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Wrong on Russia

I have been writing about my home country every so often on my blog. I know that I have almost never reacted to either critical or positive comments in the media on Russian politics and economy. There is a personal reason to this, on the one hand. I was growing in Moscow in 1980s-90s. I suppose I can say frankly that my childhood ended in 1991. I spent my summer holidays with my grandmother’s youngest brother in his country house; my mother had left her job before going on a holiday. When we returned, Gorbachev’s Crimea exile had already begun, and a few days later the coup happened. Later, already a history student, I realised that I finished the previous school year in one country and started a new school year in another. Call it surreal or postmodern, this was definitely an out-of-this-world moment. Even if I didn’t realise the full scope of events then, I experienced them because at the time everyone – literally, everyone – was involved in discussing politics. Add to this the fact that I started my sixth form in a Moscow school with my Russian Literature and Language teacher being absolutely ecstatic about my writing potential. She was convinced I was a journo material (she wasn’t quite wrong, as you know). I fancied the idea – my very first notebooks were mostly filled with articles and sketches on Russian politics and politicians.

This fountain of juvenile political commenting dried up for a number of reasons. There were no blogs then, and I simply got frustrated because my “brilliant” sketches were destined to be buried in the bottom drawer – surely, there were enough staff at nationwide and regional newspapers who could drag on exactly the same topics I was dragging on (and I was only be 12-13 years old at the time). The frustration of not being able to publish work immediately was alleviated by discovering such authors, as Bulgakov, Chekhov and Kuprin. I realised that I wanted to write “serious stuff”, not those short-lived satires on domestic politics. Last but not least, I also realised there was more to life than politics. Possibly, this is what also defined the choice I made later at the University when I went to study Medieval and Early Modern History.

I remember this time and again today when I am occasionally asked to comment on Russia’s current affairs. Yet another reason why I stopped spending time writing political sketches was that it was not me who voiced them. I was essentially parroting whatever I thought I agreed with. I would usually agree with my family’s point of view, but as I was growing, I was obviously getting conscious that it was theirs, and not mine, point of view. And so today when it has been nearly five years since I left Russia (which did not happen for political reasons) I avoid commenting on Russian politics because I am not there. Being professionally qualified, I am well aware of the fact that each party – be that the Russian mass-media powered by the Kremlin, or the ill-fated independent Russian agencies, or the Western media – has its own agenda in the discussion, and I don’t want to share it by way of supporting one party or another. Having worked in the media, I am equally aware of the abundance of emotion in the modern press and broadcasting media; on occasion it seems that the proverbial witch-hunting is happening somewhere in the press room rather than in the “real” world.

The reason why I now write this post is the article by Stephen F. Cohen for International Herald Tribune, “Wrong on Russia. In a very succinct form, Cohen, who is Professor of Russian Studies at New York University, addresses the current state of affairs between the U.S. and Russia. Straight away he claims that America’s “greatest foreign policy concern” should be that of “Russia’s singular capacity to endanger or enhance our national security“:

Despite its diminished status following the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia alone possesses weapons that can destroy the United States, a military-industrial complex nearly America’s equal in exporting arms, vast quantities of questionably secured nuclear materials sought by terrorists, and the planet’s largest oil and natural gas reserves.

In addition to this, Russia’s strategic position is between the West and the East, “at the crossroads of colliding civilizations, with strategic capabilities from Europe, Iran and other Middle East nations to North Korea, China, India, Afghanistan and even Latin America“. “All things considered“, Cohen concludes, “our national security may depend more on Russia than Russia’s does on us.

If a die-hard Russian chauvinist reads the beginning of this article, they will joyfully proclaim that America is so afraid of Russia that it does not feel ashamed to admit so. Thankfully, Prof. Cohen goes beyond the typical pro-American/anti-Russian approach to the problem and defines one of the true reasons for the growth of Russian nationalism since the fall of the Soviet Union – America’s own foreign policy. This very much conforms with the paper delivered by Robert Sakva on the problems of post-Soviet European integration. Sakva pointed out directly to the problem of the West having no idea of how to accommodate Russia, for which reason the West has repeatedly been failing – strategically, intellectually, and culturally. Strategically, the West (and the U.S., in particular) did indeed take the humiliating approach to Russia, which could not and would not result in anything less than a backlash of Russian national opinion against the “westernisation”.

