Friday, January 31, 2014

Beyond Language - 2

As one reads Masha Gessen’s telling of the story of Pussy Riot (Words Will Break Cement – The Passion of Pussy Riot), it becomes clear that the group’s distinctive quality is a reliance less on verbal statements than on visual and gestural ones. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour action on February 21, 2012 involved the performance of a song containing the “holy shit” (срань господня) line contributed by Andrei Tolokonnikov. Its main intended purpose, however, was to create a shock situation, something akin to the 1960s “happenings” of the American painter and performance artist Allan Kaprow. These were scripted events, consisting of visual  and aural cues that prompted both  performers and audience to create a work of art together.

Like other Pussy Riot actions, the Cathedral event was designed primarily as a live experience. It was also to be filmed and presented on video via the Internet, though the chaotic circumstances of the brief action made it hard to produce a coherent volume of footage. The action had a political element, but was essentially an act of prayer, with the title Богородица, Путина прогони! (Mother of God, Drive Putin Away!). Thus, in addition to being a work of New Media Art, it was consistent with being a religious ritual, and could hardly be described as blasphemous. The song’s opening melody and refrain were borrowed from Rachmaninov's Богородице Дѣво (Rejoice, O Mother of God), from the All Night Vigil.

Masha Gessen presents a good and detailed account of the cruel and farcical Pussy Riot trial, as well as sympathetic portraits of the group's members. Some of the book’s most instructive chapters are the early ones in which she discusses the development of the group’s artistic and aesthetic aims. These are elaborated further in the extracts from the members' statements given during the trial, and one wonders if there might be a case for gathering them, along with others, in a separate volume, as they help towards a theoretical and practical understanding of the group's artistic project. As Maria Alyokhina stated at the trial:
I am very irritated that the prosecution refers to contemporary art as “so-called art.” I would like to note that the same expression was used in the trial of the poet Brodsky. His poetry was referred to as “so-called poetry ” and the witnesses who testified against him had not read it. Just as some of those who testified against us did not witness what happened but only saw the video on the Internet.

Misunderstanding Maidan

This post by Brian Whitmore on Radio Liberty's The Power Vertical blog appears to be based on a misunderstanding of what the Maidan protests in Ukraine are all about. Noting the rise of right-wing nationalism among younger Russians, Whitmore draws a parallel between this phenomenon and the presence of nationalist groups among the Ukrainian protesters:
This politically active youth has no memories of -- and certainly no nostalgia for -- the multiethnic Soviet Union. In Russia, this manifests itself in the antimigrant slogan "Russia for Russians" as well as in opposition to what nationalists call Vladimir Putin's "Chekist regime." In Ukraine, it manifests itself in a yearning to be free of Moscow's influence and meddling -- which all too often veers into overt Russophobia.
Perhaps the "overt Russophobia" should rather be seen as an expression of Ukrainian lack of "nostalgia" for the Soviet Union. As Andreas Umland is quoted as pointing out in an article recently published in the Financial Times, the nationalist groups in Ukraine represent only a small minority of the protesters
and have no chance of “becoming parliamentary or taking over”, even if the protests succeed in toppling Mr Yanukovich.
By all the evidence, the Ukraine opposition is largely democratic and anti-fascist. In Russia the situation is different: there the Bolotnaya protesters are a dwindling minority, while a Putin-enabled takeover by fascist or nationalist forces remains a real possibility. The "Rusomaidan" envisaged in the Power Vertical post looks unlikely to materialize.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why Putin Is Still In Power

In late 2011 the Russian scientist, writer and political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky gave an interview to the Institute of Modern Russia that was headed: Which Will Fall First – the Regime or Russia as a State? In the interview, Piontkovsky predicted the collapse of Vladimir Putin's government, though refused to speculate on how long it would take - it might be a process lasting only a couple of weeks, or it might be a long-drawn-out decline spanning several years. Piontkovsky looked to the spread of people power - the kind of power that was then making itself felt throughout the Middle East in the shape of the Arab Spring. This power had the ability to overcome the rigid structures of the state:
How did it all start in North Africa? In Tunisia, a relatively prosperous country by African standards, a young man set himself on fire because he couldn’t find a job. Putin’s regime has ripened to its end. But the end will come later rather than sooner, because of the already mentioned satiated, lazy, and cowardly elite. Still, today’s macroeconomic indicators place serious time limitations. And with serious budget deficits, ruble devaluation, and double-digit inflation, social outbursts will spontaneously form in various regions. All this will push the elite to a greater sense of courage. Which will fall first – the regime or Russia as a state – will become crystal clear to everyone in about three or four years from now. 
In late 2012, Piontkovsky published an article called Why Putin Will Be Gone in 2013,  in which he predicted that Putinism would fall for the same reason that the Soviet Union fell in 1991. The USSR, he wrote, collapsed "not because of falling oil prices, not because of Gorbachev's 'betrayal', and not because of Reagan's SDI bluff which so terrified the old men in the Kremlin. When in the mid-1980s the communist myth that had created the system finally died in the hearts and minds of ordinary people as well as those of the Soviet nomenklatura, Soviet communism was strategically and psychologically doomed. As Andrei Amalrik had predicted with such genius a quarter of a century earlier." [my tr.]

