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Monday, 24 October 2016

The Revival of Russia

Ever since the Melian Dialogue reported by Thucydides, when the Athenian emissaries pointed out that "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must", the world has been formally divided into states that interfere and states that are interfered with. The 1945-89 era was marked by competing attempts to justify interference on the grounds of either anticommunism or socialist solidarity, but neither was convincing. Interference remained the prerogative of the strong in respect of the weak. The loudly-proclaimed shift to a unipolar world after 1989, and the "special responsibility" of liberal interventionism, was an attempt to limit this prerogative further to the West - which for all practical purposes has meant the USA since the mid-1950s. Much of the current angst over the behaviour of Russia and China stems from a belief that they wish to move from the category of states that are interfered with to the category of states that do the interfering, redressing historic humiliations and buttressing domestic support through foreign adventures.

From the Spratly Islands via Cyberspace to Syria, the geopolitical air is heavy with amour propre, revanche and other dubious fragrances (French remains the spiritual language of diplomacy, despite the contrary insistence of the British), not to mention the smell of charred flesh. This marks a return to the "realist" thinking of old, in which nation states are personified through human emotions - ambition, resentment, jealousy - and materialist explanations are reduced to plunder, a failing found as much on the left ("it's all about the oil") as the right. Class divisions are buried beneath nationalist rhetoric or occluded by tales of oligarchy and corruption, a manoeuvre that suits actual domestic elites as much as foreign critics. An example of this "realism" was the way that Western commentary on Russia, particularly after the failures of the 90s, revived traditional tropes such as crueltysuperstitious mysticism and paranoia, which had long been central to the debate on whether Russia was really European. These tropes in turn point to three persistent themes in the Western interpretation of Russian politics: leadership, the limits of bureaucracy and exceptionalism.

Writing in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, the American historian Stephen Kotkin outlined the issue of leadership: "Peter the Great, the original strong-state builder, emasculated individual initiative, exacerbated inbred distrust among officials, and fortified patron-client tendencies. His coercive modernization brought indispensable new industries, but his project for a strengthened state actually entrenched personal whim. This syndrome characterized the reigns of successive Romanov autocrats and those of Lenin and, especially, Stalin, and it has persisted to this day. Unbridled personalism tends to render decision-making on Russian grand strategy opaque and potentially capricious, for it ends up conflating state interests with the political fortunes of one person". It should be obvious that Kotkin himself is indulging a "personalist" interpretation of Russian history as much as reflecting reality. In fact, various Tsars were criticised for being insufficiently autocratic. It is also clear that Soviet politics after Stalin was far more collegiate, if occasionally brutal, while few would characterise Gorbachev as capricious.

But "personalism" is real enough in Russian historiography and it resulted in many of its leaders being treated as pathological case studies - e.g. Ivan the Terrible's apparent psychopathy and Catherine the Great's alleged nymphomania. In the modern era, Brezhnev's infirmity and Yeltsin's drunkenness were taken as representative of the condition of the state. Successful leadership was associated with decisive (even if capricious) action, not the judicious avoidance of risk, which partly explains the selection as interim president of Dmitry Medvedev, a Russian in the mould of a European technocrat, who was unlikely to develop a rival powerbase to Vladimir Putin. The latter's approach has been to rely on the spectacle of embodied leadership, famously in the form of gym workouts and outdoor pursuits, to amplify a modest record on the global stage. The annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria are not major strategic victories, and Russia remains a much diminished power both economically and militarily. Putin hasn't restored Russian standing so much as personified it as a Slavic Alan Partridge.


In the Western image of Russia, the totalitarian state coexists with surreal incompetence, and has done since Gogol's Dead Souls. This tension originally reflected the struggle to "catch up" with the rapidly-industrialising West of the early 19th century. As Kotkin puts it, "Throughout, the country has been haunted by its relative backwardness, particularly in the military and industrial spheres. This has led to repeated frenzies of government activity designed to help the country catch up, with a familiar cycle of coercive state-led industrial growth followed by stagnation. Most analysts had assumed that this pattern had ended for good in the 1990s, with the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism and the arrival of competitive elections and a buccaneer capitalist economy. But the impetus behind Russian grand strategy had not changed. And over the last decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has returned to the trend of relying on the state to manage the gulf between Russia and the more powerful West".

