Daily Archives: November 8, 2006

Waking Up in Russia

Here’s the sad tale of an expat waking up to smell the burned coffee in the Neo-Soviet Union from Ruminations on Russia:

I crawled out of bed early today to scribble my thoughts on what it feels like as an expat in Russia right now. There will be no link love, mostly because its too early and I am not sure that the thoughts need expanding on. Some, if not most, of these thoughts will not be popular amongst Russian friends and readers.

It is not always easy liking the country which I have lived and done business in for the last decade. The past few weeks have been particularly bad;

Firstly Andrei Kozlov was shot and murdered, presumably for business reasons. Not his business but the job that he was doing as a government official. And by all accounts he was doing it well. God forbid that a government official actually tried to make banking better.

Then, and its not clear which small child started throwing stones first, Russia and Georgia got in to a spat. The worst of it is not that you cannot buy Georgian wine or soothe your stomach with Borjormi or fly in to and out of Tblisi. The worst of it is that the Militia are demanding attendance lists from schools. If your name ends -villi you can be sure that you will be getting a visit from the Militsia. The Georgian restaurants are all “pod remont” (under reconstruction), voluntarily closed to stop being forcibly closed. And, as I mentioned earlier, the casinos run by Georgians as criminal enterprises were closed down. But to give you an idea of how inter-linked the “vlast” and money are, other casinos, not run by Georgians were also closed. They will reopen in a couple of weeks or months – with new shareholders.

Finally, and most newsworthy, but unfortunately not most surprising, was the death and murder of Anna Politkovskaya. I have no insight to add. One observation; she died on Putin’s birthday. No one, that I have read, has made the Henry II, Thomas a Beckett link. And one comment; to the LJ bloggers who describe her as an enemy of Russia – you are scum.

So why is it difficult to love my neighbours? I have written before of Russia’s need to face up to its Stalinist past before it can move on. It is difficult to see how a nation can move on when in its most liberal and cosmopolitan city (pace St. Petersburg) a spat with a tiny state on its southern border can lead to the Militsia demanding school lists on the basis of your name – notwithstanding that they may well have lived in Moscow as long as their persecutors. And there is no outcry. Oh well, not me. Keep my head down and maybe no one will notice.

I am not even going to begin to compare asking for school lists with Stalin’s purges. But they started somewhere. The somewhere was the lack of a society who would stand together, and a vast class of small-minded ill-educated thugs in uniforms who are willing to take a bad idea to its most illogical and violent extreme.

Opposition starts when brave people stand up and talk the truth – all too often they are found dead in their podezd’s. Three bullets in the body, a last one to the head and the murder weapon by their sides.

Society starts when government officials enforce the laws without prejudice. Why would they do that when the result is an early death. Who will rid me……..

The VVP Petersburgers came to power to bring order to a state that had morally disintegrated. Unfortunately, the untold wealth that comes from bankrupting Yukos and living off the fat of Gazprom profits means that they are no longer doing the job that they came to office to do. There is no alternative to them, nor the ability to vote them out. So we will do what foreigners here have always done; join our Russian neighbours, close our eyes and get on with making money.

Russia the Paper Bear

Writing in Asia Times, Nikolai Petro succinctly summarizes Russia’s fundamental weakness:

Militarily, as everyone knows, Russia is but a shadow of the former Soviet Union. It poses so little threat that when Georgia seized four Russian military officers, the Russian parliament responded by speeding up the withdrawal of its remaining forces. Georgian Minister of Defense Irakli Okruashvili now regularly dares Russia to try to invade his country. Economically Russia has done better, but its foreign investments overseas still put it on a par with Malaysia. As an energy provider, Russia supplies Europe with about a quarter of its natural gas, but this is two-thirds of Russia’s gas exports, so that actually Russia is far more dependent on its European consumers than they are on it.

