests in the Arctic. But more than that it ignores the nature of Russian-Canadian Arctic politics. In my conversations with both Canadian and Russian officials, the Arctic is always mentioned as a zone of cooperation rather than competition. In an era when Canadian and Russian diplomats barely talk to each other, the Arctic is the one subject they both think it’s actually possible to discuss in a constructive manner. Conversations about how to improve Canada-Russia relations generally take the form of something like, ‘Let’s not aim too high. Let’s just take little steps, and focus on areas where agreement is possible, especially the Arctic’. To pick on the Arctic as the subject likely to provoke Russia (for purposes unknown) to ‘meddle’ in Canada’s oncoming election (by means and to effect unknown) seems to me to completely misread the situation.

In short, what we have here is a report which tells us that Canada doesn’t matter much to Russians, and that to date Russians have shown little or no interest in targeting Canadian public opinion, let alone interfering in Canadian politics, and yet which nonetheless concludes that we face the ‘peril’ of Moscow ‘potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election’. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make any sense to me.

False equivalencies

The 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a few days ago had the Canadian press energized into one of its regular frenzies of Russia-bashing. These tend to be rather repetitive and unoriginal, and as such best ignored. But this time round it took a particular form which I think is worth some examination.

First out was former Conservative minister Chris Alexander in an article in the Globe and Mail. In this he told readers that Vladimir Putin’s goal was to ‘discredit democracy … [and] bolster dictatorship as an alternative’, adding that ‘no country has embraced this kind of trespass – warfare, really – with greater abandon than Vladimir Putin’s Russia’. What inspires Putin, claims Alexander, is ‘Stalinist nostalgia’. The Russian president and his acolytes look to a ‘world in which Stalin is a model … today’s Kremlin refuses to accept any criticism of either Stalin or Mr Putin. That’s because their actions have been so similar’.

Alexander continues that ‘Free historical inquiry into the Second World War has been all but shut down in Russia’. He then links this to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, claiming that this provides the model for Russia’s ‘invasions’ of Georgia and Ukraine. Thus,

Far from absorbing the lessons of Stalin’s deadly embrace of Hitler, today’s Kremlin is reprising it by illegally annexing territory, aggressively undermining democracy and vaingloriously touting a toxic cult of personality as a model for the world. The ‘end of history’ … has given way to the ‘end of logic’, with Stalin’s dark role now inspiring a widening tragedy under Mr. Putin.

Following in Chris Alexander’s wake, Canadian-Estonian activist Marcus Kolga had much the same to say in the Toronto Sun. Kolga has a real chip on his shoulder about the way that Russians misrepresent the Second World War, in particular their weird belief that the Soviet Union ‘liberated’ eastern Europe from the Nazis. Kolga wishes to disabuse us of this fiction, and to this end tell us, like Alexander, that ‘Putin has overseen an aggressive rehabilitation of Stalin’s bloody legacy, and the rewriting of history to officially erase dangerously inconvenient historical facts, such as the Nazi-Soviet Pact.’ To Kolga, fascism and communism were really one and the same thing. As he writes:

In a September 1939 editorial, The New York Times reacted to the signing of what’s become known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, suggesting that ideologically, the Nazis and Soviets were not that far apart stating that ‘Hitlerism is brown communism, Stalinism is red fascism.’ Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini shared that view, believing that Stalin had shifted the Soviet Union away from Bolshevism to a form of fascism in October 1939.

It’s not often that one reads someone quoting Mussolini approvingly, but there you have it. The Soviets didn’t liberate eastern Europe. They merely replaced one form of fascism with another. By claiming otherwise, ‘Vladimir Putin’ and others ‘distort history and truth’.

Canadian-Ukrainian professor Lubomyr Luciuk agrees. Writing in the Vancouver Sun, he informs us that not just Putin but also,

Moscow shills and their fellow travellers are more than duplicitous. They are dangerous. For they are trying to rewrite the history of the Second World War, to obfuscate not just the dates on which the war began, and ended, but to confound us about who the villains were. They are spreading fake news here, today, across Canada.

Most of those who died in the Soviet Union during World War Two ‘were not Russian’, says Luciuk. The greatest losses were in Ukraine and Belarus. More importantly, though,

We must not forget that the Soviet Union was not our ally when the Second World War began. On that date, Stalin stood with Hitler … we must never forget that Moscow’s men not only fuelled the Second World War but joined our side only after the holocaust they had stoked began to burn their empire down. Let us not forget that, at least not today.

