Virtual Politics (Andrew Wilson) – too much PoMo, but solid. 4/5
Drug, Sex and Libel in the New Moscow (Mark Ames, Matt Taibbi, Edward Limonov) – TBR, for the lulz.
From the First Person (Putin) – all Western journalists would benefit from reading this series of telling interviews. 5/5
The Oligarchs (David E. Hoffman) – TBR
Popular literature with satires of politics/economics including Metro 2033 and works by Pelevin.
The New Cold War (Edward Lucas) – to remind myself of hack enemy talking points. 1/5
Vekhi (anthology) – key book from 1909 that informs current Kremlin ideology.
Putin’s Comeback (Chen Xiaomeng) – TBR, can’t say I’ll read all or even most of it, as it exists only in Chinese and my Chinese isn’t that good, but it will sure make a refreshing change from Western harping.
Obviously these are just the books, I’ll be looking over tons of papers and news articles too.
I finally watched the film Гибель Империи. Византийский урок (Death of an Empire: the Byzantine Lesson), narrated by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the father-confessor of Vladimir Putin. This film takes a stylized interpretation of the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire – the root cause of which is attributed to mystical factors such as loss of faith in indigenous traditions, the state, and God – and implicitly (and at the end explicitly) draws lessons for modern-day Russia about the dangers of corruption, poshlost, and denigration of national traditions in favor of indiscriminate copying of foreign ways.
One could (rightly) quibble at the film’s ahistoricity, selective coverage, and slanted rhetoric. It is questionable that the West’s plundering of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade was what spurred the development of European capitalism, and so is the assertion that the fundamental cause of Byzantium’s final defeat to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was due to its recognition of papal supremacy. The arguments eschew rigorous analysis, instead relying on “mystical” explanations based on “life and death biological growth analogies of life and death and vaguely defined concepts of “vigor” and “decadence””, which are unscientific, albeit aesthetic (and hence persuasive). So it is justifiable for the academic historian or the “Western chauvinist” to dismiss the film out of hand.
However, that is to miss the point, which is that the film is political, following in the Russian Orthodox Church’s long tradition of legitimizing the Russian state. It is also a reflection of the feelings of the current Kremlin elites and a majority of the Russian population.
Werth, Alexander – Moscow War Diary (1942)
Category: history, Soviet Union, WW2; Rating: 4/5
On 22nd June 1941, the armed columns of Nazi Germany began rolling into Russia, heralding the start of the Great Patriotic War. For Alexander Werth, a correspondent for the British Sunday Times paper who had spent his childhood in imperial Russia, this was a deeply emotional event, stirring him ‘perhaps more deeply than any event since the war began’. Spurred by these sentiments and realizing that with the bulk of the Wehrmacht diverted to the USSR, how ‘the Russian people would resist Hitler’ would determine the outcome of this ‘totalitarian war’, he decided to go to Moscow. There, he observed how the military and the material, the media and the morale, aspects of the war interacted, wrote articles about it for readers in Britain (and occasionally the USSR) and recorded his impressions in a diary at ground zero that he edited for readability and published early 1942.
Werth considered the attitudes of some of his fellow journalists towards this war as just another ‘big story’ detestable. ‘Even more irritating, for its cold-hearted non-belligerent objectivity’ – for instance, the intention of an American journalist, Angelina, to remain in Moscow even should the Germans capture it, justifying it with, “You bet I’ll stay here; don’t you think it’ll be a swell story? Who’s to stop me? Aren’t we nootrals?” [sic]. He also lambasted another American journalist, Ingersoll, for whom the ‘war is an opportunity for a scoop’, as opposed to the ‘millions of Russians’ for whom it is a ‘matter of life and death’ .
The Great Depression of the 1930’s, with its iconic images of well-dressed bourgeoisie in soup lines and gaunt figures with hopeless eyes from the Dust Bowl, challenged the prior American consensus that their system of liberal democracy and free markets was the pinnacle of social and economic organization. Upon graduating from a radical educational program at the University of Wisconsin, John Scott had few permanent job prospects. Coupled with the legacy of his family’s freethinking, non-conformist background, youthful wanderlust and socialist sympathies, he obtained a welder’s certificate at a General Electric plant at Schenectady and set out to discover Soviet civilization – Steffens’ wave of the future, Sloan’s ‘country with a plan’ and in his own pseudonym’s words, ‘the place where there is work to be done is now among the workers themselves’.
The book is a fascinating compendium of observations of Soviet proletarian life in the 1930’s from the point of view of an idealistic but objective American fellow traveler living and working in the model city of Magnitogorsk. He successfully bridged the polar Western views of the USSR of the times, which ranged from the Scylla of the right who claimed it produced nothing but ‘chaos, suffering and disorder’ to the Charybdis of the Communists who held it up as a panacea. His thoughts on this are well worth quoting in full, especially because of their resonance today:
Rosefielde, Steven – Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (2004)
Category: political economy, Russia, transition, military; Rating: 4/5
Summary: Google books; Introduction
This is a book about Russia’s past, and its alleged return to the future. Rosefielde outlines his theory that the Soviet Union was a “prodigal superpower”, exchanging Spartan living standards for great military power – a state of affairs he calls “structural militarization” (borrowing from Vitaly Shlykov), and alleges that Russia is likely to reinstate a political economy prioritizing full-spectrum, fifth-generation rearmament in the near future. This is because he is pessimistic about Russia’s prospects of evolving into an advanced, Westernized liberal democracy (which he regards as indispensable for economic prosperity) pursuing a security policy of optimized defense expenditures supporting downsized, mobile, RMA-enhanced military forces. Instead, Russian cognizance of the increasing threat posed by China and the West will impel it to reconstitute its “dormant structurally militarized potential”, dooming it to renewed impoverishment and an arms race it could not win in the long-term.
Although it contains an unfortunately high number of misconceptions about Russia, the conclusions are nonetheless mostly evidence-based, pertinent and though-provoking. (I originally planned to make this post a straightforward review, but my ideas ran ahead of my typing fingers and transformed it into a broad exploration of Russia’s military-strategic future. So enjoy ).