Intellectually and culturally – and I can speak of these two – there is a huge stereotypisation of the country and its people which serves nothing but to set in stone some existing misconceptions. The problem starts with the language. A couple of years ago at Waterstone’s I saw a book on Ivan the Terrible written without recourse to the Russian-language sources. The translated works of Russian scholars listed in the bibliography were the classic books, but well outdated. Although I did not read the book I cannot see how it could present an unbiased view of the Russian state under Ivan the Terrible. The reason why I start from this “dawn” of Russian history is because the misconceptions about the country’s “historical inclination” to tyranny and authoritarianism take their root in the linguistic and academic barrier between the student and the subject of the study. Think of it in the same way as if you were trying to write the “unbiased” history of Iran without knowing the Persian language, thus articulating only one side of an argument. The extent of the knowledge of Russian culture and literature in the West once again boils down to the access to the original sources or the availability of translations. Overall, it somehow seems to be easier for a foreigner (a Russian for this matter) to bridge the gap and learn more about the West, than the other way around.

The result of those failures, however, is the possibility of yet another Cold War that both Cohen and Sakva admit. Cohen does not hesitate to say:

Such [humiliating – JS] U.S. behavior was bound to produce a Russian backlash. It came under Putin, but it would have been the reaction of any strong Kremlin leader. Those U.S. policies – widely viewed in Moscow as an “encirclement” designed to keep Russia weak and to control its resources – have helped revive an assertive Russian nationalism, destroy the once strong pro-American lobby, and inspire widespread charges that concessions to Washington are “appeasement,” even “capitulationism.” The Kremlin may have overreacted, but the cause and effect threatening a new cold war are clear.

And this is interesting, for Sakva, speaking about the problems of integration, says precisely the following:

In a strange way the notion of the Cold War has returned to haunt us once again. … the mere fact is that if you look at the newspapers, if you google the word “Cold War in modern debates”, in journalism, and so on, you’ll see it’s a huge guise in the way that we’re now once again, it seems, instead of transcending the conflicts of the past, we’re reinforcing and re-instituting them in new ways. That sets about an empirical question: are we entering into the new Cold War? And there is also a far more interesting one …: the understanding of why this notion of conflict – we can use “Cold War” or we can use other words – is so deeply embedded in contemporary international politics?

This is a valid and important question to answer. The answer, surprisingly, may assert the view that Realism is still the leading International Relations theory. As defined, realism “is a particular view of the world, defined by the following assumptions: the international realm is anarchic and consists of independent political units, called states; states are the primary actors and inherently possess some offensive military capability or power which makes them potentially dangerous to each other; states can never be sure about the intentions of other states; the basic motive driving states is survival or maintenance of sovereignty; states are instrumentally rational and think strategically how to survive“. There are many ways in which one can look at Russia, its culture, democracy and intentions these days, and not once have I heard the jokes about Russians who still believe in some “conspiracy theories”. But when articles, like the one by Prof. Cohen, appear, one cannot help wondering if a particular part of the world is indeed driving itself to survival and is attempting to maintain its sovereignty by instigating a conflict at any (assumed) instance of a potential danger.

I think I was able to distance myself sufficiently from all the parties involved, and there are things about Russia’s contemporary mentality, culture and sociopolitical discourse that I do not like. But as one of the problems the West (and the U.S., in particular) repeatedly encounters is the Russian take (or mis-take, in some observers’ opinion) on democracy, I cannot avoid making one important point. Having once written a long essay exactly on the definition of democracy in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville (who devoted four volumes to describing and analysing The Democracy in America), I can only agree with the Frenchman (who, as a matter of fact, was a monarchist) in his explanation for why in his time only two states, namely Switzerland and America, were able to build what could be described as “democracy”. Switzerland – because it conformed ideally with the Greek political philosophy’s view of a democratic state: it was small in size. America was able to build her democracy because it had very little historical, political and cultural baggage to deal with. The cultural (and ethical, to an extent) clash the West inevitably experiences in its advances on Russia and the East was out of question. The novelty of the land allowed for the novelty of a political regime where the latest developments in the European ethical and political thought could be applied without much resistance from the native population. To put it simply, back in the 18th c. America as a state that we now know had no solid political tradition. Unlike England, France and Russia, it was a tabula rasa, whereas the Old World countries had (and still have) to take into account centuries of political tradition and the sense of national pride tied to this.