The idea that Russia has repeatedly failed to modernise originally reflected the belief (advanced in particular by the British, who took a different approach to empire and resented Russian expansion in Central Asia) that it was too big to be administered as a unitary state, with effective government defeated by bureaucratic inefficiency and provincial eccentricity (a smaller British echo of this was to be found in Anglo-Irish literature of the 19th century). Much of the Western history of the USSR boils down to the recrudescence of this tendency, first in the 30s and then in the 70s. The surreal - as an emblem of bureaucracy - continues to be central to the liberal image of Russia, hence the over-valuation of performance artists like Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky by non-Russian audiences. This allows actual Russian political practice, which isn't so far removed from that of the West, to be marginalised as spectacle. Peter Pomerantsev has been a chief proponent of this surreal reading, though he often skirts self-awareness. Commenting on the trial of Oleg Sentsov, he notes that "Part of the point of show trials is that the over-the-top absurdity of the charges intimidates any potential opposition. They have the added benefit of making the general population feel complicit in the injustice". The presentation of this absurdity conditions Western audiences too.

Russian exceptionalism is usually presented in the West as evidence of an inadequate commitment to liberal democracy. What Russians apparently want is  a "very special kind of democracy, in line with Russia's traditions and mindset", which sets Western liberals tutting. This is amusing because the Russian attitude precisely mimics American delusions about their own unique "way of life" and the assumption that democracy everywhere else should (or does) mirror the US brand. Many Americans do not understand just how unusual their democracy is - e.g. the electoral college, the disparity of senatorial representation, the unfettered power of money etc. Even more bizarre is the notion that British democracy is normal (Crown prerogative, the House of Lords, an opaque constitution etc). In reality, the Russian flavour of democracy is no more "managed" than it is in other countries, even if it is more corrupt (though probably no worse than Italy or Spain) and in the grip of a dominant party (so not unlike South Africa and Japan).


Stephen Kotkin presents a typical American view of Russia's prospects: "Eventually, the country could try to follow something like the trajectory of France, which retains a lingering sense of exceptionalism yet has made peace with its loss of its external empire and its special mission in the world, recalibrating its national idea to fit its reduced role and joining with lesser powers and small countries in Europe on terms of equality". This is condescending (not unlike Obama's claim that "Putin reminds me of a sulky teenager in the back of the classroom"). France's external empire lives on in its overseas departments (Gaudeloupe, Martinique etc), while the major territories it lost (notably Indo-China and Algeria) were not contiguous with Metropolitan France. For Russia, the loss of its "empire" has meant inroads into what it considers "home" territory, hence the fuss over "Kievan Russ". There are actually better parallels between Russia and the USA, such as the outposts of Puerto Rico and Kaliningrad and the semi-detached territories of Alaska and Crimea.

The three themes of leadership, bureaucracy and exceptionalism have come together in recent years, particularly for Western observers, in the person of Vladislav Surkov, a former PR-man and now "political technologist" who supposedly has the ear of Putin, has subordinated Russian bureaucracy and media, and has created the uniquely Russian concept of "sovereign democracy". In a 2011 essay entitled "Putin's Rasputin", Peter Pomerantsev described him as "Putin’s chief ideologue and grey cardinal ... the ‘Kremlin demiurge’. Known also as the ‘puppetmaster who privatised the Russian political system’, Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era". The overdose on tropes of manipulation and court politics should alert us to an attempt to big-up the subject's significance and ability. In fact, "sovereign democracy", insofar as it can be defined, is banal, simply "not your democracy", which isn't much help given that no two democracies are the same. Surkov is the pseudonymous author of Almost Zero, a novel whose title (an obvious reference to Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero) points to his 80s-era cynicism (he also writes SF stories of a similar vintage). Don't hold your breath for his Imperial Bedrooms.

Surkov, it is claimed, has designed a form of "managed democracy" in which faith is deliberately undermined in all political projects and organisations - notably by publicly funding the state's opponents - leading to a weary cynicism and acceptance of the existing order. This has become the accepted wisdom in the West, from establishment mouthpieces like Foreign Policy to unorthodox critics such as Adam Curtis in his recent film, HyperNormalisation. Despite the claims that he is "postmodern", the received image of Surkov owes an obvious stylistic debt to Mr. Vladimir of Conrad's The Secret Agent and the 19th and 20th century belief that Russia sat at the apex of a vast infrastructure of domestic police repression and semi-competent subversion abroad. The trope of the "state actor" has been upgraded for the Internet age (and extended to China and North Korea), but the language used to describe it hasn't evolved much since the days of the Comintern.