Likewise, the Putin Myth of the strong man, the "father of the nation", protecting it from the Chechen terrorists who were supposedly blowing up peaceful citizens in their apartment blocks, had run out of steam - Russia's techno-financial elite, Piontkovsky argued, had lost faith in this myth, and without the elite's support the Putin system could not survive.

Of course, Putin is still there, so Piontkovsky's prediction was incorrect - as numerous columnists and observers have not been slow to point out. In an article titled Putin or Russia, published at the very end of 2013, Piontkovsky conceded the point, but insisted that the article's "conceptual carcass" - an outline for a theory of the death of authoritarian regimes and its practical application to contemporary Russia - was still fully backed up by the events that had taken place in Russia during the past year. As a retarding factor, he pointed to the attitude of intellectuals like Leonid Radzihovsky, who for years declared that "Putinism is shit - but it protects us from fascism". This, Piontkovsky argues, is no different from the statement by the Silver Age Russian essayist and philosopher Mikhail Gerzhenzon, who in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution declared in the essay anthology Vekhi that  "so far from dreaming of union with the people we ought to fear the people and bless this government which, with its prisons and bayonets, still protects us from the people's fury."

Now Piontkovsky no longer sees hope that Russia might witness the rise of a popular democratic movement like Ukraine's Euromaidan. Apathy reigns - and, if not yet formally in power, the fascists are very nearly there:
It was not the masses that brought Hitler to power in January 1933, but a deal he made with the elites. And now ask yourself: what do the fascists in Russia need to do in order to take power without winning free elections, but as a result of the internal  evolution of the Putin regime, of a deal made with it by - may one say it - the "elites"? Is their task easier or harder? In my opinion, much easier. In their case they don't have to convince 50 million voters. It will be enough to convince three or four villains of the national leader's inner circle. And they need no convincing.  [my tr.]

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Snowden Puzzle

Published at almost the same time as Edward Lucas's ebook, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick's full-length (200+pp) study of the Snowden case - Privacy for Thee and Not For Me: The Movement for Invincible Personal Encryption, Radical State Transparency, and the Snowden Hack - is now available on Scribd.

In her author's preface, Fitzpatrick likens the case to a Rubik's cube:
Turn the colorful cube one way, and it seems as if Edward, a 29-year-old systems analyst who said he became troubled by secret practices "done in our name", was only concerned about civil rights... Turned in another direction, and it seemed that his coercive action... was in fact presenting Congress and the courts with an undemocratic fait accompli.
Although the author does not claim to provide a solution to the puzzle, her book analyses its many and various pieces in extensively sourced detail, so that others may reach a conclusion for themselves.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Snowden Disaster

Edward Lucas's newly published ebook The Snowden Operation: Inside the West's Greatest Intelligence Disaster is available from Amazon as a Kindle Single. It gives a clear and concise all-round survey of the Snowden affair, setting it in the historical context of international espionage. In particular, it analyses the particular characteristics of Snowden's disclosures, which the author says
are heavily spun and damaging to American and allied interests in a way that goes far beyond the purported goals of promoting a debate about digital security.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Great Maidan



Kyiv journalist Vitaly Portnikov again, this time on Radio Liberty, writing about the Yanukovych government's failure to understand the nature of the protest movement that is advancing against it:
The government will simply start to switch police from the east to the country's "difficult" regions, retake the objectives that were seized, continue negotiations from a position of strength ... In the end, there will be no police and Berkut left in the east of the country. And then ...  And then  the capture of administrative buildings in the east will begin. The residents of the eastern and south-eastern regions have no more "love" for the government than people in the western and central ones... 
People are afraid, but when the repressive machine with its batons is evacuated to disperse the people in the central regions, their fear will vanish - together with the Russian "horror stories" about the split of Ukraine. Because the dividing line in the country does not follow a line between east and west, but the line between Yanukovych/authoritarianism and the Ukrainian people. And this lack of understanding on the part of the government in Kiev is its biggest problem: the problem that led to Maidan and is gradually and naturally growing into into a Great Maidan - a Maidan that will soon cover the whole of Ukraine.