Fortunately for today’s world, Russians are not the Native Indians. And, as I said, there are certain things about the current state of Russian thought that I observe through the LiveJournal blogs that, quite frankly, repel me. I still think Tocqueville’s work can be important and enlightening to us, provided we care to read it thoroughly, starting with the Preface. In the Preface he states clearly that he did not compose his treatise in order to provide France with a blueprint of a democratic state or society. He embarked on his work in order to show that democracy could be achieved, but that ultimately, it would have to be a French, and not American, democracy:

It appears to me beyond a doubt that, sooner or later, we shall arrive, like the Americans, at an almost complete equality of condition. But I do not conclude from this that we shall ever be necessarily led to draw the same political consequences which the Americans have derived from a similar social organization. I am far from supposing that they have chosen the only form of government which a democracy may adopt; but as the generating cause of laws and manners in the two countries is the same, it is of immense interest for us to know what it has produced in each of them“.

I dare say Russia has taken and learnt more from the West than either Russia or the West care to admit. If Russia is given space, while within the country itself people stop clinging on to a dream about the “glorious past”, either Tsarist or Communist (again, as Tocqueville wisely underlined elsewhere in his treatise, the old political regime is always better than the new one, and it is easy to see, why: because we already know what was good and bad about it, and so can make a choice to extol the better and to ignore or defy the worse traits of the old regime), then the worst thing that can happen is that we will end up with yet another, Russian, type of democracy. It may sound scary, but this is the only way to go for Russia and for the West, if indeed we want to avoid a new Cold War.

2 thoughts on “Wrong on Russia”

  1. Your blog post is very insightful. I enjoyed reading it very much. It made me think of an International Relations theory I recently came across called Constructive Sovereignty.Constructive Sovereignty is an emerging theory pioneered by John Maszka intended to address globalization’s increasing onslaught against state sovereignty. The theory maintains that states are not the primary actors, their constituents are. Therefore, their preferences are not fixed. Since states merely represent the preferences of their constituents, they will only adhere to and ultimately embed those international norms that their respective constituencies will accept. Rather than push for larger and more powerful international organizations that will impose global norms from the outside in, the theory of Constructive Sovereignty posits that ultimately change must come from the inside out. That is to say, from each state’s own constituency. As each state’s constituents become more and more international, they will become more receptive to international norms and they will voice their acceptance of these norms both politically and (especially) as consumers.It is therefore a central pillar of the theory that privatization is not only the driving force behind globalization, but also that private enterprise possesses the incentive to implement those international norms reflected in the preferences of consumers (profit). Private enterprise is also the primary consumer of proprietary data used to measure the preferences of consumers, and as such remains the most up-to-date source of changing consumer preferences. As private enterprise meets the increasingly international demands of consumers, it will itself become more international in scope. The cycle is self-perpetuating. In this way international norms are embedded and viewed with legitimacy by each state’s constituency, while state sovereignty is maintained and respected.The theory of Constructive Sovereignty ties in nicely with Maszka’s model for combating terrororism. Maszka asserts that terrorism, regardless of its causes, is ultimately only possible with sufficient popular support. Consequently, only once we find a way to eliminate popular support for terrorism will we be able to eliminate terrorism itself. While some minimal definition is necessary to identify terrorism in a uniform manner, knowing what causes terrorism and collecting data on individual acts of terrorism is not as important as knowing how to stop it. When putting out a fire, while it is important to know what type of fire it is before attempting to put it out (e.g. applying water to an oil fire will have the same effect as using a flame thrower), firefighters understand that the key to putting out any fire is to remove its source of oxygen. This knowledge affords them a standard plan of action that varies only in detail (what kind of fire is it, and what is needed to remove the source of oxygen). Likewise, terrorism depends on popular support to sustain itself. Without popular support, the majority of funding, recruits and overall acceptance will disappear. Therefore, similar to putting out a fire, the primary goal for eliminating terrorism is to eliminate the sources of popular support. Measuring popular support for terrorism also affords us a method of measuring and predicting 1) the potential for terrorism in any given society, 2) the direction that acts of terrorism tend to be moving in (e.g. westward, eastward, or remaining static), and 3) broad trends in the support for terrorism, such as whether popular support is increasing among moderates, Westerners, etc…

