Tag Archives: Russophobia

Book Review: Moscow Rules

Here goes with another long book review (of what is actually quite a short work, which I read in a single afternoon). But bear with it. As so often, the book, while not revealing much of value about Russia, does provide valuable insight into how Russia is viewed by its Western critics.

Keir Giles of Chatham House in the United Kingdom wants to enlighten us about Russia, and has written a book, Moscow Rules, to that end. A clue to his thesis lies in the subtitle: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. According to Giles, the problem in East-West relations is that Russia is ‘confronting’ the West. Why? Because, basically, Russians aren’t like us, they’re ‘un-European’. They’re innately ‘expansionist’, distrustful of the West, untruthful, and authoritarian. The West should rid of itself of any delusions that it can live in peace with Russia, and instead focus on deterrence and containment.

Giles notes that Westerners have been surprised by Russian behaviour under Vladimir Putin. But they shouldn’t be. One can see a ‘remarkable consistency of specific features of Russian life over time,’ meaning that Russia today is just an extension of Russia in the past. The problem, in short, isn’t Vladimir Putin, it’s what one might call ‘eternal Russia’. As Giles says, ‘throughout the centuries, Russia’s leaders and population have displayed patterns of thought and action and habit that are both internally consistent and consistently alien to those of the West.’ Russia, claims Giles, is ‘a culture apart’, and ‘Russia is not, and never has been, part of the West, and thus does not share its assumptions, goals, and values.’

moscow rules

So what distinguishes Russia from the West?

Continue reading Book Review: Moscow Rules

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The Putin I knew

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.

Get them while they’re young

It’s said that if you want to win people’s hearts and minds you should ‘get them while they’re young’. It’s a lesson that the Russian state seems to have learnt, at least if the Daily Mail is to be believed. Masha and the Bear is a popular cartoon for young children, produced in Russia, but translated into other languages and shown around the world. It might seem like harmless stuff, but appearances can be deceiving. For in fact, Masha and the Bear is a devious work of Russian propaganda. As the Daily Mail tells us:

A Russian-made children’s cartoon show has been accused of being part of the Putin propaganda machine. Masha and the Bear focuses on the relationship between a slight but imposing young girl and her protector, a huge bear. In one Masha even dons a Soviet border guard’s hat as she repels invaders from the Bear’s carrot patch.

Critics said this was a metaphor for how Russia protects its borders.

Last year, Finland’s top newspaper – Helsingin Sanomat – quoted a lecturer at Tallinn University’s Communication School as claiming that the bear symbolised Russia and was designed to place a positive image of the country in children’s minds.

The lecturer, Priit Hobemagi, said that the series was a ‘beautifully presented’ part of a campaign that is dangerous for Estonian national security. Anthony Glees, an intelligence expert from The University of Buckingham told The Times: ‘Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.’

masha
Masha defends Russia’s borders

The Daily Mail concludes:

Russia’s state media have refuted the claims from the likes of Estonia and Lithuania. They have also branded the concerns in the Baltic states as ‘pathological’ Russophobia. The company who produce the popular cartoon, Animaccord, said the show is an independent project that has never received state funding.

This is one of those stories where any sort of commentary seems  superfluous. Its absurdity speaks for itself. One day, historians are going to look back on this period of our history and shake their heads in astonishment.

 

The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

Cooktown, Australia, is about 6,650 kilometres from Russia. You might imagine that it’s as safe from Russian invasion as anywhere on the globe. But, as I learnt this week, its inhabitants haven’t always been convinced of that. I thought it was worth sharing the story.

cooktown

Continue reading The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

Book Review: Creating Russophobia

Russophobia – literally, fear of Russia, but more commonly understood as dislike or hatred of Russia – is not a new phenomenon. Academics have written a number of books about how citizens of various Western countries have viewed Russia over the centuries – Marshall Poe on early modern European perceptions of Russia, James Casteel on Russia in the imagination of Germans, David Fogelsong on Americans’ missionary attitude towards Russia, and so on. But until now the general phenomenon of Russophobia has never been comprehensively analyzed. This gap in the literature, as we academics like to say, has now been filled by Swiss journalist Guy Mettan, with his 2017 book Creating Russophobia: From the Great Religious Schism to Anti-Putin Hysteria. Or at least, partially filled, for while Mettan’s work contains much which is perceptive, it also suffers from certain biases which, I think, will make it more of a starting point for future studies of Russophobia than the definitive, final word on the subject.

A former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tribune de Genève, Mettan is an intelligent and well-informed observer who deserves to be taken seriously. He’s also very much a Russophile, as shown by the fact that he was granted Russian citizenship in the mid-1990s by the administration of President Boris Yeltsin. He complains of ‘widespread prejudices, cartloads of clichés and systematic anti-Russian biases of most western media,’ and states that the purpose of his book is ‘convincing readers that there is no need to hate Russia.’ While Creating Russophobia is founded on detailed research into centuries’ worth of Western writings on Russia, it is not, therefore, a neutral academic book, but one with a definite political purpose.

mettan

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Living in wacko-land

A chance encounter with a Twitter post got me following links on the internet today as I filled in time between classes. I know that there’s a lot of truly rotten stuff out there, and every now and again I write some piece denouncing some example or other. But on the whole, I try and stay clear of it. Still, immersing myself in all this was rather interesting, so I thought that I would share the results.

