Daily Archives: November 25, 2007

The Sunday Photos: Stability and Peace, Putin Style

Stability and Peace, Putin Style

October 31, 2007. Togliatti.
November 22, 2007. Pyatigorsk.

Helmut Schmidt, Traitor to Democracy

It seems to be the Kremlin’s strategy to pick off ex-German leaders one-by-one and turn them into neo-Soviet operatives. First it was Gerhard Schroeder, and now Helmut Schmidt. He says that Russia deserves credit for not invading other countries, just happening to overlook the minor fact that it has no such power and the equally minor fact of its brutality within Russia itself. Now, that beacon of truth on Russia, the German publication Der Speigel rips him several well-deserved new ones:

Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt used to refer to journalists derisively as “highwaymen.” There is a certain cruel irony in the fact that Schmidt himself is a journalist today, although members of the profession might be inclined to interpret this as a sign of its irresistibility. A man with his range of experience — as a soldier, a cabinet minister and chancellor for almost eight years — can expect that people will listen when he speaks. Of course, listening to Schmidt doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with him, at least not automatically. Even former chancellors can be wrong or guilty of exaggeration, especially when they address us as journalists. And being wrong or exaggerating isn’t exactly unheard of in journalism.

“I do not believe that someone who disagrees with me should be criticized for that reason alone,” Schmidt said at a ceremony to celebrate his 85th birthday in 2003. And he added: “But he must be criticized if he states an opinion that is not real.” Let us subject the various opinions to a reality test. Schmidt says: “Russia poses far less of a threat to world peace today than, for example, the United States. You can go ahead and print that.” These were the words Schmidt uttered in an interview with his own paper, the weekly Die Zeit. He also said that, although he does not view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a flawless democrat, he does consider him an “enlightened potentate.”

But why are the Americans more dangerous than the Russians? Why should we be more afraid of the cradle of democracy than of a potentate, no matter how “enlightened” Schmidt says he is? And is it even relevant whether the censor is educated, disadvantaged, harsh or amiable? What is important, however, is that the censor engages in censorship, while the potentate gives arbitrariness free rein.

Isn’t precisely the opposite of what Schmidt says true? That the experienced American democracy is fundamentally less dangerous than Russia, which, after surviving czarism and communism, has experienced only a few years of Putin-style democracy? Even the loud and sometimes insufferable America of President George W. Bush is already significantly less dangerous than it was when he came into office. Today Bush is a dog that barks but can no longer bite. He is limited by four factors, which, in their absoluteness, are foreign to Putin: his own people, the US Constitution, the independent judiciary and the free press. All four factors lend legitimacy to the United States — and withdraw it again. This is precisely the beauty of a democracy: the people have the first and last word.

Bush will soon disappear into obscurity, never to be seen again. Putin, on the other hand, might stay on the scene, only wearing a different hat, perhaps as an oligarch, as the head of Russian energy giant Gazprom or even as prime minister. Even Schmidt agrees that the Russian president’s future is wide open and that, unlike Bush, a constitution, the people, a free press or a constitutional court won’t be standing in his way. This may be typically Russian, but it is sinister nonetheless.

Russia today is a country adrift. Since former President Mikhail Gorbachev gave up the Soviet empire, Russia has been lurching like an anchor ripped from the ground. At times it wants to be part of Europe, which explains Putin’s efforts to convince Germany and France to join him in a pact against America in the run-up to the Iraq war. And at times the Russians seem more drawn to Asia, where Putin has long been pushing for an expansion of Russia’s regional alliance with the Chinese into a military alliance. As if to demonstrate that they are indeed moving in this direction, the two countries recently held joint maneuvers.

According to Helmut Schmidt, the Russian military has not entered any foreign territory since Gorbachev came into power. The Russians, says Schmidt, have not engaged in any aggressive acts, even allowing Ukraine and Belarus to break away from the former czarist empire. And this was done without so much as a civil war, which, in Schmidt’s view, is an astonishing achievement.