But Petro clearly goes offtrack when he posits that, therefore, Putin should not be prevented from comparing his problems to ours: “The danger in such behavior should be apparent to all. If Russia’s problems are seen as in any sense comparable to our own, then it can no longer be excluded from Western institutions on the basis of its cultural incompatibility, and what else is really left? “

Petro needs to read a bit of history. If he did, then he’d know that when Adolf Hitler came to power his country was also a shadow of its former self. And when he did, the West decided to adopt just the non-confrontational attitude of “understanding” the fact that Germany had problems just like us. It ignored, because it made the West feel so much better, the possiblity that Hitler’s government might be evil, and biding its time until it could launch a counterstrike when the West’s guard was down. It had the chance to move immediately against Germany to prevent Hitler from getting into a position where such a strike could be launched, the opportunity of the shadow. And it didn’t take it.

The same can be said fo the USSR after World War II. Again, Petro’s policy was followed and again it resulte in disaster.

Which is why, now, Petro’s acticle can only appear in an obscure forum like Asia Times Online. Hopefully, after all that failure, we’ve learned our lesson.

All the warning signs on Russia are there, for all to see. Russia is providing massive quanties of arms to Venezuela and Hezbollah, financial aid to Castro’s Cuba and Palestine’s Hamas, and nuclear technology as well as anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, while also providing diplomatic cover in the U.N. In short, it’s doing everything it can to help the West’s enemies as much as it can.

We can wait until Russia gets itself into a position to be even more harmful, or we can do something else. And then we can reap the rewards or take the consequences.

Russian Imperialism and World War II

On Tuesday, Russians marched in World War II garb to commemorate the 65th anniversary of a parade by thousands of Soviet troops who were heading off to the front in 1941. Writing in the Times of London (and arguing that Russia should get more credit than it does for defeating Nazi Germany), historian Norman Davies reminds us that at the beginning of World War II Russia was right next to Germany at the feeding trough of imperialism, greedly scarfing down as many smaller contries as it could get its hands on:

The attack on the Third Reich was a joint effort. But it was not a joint effort of two equal parts. The lion’s share of victory in Europe can be awarded only to Stalin’s forces and it is a fantasy to believe that he was fighting for justice and democracy.

Separating the facts from the myths and the propaganda is not easy. One of the trickiest problems in establishing a credible narrative of the war arises from the misconception that the largest combatant state, the USSR, stayed neutral before the German attack of June 1941. Soviet accounts have always preferred to focus on the so-called Great Fatherland War, and carefully avoids close examination of Stalin’s political and military machinations in the preceding years.

Western commentators have usually followed this line, reluctant to publicise their embarrassment at Hitler’s initial partner becoming the ally of the democratic West.

In reality, in the first 22 months of fighting when the Wehrmacht attacked and occupied eight countries, the Red Army attacked and occupied five. These manifest aggressions make nonsense of any claims of neutrality or of defensive responses to the provocations of others. In November 1939, for example, Stalin’s unprovoked invasion of Finland resulted in a war that lasted for twice as long as any of Hitler’s early campaigns.

Similarly, the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states in 1940 was no mere “strengthening of the defences” or “readjustment of frontiers”. It was a brutal act of depredation that destroyed three sovereign European states, together with a quarter of their population. All these events were facilitated by the Nazi-Soviet pact, which gave Stalin the same licence for banditry in the Soviet sphere that Hitler was exploiting in the German.

Annals of Russian Poverty

The Washington Post reports:

Almost a fifth of Russia’s 142 million people live below the poverty line — their lives increasingly and painfully at odds with the huge wealth accumulated by an elite tier of “New Russians,” grown rich on high world oil and metal prices. This new world flaunts its wealth in the department stores, expensive cafes and exclusive bars of Moscow, which boasts more billionaires than London and is second only to New York. But last winter, scores of people died in the same city as temperatures plunged to around minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit): the victims succumbed to heart attacks, hypothermia, excessive alcohol consumption and breathing problems.

How is this situation different from the status quo in 1906? Not in the least. Russia is a society that seems incapable not just of making progress but merely of learning from its own mistakes. It not only fails to move forward, but like a mechanical toy it just keeps crashing into the same wall over and over again. Right now, it’s not merely repeating the mistakes of Tsarist Russia by allowing a vast disparity of wealth to emerge, but at the same time repeating the mistakes of Soviet Russia by allowing the KGB to govern. It’s getting the worst of both worlds and the benefits of neither.

In other words, it’s surely doomed.