The Silence of Russia

In Grani, Vitaly Portnikov writes about what he sees as a breakdown in the centuries-old relationship between the peoples of Ukraine and Russia:
Because the Russians are silent. They are silent when the people they so love to call brothers are being killed, tortured, humiliated, abducted from hospitals; all of it, of course, in the name of order and friendship with Russia, but even so. They are silent when the rallies are broken up. They are silent when the land so close to them is being brought to the precipice of a real war. In the whole vast country only a few dozen people are capable of getting out to the Ukrainian embassy or anywhere else to signal their protest and support.
This is a historic indifference. A new Ukraine may still emerge, but it will never have a mutual understanding with Russia at the level of values.The silence –  not even that of people, but of an entire nation that claims shared roots and a common outlook on the world – will, at the most crucial moment for Ukrainians, create a very real chasm of alienation that will not be so easy to fill in again.
What is happening today between Ukraine and Russia is precisely what once happened between Russia and Poland, or Russia and Finland...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Better Russia

In Slon, Leonid Ragozin takes a long and searching look at the twin identities of Ukraine. In the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine he sees a “Better Russia”:
It’s a more peaceful country with a better climate and less abrasive manners than Russia, a country where Russian military personnel and “northern” oil pensioners still go to live out their days as before, and to where  – as in Cossack times – the Empire’s more freedom-loving, enterprising and talented citizens escape. 
And this alternative Russia, unlike the original, has a chance in our lifetime to become part of a Greater Europe, to achieve its standards of state governance and quality of life. Such a Russia will, more than Ukrainians themselves, be interested in preserving Ukrainian statehood  because this will be the guarantee of its survival and success. If you really need a single, albeit diverse, Ukrainian nation, then it is with the help of such a Russia that it will be built.
Instead of relying on a narrow and sometimes intolerant Ukrainian nationalism, Ragozin thinks, the Euromaidan movement would do better to maximize its appeal to this “other Russia”. After all, he points out, the movement’s most prominent  leader, Vitali Klichko, is a boxer trained in the  Soviet army and with direct experience of the authoritarian and “athletic” mentality typical of the so-called “titushki” who are charged with maintaining support for Yanukovych’s government.  If Klichko could extend his influence to this constituency, and even become its leader, Ragozin believes that
there would be no need for the fighters of the Right Sector, the Molotov cocktails and medieval catapults: the Berkut would take him to the Rada and to Bankova.  
After reading this the only question that occurs to me is whether the influence of Putin and Great Russian chauvinism may not now be more widespread among Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population than Ragozin is prepared to admit.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Learn it by Heart!

Ukraine People's Deputy Inna Bohoslovska says:
I ask everyone to commit this to memory and pass it on to anyone you can. And if doubt starts to erode your strength, remember:
1. This government has put itself outside the law, and is doomed to 100 percent failure. The struggle will last for several months.
2. Everyone can and must contribute to the resistance their own share of decisive actions:
- not pay taxes to the budget, but spend the money on the cause of resistance;
- expel from offices all inspectors without exception;
- not buy any goods produced by the Regionals;
- devote every minute to talking with doubters and persuading them of the inevitability of the collapse of the Regionals, exert all possible means of pressure on the active supporters of the criminals in power.
3 Forbid yourself and those around you any public dissatisfaction with members of the resistance. Each for each. The task - to defeat evil. It cannot be worse. It will only get better. Difficult, but for the Good!
Завчити на пам'ять!
Прошу всіх завчити на пам'ять і передати кому зможете. І якщо сумніви почнуть підточувати Ваші сили, згадуйте:
1. Ця влада поставила себе поза законом і 100 відсотків приречена на поразку. Боротьба буде тривати декілька місяців.
2. Кожен може і повинен привносити в спротив свою частку рішучих дій:
- не платити податки в бюджет, а витрачати ці кошти на справу спротиву;
- виганяти з офісів всіх без винятку перевіряючи;
- не купувати жодних товарів, що виготовляються регіоналами;
- кожну хвилини говорити з тими, хто сумнівається, і переконувати їх в неминучості краху регіоналів, застосовувати всі можливі методи тиску на активних прихильників партії злочинців у владі.
3. Заборонити собі і оточуючим будь-яке публічне невдоволення учасниками спротиву. Кожен -за кожного. Задача – перемогти зло. Гірше не буде. Буде тільки краще. Складно, але до Добра.

