A short review of ‘Soviets’ by Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev

Soviets coverDanzig Baldaev’s drawings—dark-lined, stippled, blunt, often disturbing—have become most familiar through his renderings of Russian criminal tattoos and later horrific scenes of life and death in the Gulags. A life working in the Soviet prison system would, one might think, squeeze the capacity for humour out of a man. Nonetheless, this posthumous collection of his cartoons and pictures secretly drawn from the 1950s to the late 1980s, show a sense of humour that is sometimes sly, often crude, but which nonetheless captures the surrealism, inanity, contradictions and cruelties of Soviet times in a powerful and passionate way that never fails to move and sometimes disconcert.

This is a realm of cynical and self-serving bureaucrats, of bullies and informants, of victims of the system seeking refuge in the bottle, collaboration or denial. But it is interesting that Baldaev also seems to have some, perhaps vestigial, respect for Lenin and the ideals of the original Bolshevik Revolution, just as his drawing demonstrate a—possibly short-lived—hope in Gorbachev’s reforms, or at least an appreciation of the anger and dismay with which they were greeted by the bloated and corrupt officials.

The art is rarely subtle, with pigs’ snouts, devils’ horns and beasts’ fangs abounding. Indeed, the physical caricaturing is very reminiscent of the crude ways that official Soviet propaganda cartoons so often portrayed Western imperialists, Zionist conspirators and the like, physical grotesqueries indicating moral and political degeneration. But not only was Baldaev a man of his times and environment, his use of such techniques also subverts and appropriates the propaganda he so obviously abhors, something especially evident in the section devoted to his scathing portrayals of the Soviet imperial adventure in Afghanistan.

Supplemented by useful explanatory notes from the editors and contemporary pictures from photographer Sergei Vasiliev, taken for the newspaper Vecherny Chelyabinsk and thus very much in the official Soviet idiom (not least the parade when the local factory produced its millionth tractor!) this book is a fascinating, unusual and—I keep coming back to this word—disturbing alternative take on the later years of the doomed Soviet experiment. As well as an important document in its own right, I think it will have great value as a tool for educators. The cliché of a picture being worth a thousand words really does apply here. Strongly recommended.

Soviets. Danzig Baldaev & Sergei Vasiliev. London: FUEL, 2014

Putin: Afghanistan Redux, by Dick Krickus

In the main, I use this blog for my own ruminations, but from time to time I am delighted to be able to use it as a platform for interesting and authoritative guest posts, such as this one from Dick Krickus, Professor Emeritus at the University of Mary Washington.

While Western officials have condemned Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine, they have cautioned the new government in Kiev not to fall into the trap that Georgian President Mikhail Sakashvilli did in 2008 and respond to Moscow’s provocation with force. Given the advantages that the Russian Army enjoys over its Ukrainian counterparts in terms of soldiers, air craft, tanks, artillery and other instruments of war, any violent showdown with Russia would end badly for the Ukrainians. No objective military analyst would challenge that assessment. But it rests on the judgment that the war will be fought along conventional lines and if this is Putin’s assumption, he is badly mistaken.

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History and Future: Power Vertical podcast on ‘The Ghosts of Crackdowns Past’

On a day when Russian Patriarch Kirill warned of a new Time of Troubles, when “treason” was cloaked in the rhetoric of the “modernization of the country” as a “great and holy mission” then it seemed wholly fitting that the RFE/RL Power Vertical podcast, The Ghosts of Crackdowns Past, should feature Brian Whitmore, Sean Guillory and me discussing historical parallels for the present drift towards repression and what lessons this might offer for the future. Admittedly, none of us went four centuries back (though I have paralleled Putin with Ivan the Terrible here), but still I thought it was a great discussion about what such historical episodes as the late 19th retreat from reform, Stolypin’s post-1905 crackdown, Stalinism and Brezhnev’s era may tell us about modern Russia.