It certainly is an astonishing achievement, but one that stems from an astonishing weakness. Moscow today must content itself with the proper treatment of Russian minorities in its former satellite republics. Experts in the West are convinced that the Russian military is in a sorry state, making Putin a reluctant pacifist. Of course, this assessment doesn’t take the bloody war in Chechnya into account.

Today Russia, still a huge country, is being humiliated wherever it turns. The president of Iran has co-opted Moscow’s former role as America’s adversary. A country with a gross domestic product about the size of Connecticut’s now plays the role that Stalin and his successors had in fact reserved for Russia.

Economically speaking, the Chinese are well ahead of the Russians. The neighboring country, which is already unable to satisfy its own thirst for natural resources with its own reserves, is rapidly shooting to the top echelon of the world’s economic powers. In doing so, the Chinese are not shutting off anyone’s natural gas supply or withdrawing any flyover rights. Instead, they have used hard work to supply products to their customers worldwide and cunning to develop into a “soft power.” The Russians, on the other hand, still resort to stomping their boots impatiently whenever something isn’t quite to their liking.

Russia has oil and natural gas, diamonds, copper and lumber, and yet it has failed to establish a truly impressive industrial empire on the basis of its riches. Despite Putin’s efforts to restructure the economy, the country’s fortunes rise and fall with the price of oil. The current president may be an oil-and-gas baron, but he is not the leader of a modern industrialized nation. These many weaknesses make today’s Russia unpredictable and dangerous. The best antidote to internal disintegration and humiliation from abroad is a dose of megalomania. And while it may not eliminate the pain, at least it diminishes it.

America has isolated itself internationally

And now to America. The superpower is experiencing a difficult phase not unlike the period in the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War was approaching its inglorious end. The country senses that no one is impressed by its tough talk on the so-called “clash of civilizations” and the “war on terror,” as long as success remains elusive on the real war fronts. The Taliban in Afghanistan are confident again, thriving within the population like fish in water. Iraq remains a constant challenge, refusing to be pacified. The United States has isolated itself internationally. No one on the planet, not even in its remotest corners, is currently sending Bush the message that the world wants more of America.

The domestic mood is by no means gung-ho when it comes to the war in Iraq. The Americans are defiant. They don’t want to lose the war, and yet their support for it is waning. The strategy of aggression, of launching attacks based on suspicion alone and the doctrine of the preemptive strike are now seen as military and political failures.

Schmidt rightfully characterizes the Iraq war as “a war of choice, not a war of necessity.” But even this choice is no longer available to the outgoing president. Another ground war is no longer an option. Even the military is tired of war. “We are overstretched,” the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said. Preparations are already underway for a partial withdrawal from Iraq. The man in the White House may be gritting his teeth, but he is bringing the first troops home — reluctantly and gruffly — but bringing them home he is.

Bush would be truly dangerous if he could do as he wished. But he can’t. This is precisely the difference. In a democracy, the will of the individual is answerable to the people, and not the other way around. I, in any case, prefer narrow-minded democrats over enlightened potentates any day. Of course, enlightened democrats — the kind of person Helmut Schmidt once was and will hopefully remain for a long time — are the best thing for the country.

Annals of Litvinenko

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the killing of Alexander Litvinenko. The New Statesman has a brilliant memoir by one of Litvinenko’s closest friends. Although the British efforts to demand justice have been stonewalled by the neo-Soviet Kremlin, the matter is far from over, as the BBC reports:

The friends and family of the murdered Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko today confirmed they were taking the case to the European court of human rights. Legal papers were filed [Thursday] accusing the Russian government of complicity in the murder and of failing to carry out a proper investigation into the death. Litvinenko died a year ago, three weeks after drinking tea from a pot laced with polonium-210 at a central London meeting with the ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi and his associate Dmitry Kovtun. The UK director of public prosecutions recommended the extradition of Lugovoi on murder charges in May but the Russian authorities refused to comply.