The Tweet which got me started was this one from Toronto-based Ukrainian-Canadian ‘political analyst’ Ariana Gic, who writes occasional columns for outlets like the Atlantic Council. I’m always rather sceptical of ‘independent analysts’ who seem to lack an institutional base, and am frankly amazed that one can making a living that way, but apparently one can. Anyway, this is what Ms Gic had to tell us yesterday.

gic

I don’t think that I need to discuss this, as I’m sure you can all see the point without further commentary, but it’s perhaps useful to add the fact that the officer commanding Soviet forces in Kiev until his death in combat on 20 September 1941 wasn’t an evil ‘Moskal’ but a Ukrainian, General Mikhail Kirponos. But that’s by the by. Not knowing anything about Ms Gic, I decided to see what else she has written. And then, following the links from what I found, I ended up discovering what a bunch of others have written recently too. Here’s some of the results:

1) The World Cup ‘revealed Russian chauvinism.’ According to a piece by Ariana Gic in the EUObserver, the World Cup displayed the nasty nationalism prevalent in the Russian population. This is a favourite theme of Ms Gic, who is keen that we should all know that Ukraine’s (and the West’s) real enemy is not Putin or his ‘regime’ but the Russian people. ‘Kremlin propaganda tapped into existing Russian exceptionalism, imperialism, chauvinism, & hatred of Ukrainians,’ she tells us on Twitter, adding that we must fight the ‘lie of the good Russians’.

2) Ms Gic’s Twitter account connected me to that of another Canadian activist, Marcus Kolga. A man of, I think, Latvian descent, Kolga played a prominent role in the lobbying which produced the Canadian Magnitsky Act. According one of his latest Tweets:

Interference in Canada’s 2015 election confirmed & there are constant attempts by Kremlin to undermine Canadian democracy, alliances + policy. Not simply a 2019 election interference problem but attack on democracy.

I read the Canadian newspapers every day and have yet to see any indication of Russian interference in our 2015 election. But never mind. Kolga tells us it’s ‘confirmed’! Pursuing him a bit further, I discovered a bunch of articles he’s written for publications like the Toronto Sun. In one of these he informs us that the Russian annexation of Crimea was just like the Soviet annexations of the Baltic States in 1940 and that Vladimir Putin is involved in ‘relentless attempts to deny the Soviet occupation and repression of these nations.’ This is odd, as I’ve never seen any such attempt. But I’m just an academic who’s written a couple of peer-reviewed articles about Putin’s speeches. What do I know?

Kolga will be one of the panelists at a seminar held by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute here on Ottawa on Thursday. The blurb for the seminar tells us:

Russia uses hybrid or asymmetric tactics to advance its goals in Eastern Europe and beyond. … An important element is its use of disinformation and offensive cyber activities. Russian websites have already tried to spread vicious rumours about NATO troops in the Baltics. Closer to home they have spread rumours about the family history of Canada’s foreign minister and have worked to manipulate aspects of Baltic history in an effort to marginalize their security concerns. Kremlin meddling was clearly a factor in the US, French and German elections and Canada can expect the same in future elections. … To shed light on this issue, MLI is hosting a panel event that will bring together some of the leading thinkers on the strategic threat posed by Russia.

It’s nice to see that this well-balanced seminar hasn’t predetermined the issue of the Russian ‘threat’. I have better things to do than spend a couple of hours listening to how terrible it is to ‘spread rumours [sic] about the family history of Canada’s foreign minister.’ I won’t be attending.

3) After a diversion into the territory of Mr Kolga, Ms Gic next directed me to something by Paul Goble, whose work I generally avoid. In a recent article for Euromaidan Press, Goble claims that in Donbass, ‘Moscow is replacing local people with Russians.’ Citing ‘US-based Russian journalist Ksenia Kirillova,’ Goble tells us that locals are being arrested and ‘replaced by new arrivals’ from Russia. ‘Most of them are coming from Vorkuta and Irkutsk’, says Goble, adding that

Kirillova does not say, but it is clear from her interviews that the “DNR” officials backed by Moscow are interested in promoting the departure of the older residents and their replacement with more malleable and thus reliable Russians from distant regions of the Russian Federation. 

Ariana Gic comments that Goble’s story tells us that Russia is trying to ‘forcibly change the demographics of the local population in occupied Ukraine’. This amounts to ‘ethnic cleansing, and a war crime under Art 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention,’ she says. Think about this for a moment. Just how many Russians would you have to import from Vorkuta and Irkutsk in order to reconfigure the demographics of Donbass? And just how how many Russians do you imagine are going to want to move to a war zone with an almost non-existent economy? To quote John McEnroe, ‘You cannot be serious.’

4) After pursuing these links a bit more, I finally, and I know not how, ended up on a page full of Twitter postings by Andreas Umland, which in turn directed me to a gem of an article by Paul Knott in the New European, entitled ‘Meet the Most Dangerous Man in the World.’ And who is the ‘most dangerous man in the world’? Alexander Dugin, of course. Knott notes that those who have studied Dugin, like Marlene Laruelle of The George Washington University, consider his influence exaggerated. But facts and scholarly analysis be damned! Knott knows better. ‘Dugin is heavily promoted by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media and has strong ties to the military,’ he tells us, adding that Vladimir Putin ‘is in thrall to him.’ ‘The substantial influence Dugin exerts over ultra-powerful people like Putin and, indirectly, Trump, makes him a frightening figure,’ says Knott. Dugin as the puppet master of Donald Trump? Is that what we’ve come to now? Knott was a British diplomat for 20 years. It makes you wonder about how they do their recruiting in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Reading all this, one feels like one is living in wacko-land. And it’s just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. One of the organizations Ms Gic writes for is ‘Stop Fake’. If only!

Three doses of drivel

[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.

Slava Ukraini!!