http://blogs.pravda.com.ua/authors/bogoslovska/52dfc70e52a4b/

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ukraine: Scenarios

On his LiveJournal blog Ukraine/Russia specialist Andreas Umland asks:
What happens to Europe should its territorially largest country slide towards civil war and a violent break-up? What happens to the current trans-European security architecture, pan-European organizations and all-European law should the Ukrainian state fall apart? What will happen to the already strained political, yet surprisingly intense economic EU-Russia relations when Moscow accepts possible offers from East and South Ukrainian regions to become, like Transnistria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Russian protectorates (if not oblasts of the RF)? I hope that these scenarios are currently being discussed in Brussels, Washington, Berlin, Moscow... etc
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is giving signs that Moscow may not wait indefinitely for the answers:
Russia urges EU "not to interfere" in Ukraine

Monday, January 20, 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

The unconfirmed reports of the death of Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov, together with the recently-released but unverified statement and video by a Dagestan-based group calling itself "Ansar al-Sunna" (Helpers of Sunna, a name it shares with Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna, a group based in Iraq), and claiming Umarov's sponsorship and guidance in the Volgograd bombings, are increasing the uncertainty about Russia's ability to maintain adequate security at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics.

Moscow sources have begun to make capital from the rumours, with one commentator pointing to a supposed link with the Syrian conflict and a threat to Russia from Saudi Arabia, which is said to have promised "internal complications" if Russia continues to support Syria's Bashar Assad. The Saudi theme is an old one in Kremlin propaganda, which seeks to lay the blame for atrocities like the Beslan school siege at the door of the West, the CIA, and alleged "Saudi links".

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Useful Europeans

The previous post drew a rough parallel between the Western leftist and revolutionary movements of the 1920s and today's left-wing/libertarian alliance of "techno-revolutionaries" who seek to bring down capitalism by information-related means. The analogy can be widened, however: there is another group of dissenters in the West whom Moscow can rely on to create a base of support and a pool of common interests. It's a group that has little in common with left-wing ideas and aspirations, or even with the preoccupations of libertarianism, but is similarly useful. The far-right movements of Europe, with their representation in the European Parliament and their exploitation of the immigration issue, have a role to play not unlike that of the "полезные идиоты" of the inter-war decades.

As Elena Servettaz recently made clear,
Kremlin officials realize that the traditional liberal and conservative parties in Europe are gradually losing ground and that now is the time to cautiously align themselves with new forces—the far-right nationalists. “Some people in political circles in Moscow know that in Europe, and particularly in France, as the new family of far-right parties is gaining momentum, they must get to know them better and test the waters,” says Jean-Yves Camus.
The Euroscepticism of public opinion in France and the U.K. can be harnessed and adapted by nationalist and populist parties to form a Europhobic ideology based on fear of foreigners, "conservative values" and hostility to Islam. In December the Dutch Eurosceptic politician Geert Wilders attended a meeting in Italy which also hosted a United Russia Duma member:
According to Italian media, Viktor Zubarev also addressed the gathering and spoke about ‘values, the family, the nation, a return to religion’ and said that the party shared a lot of ideas with Italy’s Northern League, from immigration to budgetary policies.
In France, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen believes that Russia is "unfairly demonized", and has claimed that an ongoing anti-Russian campaign is being organized "at the highest levels of the European Union with support from the United States".

As Moscow increases its propaganda effort through outlets like RT (Russia Today) and Russia Beyond the Headlines, it's as well to be aware of the possible dangers of its collaboration with right-wing extremist forces in Europe - and to see those dangers in the context of Europe's twentieth-century past.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Putin and the Past

As some observers have recently pointed out, the Putin government's new strategy concerning Europe, the U.S. and the West in general bears some similarities to the tactics that were employed by the fledgling Bolshevik government in the decade that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. While the parallels are still very approximate, I think they do help us to understand where Russia is going at present, and what the future may hold.

When in the initial years of the new regime the hopes of a pan-European revolution failed to materialize, and the attempt to spread Communism by force of arms fairly quickly lost impetus, Soviet Russia fell back on a policy of "peaceful coexistence" with Western capitalism. This did not mean that the Bolsheviks abandoned their goal of world revolution - on the contrary, their aim now was to play off the capitalist nations of the West against one another: to unite with Germany against Poland, to support Britain against France, to befriend nationalist Turkey and to oppose and overcome the growing anti-Bolshevism of the United States.

By the summer of 1920 it was clear that the period of coexistence was likely to be prolonged: this was underlined in particular by the Soviet defeat in the Battle of Warsaw, which crippled the Red Army; by the failure of Western left-wing movements to follow the Bolshevik example, and by the parlous state of the Soviet economy. This situation led to an appraisal of future strategy which had three basic strands: 1) an acknowledgement of the Soviet Union's weakness, which required an extended period of social and military calm, in which the Soviet government would need to advocate international peace and establish friendly relations with capitalist states; 2) an exploitation of the greed of Western capitalists, and an effort to promote and aggravate rivalry between capitalist groups and nations; and 3) a prolonged and far-reaching campaign of propaganda and subversion aimed at encouraging and inspiring revolutionary activity everywhere, both in the developed West and in the colonial and semi-colonial countries of the world. As Lenin put it: "We do not for a moment believe in lasting trade relations with the imperialist powers; what we shall obtain will be simply a breathing space [peredyshka]."