Speaking on the anniversary of her husband’s death, Litvinenko’s widow, Maria, accused the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, of protecting and endorsing her husband’s killer. She said: “By doing so, Mr Putin has tainted his office, his government and himself with this horrendous crime. He turned a murderer into a national symbol. “At the very least, this makes him an accessory after the fact. And it adds credence to my husband’s last statement alleging that it was Mr Putin who ordered his murder in the first place.” Mrs Litvinenko said she still hoped the British authorities would succeed in extraditing Lugovoi to face justice in London. “It’s still a very personal case for me. I lost my husband and I want to know who was behind the killing,” she said. “I promise we will find who is responsible for this. Without this knowledge, we just cannot feel we are safe.”

The solicitor, Louise Christian, said a US nuclear expert had traced the radioactive isotope used to poison Litvinenko to the Avangard plant in Russia. She said the expert believed that it was “almost certain” the Russian state was behind the poisoning because the substance was kept in such high-security conditions. “We believe that, if the Russian government were serious about this matter, they would be cooperating with the British investigation and the request for extradition,” she said. Christian warned that the European court action would be a “long and drawn-out procedure” which could take many years. The London-based Russian exile, Boris Berezovsky, whose £500,000 donation started the Litvinenko Justice Foundation, insisted he would never give up the fight. “Western governments know perfectly well that Mr Putin’s regime carried out this nuclear terrorist attack in London in November last year,” he said. “But they chose not to back British sanctions with their own. Appeasement will only encourage Mr Putin’s criminal habits. “If he gets away with this murder, I predict he will continue his terror campaign.”

Alexander Litvinenko’s father, Walter, branded his son’s murderers “gangsters” who thought they could “get away with anything”. “As a reward, the chief executioner of my son, Mr Lugovoi, has now been given a seat in the Duma,” he said. “The main executioner, Mr Putin, is afraid to leave his position, as he wants to maintain his power in order to cover up this crime.” He also called on European and western leaders to take the situation in Russia “extremely seriously, because the gas and oil they buy from Russia may turn into something rather more sinister”.

“I trust my son did not die in vain, and the truth and justice for which he was fighting will prevail in the whole of the world, including Russia,” he said.

A reader points out the travesty that is state-controlled propaganda outlet Russia Today’s coverage of this matter:

Can you fathom the sheer propaganda lies implicit in this. It makes me so angry! You need to publish this one just so your readers can see how contemptuous RT really is.

1. They slander AL (“a spy for the British”) – even if he was he doesn’t deserve to get murdered. What by that logic should we do with the many (as many as at the height of the cold war) Russians now engaged on serious espionage in the UK. Murder them?

2. They challenge allegations in European Court of Human Rights that the polonium can only have come from a Russian state facility, without basis.

3. They defend Lugovoi, shamefully one-sided.

4. They pretend that the British government and public take two contrary positions on this (rubbish, they don’t — recall how RTR manufactured British headlines!)

5. They try to imply these things happen elsewhere, especially in America (the Kennedy reference – this is called a “Tu Quoque” – divert criticism by implying that others were guilty over seperate unconnected events and therefore they can’t criticise now.)

6. They imply no one is ever going to know the truth (ie “so give up”)

7. They state brazenly that it is no longer a news story (“the public’s interest has definitely moved on”) in the hope that this will become part o the public psyche and turn from a fictitious statement into fact.

Trash, drivel, bilge, and nonsense.

. . . but sophisticated even if brazen. It is an old communist trick they have used successfully on their own people since 1917. The trouble is we are NOT fooled. The truth is evident to every person in the world that has access to a free press. Which of course is by Putin and cronies don’t like it and won’t let Russia have one.

Who are the foreign nationals who work for this outfit? They deserve to be pilloried.