This also raises questions about the use of history in politics, the way real (and more often mythologized) events are mobilized to legitimate particular narratives. Putin’s, on the whole, has rested on more recent history — beware a return to the terrible, anarchic 1990s — but as this loses its force, maybe they will try to use deeper history, instead. Of course, these appeals to historical authority are always contested, opportunities for different people and interests to put their own meaning and spin on the past. So maybe we should leave the last word to Kirill:

“So, too, today we must first and foremost make sure we prevent this ‘time of troubles’ from taking hold in our consciousness, in our minds… Today there are people, like the Boyars of Muscovy, who present unacceptable recipes for the modernization of our lives and improvement of our people’s living standards.”

After all, we wouldn’t want the modernization of Russians’ lives and the improvement of their living standards to be considered worthy ends in themselves, now, would we?

The Pussy Riot cliches

No irony in this image. None at all.

OK, all of us who covered yesterday’s verdict were writing fast, and maybe also caught up in the moment, but many of the cliches, exaggerations and outright myths about this case are truly irritating me. Let’s just pick up on a few of the more egregious ones surfacing in the media and online comment:

“It’s like Stalinism.” As Mark Adomanis has eloquently pointed out, no it’s not, and to say it’s anything like it is dramatically to underplay just how ghastly Stalinism was.When the Pussy Riot trio, battered, bruised and brutalized, stand in the dock and haltingly read out a ‘confession’ that they were put up to it by Mike McFaul, Boris Berezovsky and an international Jewish conspiracy, if they and millions like them are sent to dig canals with their bare hands for 25 years or get a bullet in the head at the Butovo firing range, then you can call it Stalinism.

“It’s like Nazis performing in the synagogue.” No, it’s not. Pussy Riot were protesting against Putin, not calling for the extermination of Russian Orthodox believers. They may have been politically inflammatory and musically raucous, but their message is actually a distinctly humane one. Whether or not you think it legitimate protest (not least as the Russian Church is slavishly – pun intended – supportive of Putin), a childish stunt or an act of blasphemy, don’t make it more than it is.

“It was just a publicity stunt to sell records.” I doubt it. Sure, they garnered a great deal of attention, but to a large extent that was because not of their act but the trial – had the state and Church dismissed them as irrelevant and childish, or slapped on a fine or some community service, they would have been a 5-minute wonder. They could hardly have predicted what happened. Besides, if they did, if they were willing to spend a couple of years in Russia’s violent, under controlled, TB-ridden prison system just to sell records, then that’s a level of dedication we should surely applaud…

“It was whipped up by the Western media.” No, it wasn’t. Frankly, I am sure the Western media wishes it had this power, but you can ‘blame’ the clumsy handling of the case by the Russian state, the power of social media and the presence of a genuine, vocal minority who don’t like the current regime. For some reason The Guardian often seems to be regarded as the eminence grise here. I love the Grauniad dearly, but I somehow don’t see it as some combination of Bilderberg and SPECTRE. I suppose its power would explain why the UK has a liberal, leftist government, a thriving and bounteously-funded National Health Service, and Rupert Murdoch behind bars. Oh, wait, it doesn’t…

“It’s the end of Putinism.” I doubt it. Maybe we’ll look back and see it as part of the end of Putinism, to be sure, but losing Paul McCartney’s vote is something I suspect Putin can live with. If anything, I would see the trial as a symptom of the Kremlin’s increasing inability to control the national political debate and the rise of a new generation of protesters and radicals, as well as a handy rallying point, but in six months’ time I doubt we’ll be regarding it as some momentous turning point.

“They are philosopher queens/the new voice of a generation/the Vysotskys of the Putin era/etc…” Eh. The trio are clearly intelligent, committed, composed and thoughtful (more so than their music). But we can appreciate their words and poise and deprecate the trial without needing to elevate them to such a mythic status. Again, had the state not decided to make an example of them, would we really be investing them with such sanctity?

