Today we feature an exposition on the duel now being waged in Britain between the “russophobes” who, like Winston Churchill, wish to interrupt the rise of the neo-Soviet Union before it swallows Britain whole and the “russophiles” who, like Neville Chamberlain, wish to throw themselves at Russia’s mercy and hope for the best. We see the battle exemplified in this article from the Telegraph, which explains how Russia attempted to get Britain to muzzle Litvinenko’s attacks on the Kremlin before his demise, and how there are those in the government receptive to such an overture, leading to a battle royal at 10 Downing Street. As can be seen, the russophile censors failed to carry the day. The Telegraphs reports: “Dr Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, told The Daily Telegraph: ‘In Britain, people are still free to speak, which is a lesson that seemingly needs to be learnt in Mr Putin’s Russia. At first glance, it [the Russian protest] is an outrage. But on a deeper aspect, it is symptomatic of a state that does not understand any longer the concept of free speech.’ Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, joined the criticism, calling the Kremlin letter ‘absolute bloody cheek, frankly.’ She added: ‘The other thing I would say is that this is the playing out of Russian politics on our soil and it’s absolutely unacceptable.'”
We begin with the russophobe viewpoint, from the Independent’s Jonathan Hari:
The best sound-track to the slow-motion murder of Alexander Litvinenko – leaving a corpse so radioactive there may never be a post-mortem – comes from the Beatles: “We’re back in the USSR. Been away so long I hardly knew the place.”
To those who stopped following the news from Russia when the Cold War thawed out, the thought of a Russian Bond being despatched to London to take out a dissident in a Mayfair Hotel seems like an inexplicably retro moment. But for those who have cared to see, it has been clear for some time that under Vladimir Putin, Russia is marching back towards totalitarianism. The Russian journalist Anna Polikovskaya wrote three years ago, “The shroud of darkness from which we spent several Soviet decades trying to free ourselves is enveloping us again.” For talking this way, she was swiftly poisoned, and when that didn’t kill her, she was found last month with three bullets in her skull in a Moscow lift-shaft.
Politkovskaya, Litvinenko, Victor Yushenko – one poisoning of your enemies could be a misfortune, but three begins to look like carelessness. Or, rather, a deliberate strategy, and the list of victims goes on. But at first glance, this latest attack seems an extraordinarily inefficient way for the FSB – the successor to the KGB – to murder a dissident. They had to smuggle radioactive poison into Britain, and within 130 days administer it so carefully that they killed Litvinenko and nobody else. Wouldn’t an anonymous bullet in an alleyway have been smarter? But like the previous attacks, this is a way of saying to all critics of Putin : wherever you are, we can get you, and you will die in agony, and you will know you are dying, and you will know it was us.
In case this sounds too presumptuous – do we really know Putin is responsible for murdering a British citizen on British soil? – it is worth looking at the origins of Putin’s power, as documented by his despatched critics. In 1999, he was appointed Prime Minister by the semi-conscious President Boris Yeltsin. It was assumed he was merely the latest in a string of bland functionaries who passed through the Premiership. But then there was a slew of explosions in apartment blocks across Russia, killing more than 300 people. Putin established himself as the President-designate with response, immediately blaming Chechen fundamentalists and restarting the uniquely vicious Chechen War which has, according to some human rights organisations, killed a third of the civilian population since 1991.
But there is considerable evidence these bombs were not planted by Chechens at all. On the day of the apartment explosions, in a town called Ryazan 100 miles south of Moscow, a local engineer spotted another huge bomb, and three suspicious men nearby. They were quickly arrested by the police and revealed to be FSB agents. They claimed that, while the country was under attack, they were planting real bombs in yet another apartment block as part of a “training exercise”. A slew of highly respected journalists, from my colleague Patrick Cockburn to Channel Four’s Despatches team, have suggested that the bombings were Putin’s Reichstag fire.
Yet the British government has a vested interest in not acknowledging these bleak realities about Russia, and in doing anything they can to avoid the conclusion that Litvinenko was killed on the orders of the Kremlin. The hard geopolitical story about Russia over the past week was not the death of a dissident, but the meeting between top EU officials and Putin in Helsinki to talk gas. Put simply, Europe is addicted to Russia’s oil and gas supplies. We need them, desperately. If Russia turned off the gas – as they did earlier this year with Ukraine as part of a nasty diplomatic dispute – Europe would freeze.
Putin knows it. As the American journalist Thomas Friedman has put it, no addict stands up to his dealer. If global warming wasn’t reason enough for us urgently to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, the fact that Europe’s closest supplies are in the hands of a blackmailing gangster provides a second unanswerable case. Until then, our ability to stand up to Putin – even when he kills one of our own, here in London – will be woefully limited.
But this radioactive slap in the face for Britain should also be an opportunity to understand how Russia came to be slumping back into totalitarianism just 15 years after the fall of Soviet tyranny. A conservative-pessimist school has emerged which says that democracy was always an alien implant in Russia. Millions of Russians took to the streets to weep for Stalin when he died, even though he had slain 30 million of their countrymen. Millions cheer for Putin now. Russians will always want a stern father in the Kremlin, they argue. For them, any February revolution in Russia will always find its October.