  2. Paul, thank you very much for the comment, I am glad you liked my post so much. :-)) Regarding the theory: I can see it addressing the current state of things. In another post here on the blog I noted the public attitude to national holidays and the monarchy. St George’s Day would in many ways celebrate the monarchy, but all the UK taxpayers are doing is counting the cost of the royal family per household. Likewise, in Russia they are counting the cost of all sorts of public festivals. Clearly, this is about private money and how it is spent, although I would not probably say that this pertains to our days only. We naturally focus on today, but people have been paying taxes since the time immemorial, hence the taxpayers’ distrust and bad attitude is ages-long. Consequently, with all the theories of International Relations, what I find to be their main problem is that they are too focused on the current events. This is both correct and not. The reason why I started with the attitude to monarchy is precisely that the change in attitude has allowed the people to do what they would not even think of doing in the past centuries. Whereas previously “a Ceasar’s wife was beyond suspicion”, nowadays the wife is practically being called to court (or husband, since the current monarch is female). So, the state is evidently not an agent as before because the power of trust is now in the hands of the citizens. I’d, however, ask a question whether it was indeed different in the past centuries. And in my opinion, the biggest change has been in the cultural and ethical sphere. The notorious freedom of thought comes to mind, but it is interesting to see what constitutes it. I recently read an article about Russian democracy; the author suggested to define “democracy” exactly as such political regime in which the state guarantees its citizens the freedom of thought. My question is: where does this freedom come from and how to define it? We have to think of ideology and consumerist society we live in these days. When you go to buy a particular brand of a hoover, how really free are you in your choice? When you go to vote, how really free are you in making a choice about one candidate over another? What part in making this choice is played by your environment, be that your family, friends, work, or even the media? In fact, how do you view your candidate: do you know them personally, or do you look at them through the media lenses? This leads to a question: are those constituencies really free in their intents and perceptions, or are they subdued by the ideology to a bigger or lesser extent? Regarding terrorism – agree in general, but again, I think, the focus is slightly misplaced. There is such thing as terror – it’s not necessarily about suicide bombers, it’s about instituting fear. Terror, to judge even by the etymology of the word, dates back to the time before time. This means that it is impossible to extinguish the human inclination to terror because, one can say, it is historically embedded in the consciousness of the entire mankind. If it’s not extinguishable, then how to regulate it? Precisely how you regulate the fire – it only breaks out when the specific safety norms were breached. So, we cannot eradicate terror, but we can avoid it breaking out. Terrorism is, I suppose, judging by the “-ism” suffix, about theorising the institution of terror (just like Marxism is about making theory of Marx’s works; stalinism is about making theory of Stalin’s regime; nationalism is about making theory of one nation being undisputably better than another, etc.). It is ideological, whereas a single act of terror is not necessarily such. And this is what makes it pervasive and long-lasting: because theory, even if it originates in the world very distant from a metaphysical discourse, ends up belonging to the world of ideas. The ideas, fortunately and unfortunately, always exist. Simply put, if we stop believing in love or peace in England, this will not spell the end of love and peace elsewhere in the world. Hence it is impossible to tackle either terrorism or the individual acts of terror by just silencing the support for such or waging anti-terror wars. If one is a theory and another is inherent to human nature, we’ll face the fiasco in both cases….…I’ll leave for you or someone else to pick up the talk or to disagree with me. 🙂

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