Some of the early effects of the new Soviet policy could be seen in movements like the Britain's "Hand Off Russia" movement, which questioned the wisdom of conducting what left-wing circles portrayed as an undeclared war on Russia. As early as February 1920 Britain's Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, gave a speech to Parliament in which he asserted that the best way to restore order in Russia was by means of trade, not military force, and that the key to Western success was "to fight anarchy with abundance".

Today, there are differences - for example, instead of the context of a European war, there are the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But's not hard to detect echoes of the 1920s. There are the same attitudes taken by Western governments - their wait-and-see policies that put the interests of trade and commerce before any confrontation, even of a diplomatic kind, over issues of human rights and political repression. In place of the Western leftist revolutionary movements there are the campaigns by left-wing and libertarian groups conducting information-based attacks that are designed to cause maximum damage to Western military, security and economic interests, and the undisguised links of such campaigns with Russia itself, viz. the defection to Moscow of the spy Edward Snowden. And there are the activities of Western business interests and multinational corporations, which see in Russia a market of almost unlimited potential, and are determined not to let political or humanitarian issues stand in their way.

Ultimately, of course, the relative calm of the "breathing-space" period of the New Economic Policy was overtaken by events - the death of Lenin in 1924 and the intense power struggle that followed, with the ascension of Stalin and his rationalization of Leninist thinking and practice, exemplified in the massive reorganization and expansion of intelligence and secret police to cover almost every aspect of life. The conflicts and contradictions of the West's interaction with Russia - the growth of the perception of the Soviet monolith as an unmistakable, dangerous and unambiguous enemy, and the blindness of  Western opinion-leaders and observers who allowed themselves to be duped about the monolith's real nature - became increasingly pronounced as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s. An open military confrontation with the West might have occurred at any point, but for the special circumstances of European politics, which in the aftermath of 1914-18 were dominated by League of Nations pacifism and the sudden emergence of a National Socialist government in Germany.

What shouldn't be lost sight of, perhaps, is the long-term approach of Russia's political, military and security strategy. Its modern history has now extended for nearly a century, and is dominated by the interests of a powerful police and intelligence elite that has endured and shows no sign of weakening in its avowed purpose of defeating the West's global hegemony.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Return to the Past

The re-criminalizing of "slander" in the draft law No. 3879 adopted by a show of hands in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada today is essentially a return to the law on anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, which was defined as: 
propaganda or agitation with the purpose of undermining or weakening of the Soviet power or with the purpose of committing or incitement to commit particularly grave crimes against the Soviet state (as defined in the law);
the spreading with the same purposes of slanderous fabrications that target the Soviet political and social system;
production, dissemination or storage, for the same purposes, of literature with anti-Soviet content

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Writing About the Buildings

In Slon, David Satter is asked for his views on why he was expelled from Russia:
[There are] a large number of journalists who almost every day express opinions that are very critical of the policy of Russia and its leadership. Why were you picked on?
- I can't answer that question. You can find out from the experts. What can I say? I'm the only one who wrote about the buildings (he is referring to the apartment bombings - Slon), the most important question in  post-Soviet history. Maybe that's the reason. Maybe it's something else.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Academy of Questions


In March the 5th Russian Literature Festival – SLOVO 2014 – will be held in London under the auspices of Academia Rossica,  a Russian arts and culture foundation that calls itself an NGO but is in reality a Russian state cultural organization. The organization is headed by Svetlana Adzhubei, a Moscow University arts graduate who is married to the son of Alexei  Adzhubei, Nikita Khrushchev's son in law, and chief editor of the Soviet newspaper Izvestia from 1959 to 1964.

Among the “partners” of  Academia Rossica are the Russkiy Mir Foundation, set up by Vladimir Putin in 2007, the Russian Ministry of Culture, the state-controlled press and media agency Russia Now (an offshoot of the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta) , which also operates on the Internet at the website Russia Beyond the Headlines,  and a number of British cultural and financial organizations, including the British Council and Peter Hambro Mining plc.

In addition to holding Russia-related cultural events throughout the year, Academia Rossica also sponsors two Russian literary translation prizes, and – most notably – serves as a hub and social gathering point for London’s expatriate Russian community.