But the reality is more complex and forces us in the West to take a large slice of the blame for Russia’s current condition. The fall of the Soviet Union was quickly presented here as a victory for the Reaganite right. This was largely myth-making: the Soviet system fell because of its own disastrous contradictions. But nonetheless, it meant the supposed victors got to set the terms of the peace. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it, “They argued for a new religion: market fundamentalism as a substitute for the old one, Marxism.” Without consulting the Russian people, the International Monetary Fund forced on Russia “shock therapy”, a form of regulation-free turbo-capitalism more extreme than anything ever tried in any democracy.
The result was a catastrophe. Russian industrial production fell by 60 per cent. GDP fell by 54 per cent. Life expectancy fell by three years – from the already dire levels of the Soviet Union. Ordinary Russians saw a handful of Yeltsin cronies become billionaires, while there was nothing in the state coffers to pay their $15 a month pensions. Thanks to the Thatcho-Reaganite IMF, Russians came to associate democracy with chaos, criminality and mass unemployment. Think of it as Weimar syndrome. That’s why, when Putin arrived with his neo-Soviet totalitarianism, it no longer seemed so repulsive.
LR: A reader has objected to Hari’s rather strident comments about Thatcher and Reagan, and LR agrees that these comments are regrettable. Those two giants need no defense from LR and nothing Hari says can harm them, but still it should perhaps be said that Hari’s comments strike LR as reflecting exactly the same kind of narrow ideological fervor that he purports to condemn in those leaders. What’s more, it should be obvious to all (it’s why LR chose Hari to put forth the russophobe position) that Putin is a very big problem that needs bipartisan cooperation to solve; Hari’s rhetoric is unlikely to promote this, and tends to dillute the important point he is making. What’s more, Hari is clearly a bit myopic here: Don’t the left-wing regimes of Clinton and Blair have at least something to do with Russia’s current predicament? And aren’t the main culprits the Russian people themselves? Hari doesn’t do nearly enough to call them to account, as he likely would neocons for their transgressions. Still, if such a strident foe of conservatism’s “Evil Empire” characterization of Russia is attacking Russia, you know things in Russia have got to be pretty bad, and that’s another good reason for using this piece.
And so we are back where we started, with a totalitarian Russia, and the few remaining dissidents being picked off one by one. “The bastards got me, but they won’t get us all,” Litvinenko said a few hours before he died. I hope so, Alexander. I hope so.
Eurasia Blog tries to take Hari to task, and the effort falls utterly flat. One gets the idea right from the beginning about how seriously this critic can be taken when he flippantly announces that Hari “talks sh*t.” Quite a powerful rejoinder indeed . . . if you’re in kindergarten. Not exactly setting an example of serious scholarship.
The blogger then claims that the statement “it has been clear for some time that under Vladimir Putin, Russia is marching back towards totalitarianism” is an “assertion so ludicrous that everything subsequent to it appears to be measured and refined.” He then gives exactly zero evidence of Russia’s moving in some other direction. You can cut this kind of hypocrisy with a knife, and we wish somebody would.
He asks for “evidence” to “show” him that Putin was responsible for Politkovskaya’s killing, as if such evidence would be accessible had Putin been to blame. He suggests, giving absolutely no evidence of his own, that if Putin had wanted to kill Politkovskaya he would have used “an anonymous bullet in any alleyway.” Truly breathtaking hypocrisy. He claims that Putin didn’t need the apartment bombings in Moscow to justify his war in Chechnya because he already had Shamil Basayev’s attack on Dagestan, yet he gives absolutely no evidence to show that Russian popular support for war changed significantly after that event. Why should it? Russians felt no pain from those events, and clearly remembered the fiasco that was Yeltsin’s original foray into the republic.
Amazingly, the blogger then goes on to admit: “I wouldn’t say with any confidence that the 1999 apartment bombings weren’t ordered by the Kremlin or designed with the intention of misleading the public” and then goes on to accuse Hari of “engaging in criminal fallacy.” So it’s Hari who’s committed the real crime? What unspeakable balderdash! He claims that since millions of Russians “vote” for Putin in elections, this proves Putin isn’t on a totalitarian path, ignoring the overwhelming support the Politburo members received in “elections” during Soviet times (indeed, several were “elected” into the first Russian Duma). Then comes this incomprehensible gibberish: “So, Hari is saying that European foreign policy is pursuant to the sustenance of an ugly regime because we badly need their gas exports. But he also appears to be saying that the fact that Russia’s regime is ugly means it is likely to use its gas exports as a diplomatic weapon. But, surely Europe tolerates Russia’s worst excesses or it doesn’t. It cannot be had both ways.” Can you figure that out? La Russophobe sure can’t.
He ends with something truly offensive, quoting someone who is just about as offensive as you can get: “The building of a functioning state was the most pressing problem confronting Russia when Putin took office and if dealing with it means living with an identifiable and temporary trend towards autocracy then so be it. As Anatol Lieven rightly pointed out ‘A semiauthoritarian present is Russia’s best hope for a liberal future.'” Anatol Lieven is as crazed and contemptible an apologist for dictatorship as you can find in the world today; quoting him discredits this blogger utterly in the eyes of La Russophobe. How would Josef Stalin’s defense of a creepy, creeping attempt to subvert democracy be any different than these repulsive words uttered by the slithering Lieven? They would not differ a bit. This statement expresses sheer patronizing contempt for Russians, as if they were apes from whom nothing but childish behavior at best can be expected. It’s exactly the way Chamberlain viewed Hitler, and it’s the belief in such absurd ideas that allowed Stalin to consolidate his grip on Russia, causing millions to forfeit their lives.