Surkov reportedly fell from favour after the domestic protests against the 2011 Presidential election, but returned to Putin's "inner circle" in 2013 to mastermind the campaign in Ukraine. The implication is that the strategy of deliberate confusion had proved too risky at home, leading to the more authoritarian turn of Putin's second presidency, but was seen to be ideal for export, helping to restore Russia as a major power on the cheap. This story appeals to a Western imagination in which Russia is the embodiment of peasant cunning. According to Politico: "Just a few years ago, the Russians wouldn’t have known about the intricacies of American domestic politics. Business was conducted between Putin and whoever was the American president. ... They didn’t quite understand what Congress was all about, let alone K Street or the respective party committees. ... After the pro-democracy protests of 2011-2012, when Putin thought he might be toppled by what he saw as yet another American-orchestrated regime change, the Kremlin got serious. It figured out how the Internet worked".

It is difficult to believe that the Russian state was ignorant of the Internet prior to 2010 (not least because it was formally hooked up in 1991), or that there was no institutional memory of the intricacies of American politics - i.e. the equivalent of Kremlinology, but with the advantage of the US's relative transparency and an extensive body of academic knowledge in the West. What this tale points to is the continuing hold of the twin ideas of backwardness and catch-up. This has given rise, in an era of American self-doubt, to an odd reversal. In the words of Foreign Policy, "The Kremlin, according to Barack Obama, is stuck in the “old ways,” trapped in Cold War or even 19th century mindsets. But look closer at the Kremlin’s actions during the crisis in Ukraine and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the “old ways,” while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?"

This idea of "roles reversed" is a classic trope of realist foreign policy, dating back at least as far as Tacitus, who used the German tribes as a mirror held up to Roman deficiencies. For realists, the key geopolitical issue of the last 30 years was not the Balkans or Iraq or Syria, but the expansion of NATO up to Russia's borders. Once the Warsaw Pact was no more, the portrayal of Russia as a threat became an existential necessity for the organisation, sucking it into Eastern Europe. Contemporary Russian truculence also stems, as Perry Anderson suggests, from America's rejection of Putin's friendly overtures: "So what did Putin do at the outset of his tenure? Without even being pressed, he made every gesture of good will he could. He shut down Moscow’s outposts in Cuba. He closed its bases in Vietnam. When September 11th occurred, he was the first to call Bush offering every possible help and solidarity. ... Putin thought: We’re going to help the West and in return they will respect us, not like the Soviet Union, but like the Czarist empire of the pre-1914 world. ... It was a fundamental miscalculation. In the eyes of American policy planners, Russia was a diminished country".

I doubt that America's thoughtlessness came as a surprise to Putin, who had spent 16 years in the KGB before entering politics in the early 90s. His accommodation of US foreign policy, before the lift-off in oil prices in 2002 provided economic and political breathing-space, looked defensive rather than hopeful. The dynamic of the intervening decade - the growth in the power of the one, and the alarm this causes in the other - takes us back to Thucydides and the distinction between those that do the interfering and those that are interfered with. Putin's achievement has been to re-categorise Russia despite a lack of substantial change since the 90s, through a combination of picking on small-fry in Ukraine and Syria and presentational techniques as old as Potemkin villages. Despite the recent efforts of the Western media to trace Moscow's hand in malicious events across the globe, the reality is that Russia remains an annoying wannabe rather than a playa, a "paperback edition of the Soviet Union", as Eurozine put it. The irony is that it is the Western press coverage that constitutes the payoff for Putin, in terms of global renown and domestic plaudits. He may only have achieved it through dirty money, hacking and the manipulation of "useful idiots", but making Russia an issue in the US Presidential Election is a success of sorts.

6 comments:

  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment25 October 2016 at 17:18

    “it's all about the oil”

    What is this other than a materialist explanation! There are academic studies which show that where resources are in most abundance and easily extractable the more likely will imperialist conflict take place. To say it is NOT all about the oil is to really replace a materialist explanation with a bullshit one.

    Ultimately all these conflicts can be traced back to the vital resource up for grabs or the strategic route these vital resources rely upon.