As the Russian government tightens its control of media and sponsors repressive legislation targeting sexual and ethnic minorities, it seems legitimate to ask whether Academia Rossica plays a part in this process. Government exploitation of cultural outlets and activities for political purposes was widespread during the Soviet era, and this lavishly staged project in a foreign capital looks suspiciously like a reanimation of the genre.

While one can see the advantage to the Kremlin authorities of promoting a positive image of Russia through literature and culture, involving British and other Western publishers and cultural groups, it’s hard to see the purpose of the SLOVO events, which are now extended through a period of several weeks. As the BBC's Alexander Kan pointed out last year:
The abundance of Russian –  or more precisely Russian-speaking – Londoners  makes the festival’s success a foregone conclusion. Cut off from their native roots, people are hungry to hear the living word of the man of letters, remembering the traditional Russian phrases "leaders of opinion" (vlastiteli dum) and "in Russia the poet is more than a poet."

The one or two Britons present – most of them specialists in Russian studies –are lost in the crowd of expatriates and visiting guests. In this sense, the disconnection of the latter with the professional community of publishers, literary agents and booksellers  who make up the main audience of the London Book Fair, is perhaps also undermining the chances of success for the project’s original task—  to promote the Russian word in Britain.
It’s perhaps as well to note that this year’s SLOVO festival is to be held separately from the London Book Fair, about a month earlier, from March 8-23. Even so, the event still holds a distinct air of mystery.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Russia Watchers

When I started this blog almost ten years ago, I had no earlier experience of blogging: in those days not that many people did. My original plan was to present a kind of informal diary, a conversational, subjective and honest appraisal of current affairs in Britain, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. I'm embarrassed to read some of my early posts – among other things, they show how hard it was for me to establish a political compass-bearing in the post-9/11 debate about terror, Islamism, U.S.-Russia relations and European security. Yet some of the conflicts I discussed  – the clash, for example, between the views of the anti-jihadist historians Spencer and Pipes and those of Western onlookers concerned about Russia’s abuse of human rights in Chechnya  – are still actual today, and have if anything increased their topicality.

Ten years ago my blog was a collection of the thoughts of a 59-year-old observer of current affairs with an academic training in Russian language, history and literature who also worked in the field of literary translation from Russian and the Nordic languages, including Finnish. My experience of travel in Russia and Eastern Europe, my visits to Estonia during the 1990s and my contacts with members of Estonia’s Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit), as well as with literary figures there, gave me  – I thought – a way into the discussion about the future of Europe. In particular, I was concerned with the question of Russia’s role vis-à-vis Europe, of whether Russia would finally make the transition to  formal de-Sovietization  and European-style democracy that many hoped for, or whether it would remain tied to its Soviet past -  superficially modern, but inwardly hidebound and backward-looking.  

I soon discovered that airing views on Russia-related topics, even on a tiny, low-traffic blog, was not without its hazards – the presence of a large and seemingly well-organized pro-Kremlin lobby  was conspicuous on the Web even back in 2004. The voicing of any criticism of Russia’s foreign policy, however mild, tended to attract hostile comments in the boxes, and at times these became intolerably shrill.  From my earlier participation on several Internet forums, I was familiar with these attacks , which were nearly always destructive and ad hominem. A particular animus seemed to exist among Russian-speaking posters with a commitment to the new version of Balkan – especially Serbian – nationalism. But I soldiered on, tending to post less and less of my own personal thoughts, and more and more of news items and op-ed commentaries gathered from both Western and Russian-language media. To guard against hacker attacks, I backed up the original Blogger blog with a facsimile version on WordPress. I covered the Beslan school hostage crisis of September 2004 as well as the Ukraine crisis and Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, and later followed this up with translations of related Russian-language documentary material and interviews. However, in late 2005 I began to translate articles for the Prague Watchdog website, which monitored the human rights situation in Chechnya, and in 2007 I started to work with PW more or less full time, as an editor and translator in the site’s English-language section. This meant I had less time to devote to the blog, and in fact it’s only recently that I’ve been able to give it some proper attention again.