As I see it, there are two things going on in these articles. The first is an effort to equate contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, in particular the Soviet Union under Stalin, by means of claims that Putin is ‘rehabilitating’ Stalin. The second is an attempt to equate communism and Nazism. Put together, the net effect is to equate contemporary Russia with Nazi Germany, and Putin with Hitler.

The problem with this approach is that it’s based on falsehood. As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, the idea that Putin is rehabilitating Stalin is entirely untrue. (There is more than enough evidence to prove this point, but rather than repeat it all here, I refer you instead to my recent post on the issue). More broadly, equating contemporary Russia with the Soviet Union, let alone the Soviet Union under Stalin, is absurd. Attempts to claim otherwise can be the result only of either willful ignorance or deliberate deceit.

What then of the effort to equate communism and Nazism? Superficially, one can see the attraction. After all, both the Soviets and the Nazis engaged in acts of conquest in Eastern Europe, and their conquests were accompanied by widespread repression. But once you start looking at the matter more closely, you see that the comparison is devoid of merit. The Nazis came intending genocide; the Soviets did not. The Nazis sought to eliminate all the signs and institutions of statehood of the conquered peoples; the Soviets did not – while they absorbed the Baltic states and parts of Belarus and Ukraine, they preserved those states as autonomous entities within their Union, and likewise when they overran countries like Poland, Romania, and Hungary they maintained them as independent states. This was far removed from Nazi practice.

Furthermore, the Nazis came as colonizers. Not only did they aim to displace the existing population, but they were interested in their captured territories only in terms of extracting resources. By contrast, the Soviets invested heavily in developing the lands they occupied, creating industry, educating the population, and supporting cultural endeavours. It could well be argued that they didn’t do a very good job of it, but the difference in intent was enormous – the one overtly destructive; the other, at least in theory, constructive.

Alexander, Kolga and Luciuk all make reference to historical truth, which they contrast with Russian ‘disinformation’. In reality, though, they peddle a simplistic, propagandistic, and untrue story designed to inflame international tensions. Those who rewrite the past are ‘dangerous’, Luciuk tells us. On that at least, I have to agree with him.

The Greenland Connection

US President Donald Trump has been rightly mocked in the past week for his alleged desire to buy Greenland from Denmark. What on earth put this crazy idea into Trump’s head, people rightly asked. Fortunately, we now have an answer, courtesy of The Guardian’s US columnist Richard Wolffe – Russia put him up to it! I see that until recently Wolffe was ‘vice president and executive editor of MSNBC.com’, which explains a lot – MSNBC having been the no. 1 cheerleader in the Russiagate scandal in the US. The Trump-Russia story long since jumped the shark, but somehow it keeps finding extra sharks to leap over. Let’s take a look at what Wolffe has to say.

Greenland doesn’t just bubble into Trump’s mind randomly … But it is very much on Russia’s radar. Earlier this year, Russia revamped its arctic circle military base on tiny Kotelny Island, which sits close to the shipping routes that are opening up as the polar region warms catastrophically.

There are unknown quantities of oil, gas and rare earth minerals in the arctic, and the region’s powers – Denmark among them – can either green light a global free-for-all or restrain the usual human plunder of one of the last pristine frontiers on the planet. You can guess where Russia sits on this spectrum of environmental concerns in the middle of our climate crisis.

It is one of the sickest Trump jokes that his half-baked idea of buying Greenland should be seen as American machismo when it is yet another sign of Putin’s puppet American presidency at work.

‘Lazy journalism’ was the response of a distinguished British guest I showed this article to at breakfast today. It was very typical British understatement. There’s no argument here, no flow of logic from facts to conclusion, just an assertion entirely disconnected from everything which has gone before. Why Russia’s Arctic interests should prompt it to persuade Trump to try to buy Greenland isn’t explained. In reality, the last thing Russia would want, in an era of US-Russian tension, is an expanded American presence in an area of great and growing important to the Russian economy. The idea that Trump wanting to buy Greenland is proof that he’s a Russian ‘puppet’ is beyond bizarre.