The Sunday Book Review

As it Soviet times, we in the West know more, and seem to care more, about the history of Russia than those who actually live there. Who can read this review from the Moscow Times and not ask: Why wasn’t this book written by a Russian? The answer: Because if it were, nobody would read it, and the author might to to neo-Soviet gulag.

The other day a student told me that he had no memory of the Soviet Union or its collapse. He was only 4 years old when it happened, so for him the Soviet Union and communism are as much parts of history as the American Civil War or the Roman Empire. They have no palpable relevance for his life in the age of the “green menace” of Islam or the iPhone. With periodic visits to the Soviet Union no longer available as a reality check, that student is left with archives, memoirs, diaries and testimonies to recreate what the Soviet Union might have been. Soviet citizens who lived through the trauma of Stalinism and World War II have already recalibrated their recollections of the past, and historians now come to the Soviet experiment knowing how it turned out. Imagination and hard work are more than ever required to resurrect the sense of possibility that inspired — some would say misled — those in the first Soviet generations who embarked on the building of a new world.

In “The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia,” Orlando Figes sets out to reconstruct nothing less than the interior life of ordinary Soviet citizens during the half century of Stalin’s rise, rule and aftermath. A prize-winning historian, Figes is both a prodigious researcher and a gifted writer. His work over time has moved steadily from the academic analytical to broader, more popular and accessible narratives. His first monograph was a stunning study of the Volga peasants during the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War. But it was his second book, a sweeping, almost novelistic treatment of the Revolution — “The People’s Tragedy” — that made his public name. Some academic critics thought he stumbled with his next foray into more popular work — “Natasha’s Dance” — an excursion through centuries of Russian culture, but they will be hard-pressed to fault much in his latest, equally ambitious if more time-constrained study of the Soviet psyche.

Figes begins with the generation of 1917 and the Spartan, ascetic family relations of committed Bolsheviks. Officially the ideological drive was to break down the intimacies of parent-child connections and foster dedication to the collective and to the project of building socialism. Hearing her parents talk about “party construction,” the young Yelena Bonner, who would later become the wife of Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, thought the party built houses! For Bolsheviks there would be no distinction between private and public, and personal interests would coincide with those of society. Yet privacy and intimacy could not be eliminated, and in response people put on a public mask behind which they hid their personal and private feelings. The whole society was made up of whisperers, both those who spoke to one another sotto voce (here, whisperer is expressed by the Russian shepchushchy) and those who secretly “whispered” to the police, reporting on their friends, relatives and neighbors (here, the Russian sheptun carries the meaning of informer).

During the early years of Stalin’s rule, Soviet society was turned upside down. Proletarians were elevated; so-called “bourgeois specialists” — trained professionals, engineers and economists, were arrested; and the most productive peasants, condemned as “kulaks,” were driven from their homes and farms, which were turned over to the poorest villagers. Following the example of the infamous Pavlik Morozov, children denounced their parents. People born into formerly privileged or newly repressed classes concealed their social origins or the fact that a parent had been arrested. Young people strove to Bolshevize themselves, eager to take part in the furious struggle to industrialize the country. Fear mixed with enthusiasm, and those who accepted the need to use violence to break with the old and build the new suppressed their emotional attachments to family and their empathy for the victims of the state’s ambitions.

Figes tells multiple stories of the famous, the infamous and the ordinary. He uses a technique that he pioneered in “A People’s Tragedy,” following characters through the years, bringing them to the fore as their personal tales illustrate the themes of the book. The central figure is the writer known as “the favorite of Stalin,” Konstantin Simonov, who reforged himself from son of a noble mother to proletarian poet able to sing the praises of convict labor and of breaking eggs (in this case, human beings) to make an omelet. Later, recalling his awe of Stalin, he said, “You become accustomed to evil.” Simonov became a literary deity when his wartime poem “Wait for Me,” written as a personal anthem to his lover, was taken up first by his soldier comrades and later by the Soviet media to become the expression of the longing of millions to rejoin those they had left behind.
The stories are poignant, heartbreaking, even terrifying in their depiction of human cruelty, the waste of talent, the abuse of trust and faith. It wasn’t the state that withered away — it grew stronger and more distant — but the illusions that a humane alternative to capitalism could be built in peasant Russia. “The Great Terror,” Figes writes, “effectively silenced the Soviet people.” “We went through life afraid to talk,” reports the daughter of an arrested father.