What I've discovered, looking round at the English-language Russia-watching blogosphere in 2014, is that in many respects the spectrum of opinion and analysis has hardened to an extent that was probably not the case even five years ago. The more reflective, wide-ranging blogs, like Siberian Light, Scraps of Moscow and Neeka’s Backlog, seem to have changed their character,  becoming either more personal or less frequently updated, while  polemical blogs, like La Russophobe (Dying Russia) and Da Russophile, have become more  strident and prominent. There are some more recent blogs like Catherine Fitzpatrick’s Minding Russia, which break away from the polarized Russia debate and strike out into new territory, looking beyond the surface of Russian life. Above all, however,  there appears to have been a huge increase in the amount of academic blogging, with numerous U.S. college professors and Russian studies “experts” – a relatively new phenomenon, this –  dominating the landscape. While some of these academic blogs are long-established – Sean’s Russia Blog is an example, providing useful, if somewhat cautious background to the  news – others have materialized only in the last few years. The global affairs analyst Mark Galeotti writes a blog called In Moscow’s Shadows about crime and security in Russia. In addition to several titles mainly  concerned with crime, security and the Russian military, Galeotti  has also written a book about  the Chechen wars of 1994-2009 – yet in his posts on North Caucasus-related events like the recent Volgograd bombings he tends to take an almost ahistorical view, concentrating on issues of tactics and security, as well as on the Kremlin’s ongoing narrative, rather than on the roots of the crisis. 

Among the academic bloggers there’s a tendency to take that Kremlin narrative at face value as the expression of policies that  don't differ essentially from those of other governments in the world. The peculiar and unique nature of Russian governance – its connection with irrational, spontaneous forces that lie just under the surface of an apparently normal exterior – does not feature in their analyses. Although they perceive the networks of corruption and manipulation that drive the political process, they do not stop to unravel them in the context of the Russian past. For a group blog like Global Voices Online, Russia is just one more region of the world to be considered like any other – and in fact it is treated more or less in isolation from the rest of the world, in a periodic collection of posts about “RuNet” – the Russian Internet which, again following the Kremlin narrative, is assumed to exist separately from the Internet that functions in the rest of the globe. Whether this inclination to follow, if not the bias, then the structure of Russian official thinking is caused by a reluctance to offend the authorities and a desire to retain visiting rights to the Russian Federation, one can only speculate.

What is lacking in the blogosphere’s coverage of Russia is an all-round picture that includes not only the issues of government, society, security,  business and crime, but also the historical and cultural background, a knowledge of which instantly renders the country and its leaders less opaque. While there are some excellent blogs on Russian literature – Sarah J. Young’s is an example – there appear to be very few that link that literature to an understanding of current events in Russia.  Though not a blog, Radio Liberty’s Russian-language site is the only one I know of that fulfills this function, including, along with its output of news and analysis, features like its series on the work of the great Russian philosopher, historian and cultural anthropologist Alexander Pyatigorsky, including his taped lectures. Something of this kind is badly needed in English. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sochi: Stages of Management

As the 1-month countdown to the Sochi Winter Olympics begins, attention is focusing on the political significance of this event not only for Russia itself but also for the rest of the world, whose good will and participation is, theoretically at least, an important part of the proceedings. While the propaganda value of the games for the Russian government in terms of national pride and Putin's personal prestige doesn't need to be underscored, it's perhaps a good idea to take a step back and look at the Sochi games in terms of one or two aspects of the  international situation in which the games are about to go live.  

It hasn't escaped the attention of even the least disputatious Western commentators that -  viewed on the map - the Black Sea coastal resort of Sochi is "not far from Chechnya", and "in a rough neighborhood" (near the North Caucasus). The wisdom of holding an extended high-profile international sporting event in what is essentially a war zone has now and then been questioned by observers with no particular political or ideological ax to grind. But since what is involved, on paper at least,  is a show of international solidarity and Olympic ideals, most have decided to give the Russian authorities the benefit of the doubt. While at the end of 2013 the doubts were increased by the bombings in Volgograd - was this not a warning by terrorists intent on sabotaging the event? - what has slipped from the headlines and many or most of the pre-games analyses is a consideration of other events beyond Russia's borders in which Russia plays an important and well-nigh decisive role.

In March last year Foreign Policy published an article by Brookings Institution analyst Fiona Hill in which she outlined what she saw as the real reason for President Putin's support of Syria's Bashar Assad. It was connected, she wrote, with Putin's fear of the situation in the North Caucasus and Chechnya (expressed in a series of interviews he gave in 2000) as "the continuation of the collapse of the USSR.... If we did not quickly do something to stop it, Russia as a state in its current form would cease to exist":
For Putin, Syria is all too reminiscent of Chechnya. Both conflicts pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups. In Putin’s view -- one that he stresses repeatedly in meetings with his U.S. and European counterparts -- Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban, then moved to Chechnya, and has torn a number of Arab countries apart. 
As Hill was not slow to point out, in reality the two conflicts have little in common - while the Chechen wars were mainly localized within the North Caucasus region, with occasional outbreaks of terrorism elsewhere in Russia, in Syria the whole of the country is embroiled in a ferocious civil war, and Assad does not have at his disposal the resources that were available to Putin in his confrontation with Chechnya. He has been unable to eliminate opposition adversaries abroad in the way that Putin did, and - far from being localized - the Syrian conflict has spilled over into the entire Middle East region, threatening its stability. As Hill put it:
Chechnya is in a bad neighborhood, but Syria is in a terrible neighborhood, and the effects of the Syrian conflict cannot be contained in the way that Chechnya’s were.
Undeterred, Putin and the Russian military leadership press on with their obstinate support for the Syrian dictator, thus bringing ever closer the likelihood of the disintegration of a state that is of the greatest geopolitical importance to Russia's own security. The endgame strategy is to blame the whole disaster on the United States, for having supported democratic movements associated with the Arab Spring.