By now, of course, it’s no surprise that the editors at outlets like The Guardian seem to have lost all sense of responsibility when it comes to the case of Trump-Russia, and are happy to publish any type of drivel. But Wolffe’s article makes the mind boggle at the lack of intellectual competence required to gain top executive positions at MSNBC. Perhaps the only explanation for it lies in the realm of pop psychology. For according to psychological research, debunking conspiracy theories doesn’t stop people believing in them; in fact, believers who are shown that their theories are wrong  end up on average believing in them even more fervently. This article illustrates the point: the Trump-Russia connection has become an article of faith, a religious belief so absolutely true that all facts have to be bended to fit it, while all the evidence to the contrary serves only to reinforce the faith even further. Russiagate may be nonsense, but if this article is anything to go by, it has turned the brains of a large section of the political left into mulch.

Forget the Swedes; blame the Russians

There’s a guy I know who heads out to Sweden once in a while to study immigration policy there. The Swedes have made a real hash of things, he tells me. Above all, they’ve done a very bad job integrating immigrants into society. This has led to something of anti-immigrant backlash. Given this, you might imagine that if you were to undertake an examination of anti-immigrant political groups in Sweden, you would start with a detailed discussion of Swedish immigration policy and what’s gone wrong with it. Then you could understand why Swedes are receptive to anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Of course, you might do that, but then you’re not The New York Times. On Sunday, that most venerable of American newspapers devoted no fewer than two full pages to an analysis of the recent success of the Swedish far right party, the Sweden Democrats. The alleged cause of this success is evident from the article’s title – ‘The Global Machine Behind the Rise of Far-Right Nationalism’. If xenophobia is on the rise in Sweden, it implies, it’s got nothing to do with the Swedes. External forces are to blame.

This framing of the issue reflects the peculiar obsessions of The New York Times. First and foremost amongst these is Donald Trump. You’d think by now that Times readers would be getting bored of being told that Trump is the root of all evil. ‘We’ve got the point’, you’d expect them to tell the editor, ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ But it seems that there’s always something new that you can blame Trump for. And so it is that the Times begins and ends its article on the Swedish far-right with references to the American president. All was quiet in the the Swedish town of Rinkeby, we’re told, until Trump made reference to a story on Fox News about the town’s problems with immigrants. No sooner had Trump spoken than, wham!, ‘several dozen masked men attacked police officers’. Having started the article with Trump, the Times then finishes it with him, referencing the visit of the Sweden Democrat’s leader to a conference in the United States, which served as ‘a measure of how nationalism and conservatism have merged in Mr. Trump’s Washington.’

So there you have it – Swedish xenophobia is Trump’s fault. Or at least partly. For in fact the article doesn’t speak about the president very much. Instead it focuses most of its attention on another of The New York Times’s obsessions, and you don’t have to have prophetic vision to guess what that is – yes, you’re right, the Russians!!

How are the Russians to blame for the rise of the Swedish far right, you might ask? According to the Times, the answer is that ‘foreign state and nonstate actors have helped to give viral momentum to a clutch of Swedish far-right websites.’ For the most part, ‘foreign’ in this context means ‘Russian’. As the article notes,

To dig beneath the surface of what is happening in Sweden, though, is to uncover the workings of an international disinformation machine, devoted to the cultivation, provocation and amplification of far-right, anti-immigrant passions and political forces. Indeed, that machine, most influentially rooted in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and the American far right, underscores a fundamental irony of this political moment: the globalization of nationalism.

What is the evidence for this claim? The article struggles to provide much. As it admits, in the last Swedish general election,

there was no hacking and dumping of internal campaign documents, as in the United States. Nor was there an overt effort to swing the election to the Sweden Democrats, perhaps because the party, in keeping with Swedish popular opinion, has become more critical of the Kremlin than some of its far-right European counterparts.

That’s a bit of a blow to the overall thesis. But the Times is not to be deterred. For apparently, ‘At least six Swedish sites have received financial backing through advertising revenue from a Russian- and Ukrainian-owned auto-parts business based in Berlin.’ Six websites no less! That obviously explains why the Sweden Democrats won 18% of the vote in the last election. But there’s more. For, ‘There were other sites, too, all injecting anti-immigrant and Islamophobic messaging into the Swedish political bloodstream.’ The problem for The New York Times is that, as it admits, ‘Russia’s hand in all of this is largely hidden from view.’ But that doesn’t matter, because ‘fingerprints abound.’