The effect of one personal account piled on another is a layered portrait of successive generations — the fervent communists arrested, exiled or shot; their orphaned children, desperate, despairing and eager to be reunited with the Soviet collective; and the grandchildren who find it impossible to understand either. Even this doorstopper, however, is not big enough to encompass the whole array of Soviet experiences. The victims rather than the victors make up the bulk of the voices heard here. Figes takes issue with historians such as Jochen Hellbeck who claim that the driving ambition of many, if not most, Soviets was to merge with the great aims of Stalin and the Party. For Figes, becoming a Soviet activist “was a common survival strategy.” Yet many of Figes’ stories confirm Hellbeck’s view that acceptance by the Party and the collective was something sincerely desired. One kulak child, Dmitry Streletsky, “despite all his suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime,” remained a Soviet patriot, “believed fervently in the justice of the Party’s cause, and wanted desperately to become part of it.” “To be recognized as an equal human being,” he said, “that is all I wanted from the Party.”

Figes is a historian of keen and fair judgment. His views on major issues are sober and backed by clear argument and evidence. The Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s was a horror for which the regime in its ferocity and incompetence was responsible, but it was not a deliberately engineered genocide. He explains the purges of the Great Terror as caused primarily by Stalin’s perverse drive for social and political unity in preparation for the expected war with Germany. The Russian victory in that war is credited not to the Soviet system, but to the stalwart resistance and fortitude of ordinary Soviet citizens, their love of homeland, and their commitment to neighborhood, village, family and close friends.

Figes has written an extraordinary work of synthesis and insight, carefully contextualizing the varied witnesses to suffering and survival. Professional historians might complain that there are no theoretical breakthroughs or radical new interpretations, but they can hardly fail to learn from Figes’ deeply textured narratives. And, besides, this is an awfully good read! I think I will recommend it to my student.

Read another review here.

The Sunday Mailbag: Pricing Thanksgiving

Letters, we get letters, we get lots of cards and letters every day

Dear La Russophobe:

Thursday was our holiday of Thanksgiving. One of the things I’m thankful for is the privilege of knowing and working with all of you. Since the fall of the USSR the world has become much smaller and American and Russian interaction has led to some unusual phenomena. One of them was described in a recent article in the Moscow Times, namely that some Moscow restaurants are now serving a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Out of idle curiosity I converted the prices to dollars and compared them with what is be offered at similar restaurants in San Francisco.

HEMINGWAY’S (Moscow): $57
THE CLIFF HOUSE (Frisco): $42

THE APARTMENT (Moscow): $102
MAX’S OPERA CAFE (Frisco): $52

MEL’S DRIVE-IN (Frisco): $11

When the Politburo announced that Russia would catch up with and overtake America economically, I don’t think this is what they had in mind.

Sincerely yours,


La Russophobe responds: It would seem that this is pretty impressive evidence that “purchasing power parity” is not only gibberish, but should be used to expand the already vast difference in purchasing power between Americans and Russians, rather than contracting it. And that doesn’t take into consideration Russia’s wretched quality control system, meaning that any number of the food products you are served in its restaurants, including the water (if you dare to drink it) may be contaminated with all manner of pollutants, including radioactive toxins from the Chelyabinsk and Chernobyl areas.

The Sunday Funnies

Putin crosses out the world “evacuation” from a sign
that reads “Evacuation Plan” and writes in the word “Putin’s”

Source: Ellustrator.

The deer holds up a sign that says:
“I’m for United Russia! I’m for Putin”

Source: Ellustrator.

The document says: “Plan

Source: Ellustrator.