Such is the context in which the Sochi games are now to be held. Clearly, in a state like modern Russia, where the triumph of propaganda is of more importance than diplomacy or attempts at international reconciliation, the scene is set for a large and prominent display of public advocacy and agitprop. With the ramping up of its counter-information channel Russia Today - a Russian-language version is  now being added - and the dismantling of the RIA Novosti agency, Moscow is about to make maximum political capital from the games, forcing Western nations to take a position in what the Russian authorities view as a conflict between "values" - the liberal, tolerance-espousing values of the West, with its respect for gay rights and the freedom of dissenters and minorities, and the uncompromising, conservative fusion of Orthodoxy and Islam that is beginning to emerge as the founding ideology of the Eurasian Union. By linking the Volgograd bombings to the alleged activities of Syrian and North Caucasus extremists, by raising the profile of Doku Umarov and his "Caucasus Emirate", and by issuing reminders about the Boston attacks of last April, Moscow is making sure that, as Western nations prepare to send their athletes to Sochi, their governments are compelled to take sides in a Kremlin-prepared choice of alternatives.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

History Lessons

In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, most of the commentary in Western media has focused on the likelihood that the explosions were the work of forces controlled by Doku Umarov and his "Caucasus Emirate". In the Interpreter magazine, Andrew Bowen writes that
it is still a safe bet that the bombings can be attributed to the Caucasus Emirate, Russia’s homegrown Islamist insurgency. With that, and the upcoming Olympic Games, in mind, we can analyze the threat and potential for further attacks in the region and in Sochi by attempting to understand who the terrorists are and what they are capable of 
and he says that
Rightly, the Russian authorities consider the threat as high enough to warrant the impressive security efforts. 
Nearly all of the commentators persist in viewing the recent bombings and their social and political context from a Western perspective. Although the Caucasus Emirate is said to be "homegrown", it is regarded in much the same light as Al Qaeda, while the Russian "authorities" (by which are meant counter terrorist and counter intelligence forces) and their efforts to control the situation are seen as equivalents to security and intelligence services in the West. In other words, the Volgograd bombings are viewed essentially in essentially the same light as terrorist attacks in the West, and the perpetrators are considered to be the equivalent of Islamist groups in London, Madrid or other Western capitals. 

The analyses by observers like Andrew Bowen, Mark Galeotti and others tend to focus heavily on listings of Russia's security preparations for the Olympics, together with a rundown of the assumed structure of the Islamist cells in Dagestan and Ingushetia. with much emphasis on "suicide bombers" and their "psychological preparation". Very many such analyses look ahead to the Sochi Olympics, and link the atrocities to a desire by the Islamists to disrupt the Games. What is almost entirely missing from these articles is any attempt to set the recent events in a historical perspective, and particularly in the context of the long and shadowy relationship between the growth of Islamism in the North Caucasus and the activities of Russia's security services. Although Bowen mentions "the gradual transformation of a Chechen nationalist/independence inspired resistance to a more regional Islamist insurgency", he does not follow this up with a consideration of why the transformation took place, or of the agencies, including the Russian state authorities, that helped to make it possible. In particular, he fails to set the recent bombings in the historical context of other, similar bombings in the past, some of which were attributed by Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya to special operations by Russian secret services.

This lack of historical analysis and awareness is all the more striking as some of the commentators, like Galeotti, have been researching Russian history and security issues since at least the late 1980s. 

The narrative of "suicide bombings" to "disrupt the Olympics" makes good headlines for Western media, but it does not do a great deal to help our understanding of events that go far beyond Sochi and may have much wider repercussions for global politics as a whole. In the context of Volgograd the Syrian conflict, and Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad, is one area that deserves much closer scrutiny. It's time that Western defence correspondents and analysts broadened their approach to such events to include some historical depth, a consciousness of the details of the Chechen conflict, and the story of Chechen independence, for it is there that the roots of the present troubles can be found. In Russia's brutal and mindless suppression of dissent in the North Caucasus, and its attempts to destroy it by every possible means, whether it be military force, propaganda, or subversion, lies the answer to the questions many are raising now.