Ah! Fingerprints! And what might these be? Well, one website ‘swaps material with the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik’. Another ‘publishes work by Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist Russian philosopher who has been called “Putin’s Rasputin”.’ (At this point, any even moderately well informed Russia-watcher should be screaming in dismay at the repetition of this misleading trope.) Yet another website has published a far-right German commentator who has appeared on RT. And finally, the founder of another website ‘readily admits to having contributed to an RT subsidiary’ and has a Russian girlfriend. Enough said.

As you can see, it doesn’t really add up to much. (After all this website has cited Sputnik and published an interview with Dugin, and I’ve appeared on RT, but that doesn’t make this blog part of a far right ‘international disinformation machine’ – perhaps I should get a Russian girlfriend!) The worst that the article can come up with is an allegation that a crew from the Russian TV station NTV paid some youths in Rinkeby to pretend to riot so that it could film them. I can believe it, but all it really shows is that some Russian journalists have a really poor sense of professional ethics. Overall, a dodgy broadcast on NTV, some reposting of Alexander Dugin, RT, and Sputnik on far-right websites, and the rather peculiar advertising strategy of a German auto-parts company don’t go very far in explaining the spread of anti-immigrant sentiment. Perhaps they’ve made a very minor difference on the margins, but returning to my friend’s analysis above, one suspects that internal Swedish causes are far, far more significant.

The first step towards fixing any problem is working out what caused it. So, if you consider the rise of ‘populist’ forces a problem, what you have to do is work out why people are discontented with the alternative. And that means that those responsible for the policy agenda of the past must do some serious self-examination in order to determine where they’ve gone wrong. If this New York Times article is anything to go by, they’re not ready to do so. They’d rather blame external actors, maintaining the myth that everything is hunky dory, and that they haven’t made any mistakes; it’s just that there’s some demagogues and foreign powers stirring up trouble. But obviously everything isn’t all hunky dory, or people wouldn’t choose to listen to the demagogues. I understand why people like to blame it all on Trump and the Russians: they thereby absolve themselves from any responsibility for society’s ills. But it’s still a bad idea – for it detracts from a proper understanding of our troubles. And in doing so, it detracts from finding a solution.

A Tale of Two Museums

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.

soviet life
Display case for Soviet Lifestyle Museum

Continue reading A Tale of Two Museums

Homo Sovieticus

Over the years many issues have divided Russian conservatives and Russian radicals. One of these has been the relative importance of individuals and institutions. This is something of a simplification, but broadly speaking conservatives have tended to the view that individuals come first, while radicals have said that institutions do. In the eyes of conservatives, it is fatal to establish democratic or liberal institutions in a society where the people are uneducated, have a poorly developed legal consciousness, and the like. The first step in reform therefore has to be improving the people. The schema of the likes of Uvarov and Pobedonostsev, therefore, was a process of very gradual enlightenment, after which political reform might eventually be allowed. Until then, power would have to remain in the hands of those who were already enlightened – i.e. the aristocracy. The schema of the radicals, by contrast, was to smash existing institutions. Only then could decent people finally be created.

Despite these differences, conservatives and radicals have long had one thing in common – they hold the ‘people’ (narod) in low regard (as I say, this is a simplification; there are obvious exceptions). For the conservatives, the unenlightened nature of the people is an excuse not to surrender power; for the radicals, it is an excuse to destroy the hated system and to create a ‘new man’.

These attitudes prevail to this day. An example of the radical view comes in an article entitled ‘Russia’s Moral Disaster’ published on the website of the Estonian International Centre for Defence and Security by the Finnish writer Jukka Mallinen. Its basic theme can be deduced from the subtitle ‘Russians cannot tell good from evil.’ Mallinen notes that the patriotic resurgence in Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea ‘has made the intelligentsia take a new and deep look at morals and the Christian faith in Russia.’ He quotes the ‘poet and philologist Olga Sedakova’ as saying that the roots of Russia’s alleged moral crisis lie deep in the Russian personality. As Mallinen says, Sedakov ‘thinks that Russians have a special relationship with evil-the inability to tell it apart from good. In the West, the relationship with evil is unambiguous, but in Russia it’s vague: nothing is declared definitively evil. Complicated explanations lead to making friends with evil.’ Russians, in effect, can’t tell wrong from right. 