    Conflict over resources precedes class conflict. Nationalism is itself a material reality, even if class divisions within nations are also a material reality. Class rhetoric can just as easily obscure nationalist actions.

    What did Russia do wrong in Ukraine? More to the point what did those in East Ukraine do wrong? They twice elected a president and twice within a generation was the President they elected thrown out in a violent coup!! How many coup’s does it take before the people of East Ukraine can say enough is enough. If you can’t accept the result of the election when it goes against you then how can we go on together is basically what those in east Ukraine are asking?

    Please, someone in the West answer this burning question and stop the bullshit distraction over Russia!!

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    1. "Nationalism is itself a material reality, even if class divisions within nations are also a material reality. Class rhetoric can just as easily obscure nationalist actions."

      States rarely act for 'nationalist' reasons. They might put that kind of spin on their actions to make their actions seem more 'popular' (in the sense of relating to the masses), but the motivation is usually raison d'├ętat or the demands of powerful interest groups.

      Nationalism is far from a material reality. It is in fact one of the most abstract concepts imaginable. Its 'success' in mobilising mass feeling is due to determined ideological construction.

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    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment25 October 2016 at 19:31

      “It is in fact one of the most abstract concepts imaginable. Its 'success' in mobilising mass feeling is due to determined ideological construction.”

      Please don’t make me have to quote Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question.

      Population is an abstract term because it doesn’t tell you anything other than numbers of people. Nationalism isn’t abstract precisely because it tells you something about the construct of the population, among other things. And it does have a material basis. To say nationalism is a purely ideological construct is stretching things a bit, is ahistorical.

      I am not disputing that nationalism like religion can hide a multitude of sins but if a powerful interest groups survival depends on keeping the lower orders onside then powerful interest groups may go to war with each other.

      In fact, while we are on the subject, ideological constructs are a material reality, have material affects and can make history!

      The struggle against nationalism is every bit as real as the struggle against the ruling class, and obviously is linked. The struggle against the population, now that is abstract!

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    3. Herbie,

      "It's all about the oil" is not a materialist explanation but a mercantilist one.

      My point is that the realist school of international relations assumes that all states have similar, comprehensible motives. This tends to reduce interpretations to the lowest common denominator, i.e. the struggle for resources.

      A classic example of this is the belief that Japan's history in the first half of the 20th century was driven by a lack of raw materials, ignoring any social or cultural factors. While the base is ultimately determinative, politics and other manifestations in the superstructure are not simply mechanical, otherwise we could have expected the Swiss to be similarly bellicose in the 1930s.

      In the context of recent Western commentary on Russia (which is what the post is about), the realist turn has led to an excess of psychological profiling of the Russian "bear" and of Putin. This has been amplified by the projection of domestic US anxieties (hence the yoking of Putin and Trump) and by Putin's own opportunism (given a conspiratorial spin by the foregrounding of Surkov).

      I'm arguing for a genuinely materialist approach, recognising that Russia remains second division in geopolitical terms because of its economic stagnation, social divisions and diplomatic awkwardness (so not unlike the UK).

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    4. Herbie Destroys the Environment26 October 2016 at 17:34

      “This tends to reduce interpretations to the lowest common denominator, i.e. the struggle for resources.”

      Then you should have come up with a better example than of all things, ‘it’s all about the oil’, where many conflicts have been fought over this crucial resource. To say this is reducing things to their lowest common denominator is misleading. Rather it is raising the main issue above all the side ones. But I know of no group that claims it is all about the oil. I know of many that try to amplify oil as the crucial factor. In a world where imperialists claim they are carrying out humanitarian intervention the base motives of imperialism and it supporters can easily get lost.

      The people who are prattling on endlessly about Russia are not the ‘it’s all about oil’ crowd but is in fact the ‘it is about everything but oil crowd’.

      I think a genuinely materialist approach to the black propaganda being currently leveled against Putin and Russia by all sections of the Western establishment would look more to the base interests of the imperialists rather than a profile of Russia! Once that is firmly and loudly established maybe you can then move onto the specifics about Russia.

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    5. What did Russia do wrong in Ukraine?

      Invaded and supported armed actions inside another sovereign country, annexed part of that country against international law, papered over that annexation with an instant plebiscite which broke accepted electoral norms in all aorts of ways.

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