The sense that Russians are morally deficient is commonly associated with the concept of the ‘Sovok’ – the Soviet personality, often also known by the phrase ‘Homo Sovieticus’. The idea that society could only progress by ‘smashing the Sovok’ was a popular theme in the rhetoric of pro-Maidan liberals in Ukraine in 2014. Smashing the Sovok required total de-communization, a renunciation of Ukraine’s Russian ties, and a complete reorientation of the country towards Europe. Through institutional revolution, a new Ukrainian person could be built, and the country could finally prosper.

The same idea is often to be found in discussions of modern Russia. In an article just published in the academic journal Slavic Review, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova of King’s College London notes that Homo Sovieticus is associated with a host of negative personality traits allegedly instilled in Russians by 70 years of Soviet rule. These supposedly include being excessively obedient to authority, lacking in choice and initiative, and duplicitous. The persistence of these negative traits explains why Russia has failed to transform into a ‘normal’ democratic society and to develop ‘the autonomous liberal self’ which supposedly characterizes the Western individual.

But is any of this true?  In her article ‘Was There a “Simple Soviet” Person? Debating the Politics and Sociology of “Homo Sovieticus”,’ Sharafutdinova expresses scepticism. The popularity of the concept of Homo Sovieticus, she argues, owes much to the work of Russian sociologist Iury Levada and his successor as head of the Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov. Levada popularized the idea that there was a simple ‘Soviet type’ through a large survey project he conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The problem, says Sharafutdinova, was that ‘the foundational assumptions of the project were deeply political’, and the survey methodology ‘was itself colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer.’ Levada’s survey was based on a totalitarian model long rejected by Western sociologists and assumed that the overarching political system was the single most important factor determining individual personality. ‘This approach did not allow for recognizing human (whether individual or collective) agency and reflexivity, and promoted a flat, mechanistic version of the individual.’ It also ‘identified exclusively negative features’ and was ‘coupled with a tendency to idealize western society’.

Much better, according to Sharafutdinova, was the work of a less well-known sociologist, Natalya Kozlova. Rather than use surveys, Kozlova made use of a ‘people’s archive’ consisting of documents such as ‘letters, postcards, memoirs, and personal journals of ordinary people’, in order to explore the realities of everyday life. Whereas Levada ‘viewed Soviet citizens as a brainwashed and corrupted emanation of the system (cogs), or its victims, Kozlova viewed individuals as actors involved in complex social games.’ In the process, she was able to determine the existence of values ‘such as altruism, compassion, and [a] sense of justice expressed in the “little” Soviet person’s everyday life.’ Her documents showed, for instance, how Soviet people reacted to problems such as shortages with strategies such as ‘exchange’ ‘based on the moral economy of selfless giving and obligation, on heartfelt closeness and ethical grounds.’ In short, the Soviet person was not as devoid of ethics as Levada claimed.

Overall, Sharafutdinova concludes, ‘the political nature of Levada’s project … stigmatized the Soviet man rather than explained him.’ A much more sophisticated understanding of personality is therefore needed. Unfortunately, ‘the model of the simple Soviet person seems to have acquired dominance as a frame of reference for Russian intellectuals’ who regard the ‘masses as slaves/sheep/bydlo’. Intellectuals thereby ‘lock Russia … into its present (and even past) condition’, arguing that democratic reform is impossible in Russia due to Homo Sovieticus. In this way, they have inadvertently ended up on the same side as the conservatives.

None of this is to say that the institutions have no effect on individual personality and that Russia’s imperial and Soviet pasts have not left some psychological legacy which in some way influences current developments. But Sharafutdinova’s article demonstrates clearly the need to avoid stereotypes, and acts as an excellent rejoinder to the kind of essentialism put forward by Mallinen and Sedakova. Simplistic slogans such as ‘Russians cannot tell good from evil’ hinder our understanding of current events far more than they assist them.

Rehabilitating Stalin

Bryan MacDonald posted an interesting thread on Twitter today, which serves as a useful indicator of why it’s worth following RT as well as other more ‘mainstream’ journalistic outlets and why the former can occasionally provide a welcome counterpoint to the latter.

Those who follow Russia-related news will be aware of the regular complaints of the Western press that Vladimir Putin is working day and night to rehabilitate the memory of Joseph Stalin. I’ve dealt with this issue before, pointing out what egregious nonsense it is.  Unfortunately, my influence on public debate appears to be approximately zero, so the idea that Putin is busy promoting Stalin continues to gain traction. As Bryan points out, both The Washington Post and The Guardian have recently run stories on the matter. Let’s take a look.

Continue reading Rehabilitating Stalin