“It’s all about the Church.” Not really. Sure, the ROC has an unusual role in Russia, but it has never been truly independent of the state (well, maybe for a little while in 1917 and the very early stages of the Bolshevik era). In the tsarist era, it was firmly behind the tsar of the ‘third Rome’ while under Soviet times, the ecclesiastical hierarchy became a branch of the KGB in flowing robes. Nonetheless, it cannot demand a trial from the state, that’s not how modern Russian politics works – not even Sechin can demand anything (just ask Kudrin). Instead, it has a voice in the upper elite and it can make its case, gather supporters and hope to convince Putin the ‘decider’. In this context, Pussy Riot went on trial because the Kremlin wanted them there. They may have wanted to placate the ROC, but this should be seen as a piece of the government’s wider campaign against the opposition.

“The same would have happened in the West.” No, it wouldn’t. The “whatabouters” who tend to plug this line tend to point to cases of people trying to distribute anti-Semitic tracts or the like, in countries where that it explicitly illegal. (If you want an example of this kind of offensive nonsense, see here.) Let’s take UK law as an example. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that at most they could be charged under section 5, Part I of the Public Order Act 1986, which would be punishable by no more than a fine

There is much excellent reportage about the case, and it is an important case that does have a real significance for Russia today. But there is also far too much hyperbole, spleen (on both sides of the debate) and wishful thinking. It will be interesting to see how the case is viewed in six or twelve months from now.

A Novosibirsk Report for the Putin era?

Back in 1983, the Novosibirsk Institute of Economics was one of the relatively liberal and free-thinking corners of Soviet academic research, not least because of the presence of Abel Aganbegyan as its director and the newly-hired and subsequently legendary Tatyana Zaslavskaya (later founder of VTsIOM and now honorary president of the Levada Center). A team under Zaslavskaya produced a report on agricultural productivity that addressed many of the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet system and which informed the subsequent reform debate. This ‘Novosibirsk Report’ can thus be considered one of the foundational documents of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.

I found myself thinking about this report when reading ОБЩЕСТВО И ВЛАСТЬ В УСЛОВИЯХ ПОЛИТИЧЕСКОГО КРИЗИСА (‘Society and the State in Conditions of Political Crisis’), a new document from the highly-regarded Center for Strategic Research (TsSR), a think tank backed by Kremlin über-insider-turned-loyal-critic Alexei Kudrin. A passage picked up by Brian Whitmore on the always-insightful Power Vertical blog is well worth re-quoting:

Our research shows that the crisis has become irreversible. regardless of the scenarios of its further development. Maintaining political stability, let alone a return to the pre-crisis status quo, is no longer possible … At this stage we view the probability of such a scenario as high because the escalation of violence has already started. As it spreads, the return of the protests to a peaceful course is becoming less and less likely.

The essence of the ‘Novosbirsk Report’ was not really about agriculture; it was using Soviet farming as a metaphor to discuss the wider crisis of the state, not least because that was the only safe way to deliver such a critique at the time. Nowadays, fortunately, people need not be so elliptical in the warnings, and the TsSR certainly pulls no punches. However, in many ways they are similar documents, pointing to structural problems based on excessive administrative control of the economy, which have potentially disastrous political consequences for the current Kremlin incumbents.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the ‘Novosibirsk Report’ in terms of empowering those who felt the status quo was untenable, not least because it was sober, scholarly, produced by trusted insiders and chimed with the observable facts on the ground. Although the modern Russian elite clearly is exposed to a vastly wider range of inputs and perspectives, a cacophony in which any one voice can too easily be lost, I wonder if the TsSR, especially thanks to Kudrin’s presence, will prove to have a more penetrating tone than most (especially is, as its president Mikhail Dmitriev moots, it joins the current bandwagon and sets up its own reform party). After all, no one can assume Kudrin of being some wide-eyed naif, US-funded enemy of Russian stability or bohemian dilettante. This report and similar analyses may help convinced more within the elite that the current model of Putinism offers them no hope of long-term stability (= a continued enjoyment of their current wealth and power), and empower and justify those already expressing some views. Streetpower, after all, rarely topples governments — even in Egypt — but what it often does is divide the elites, something that sometimes opens the door to meaningful reform, and sometimes brings a regime crashing down. (And to this extent, arguably Zaslavskaya and the ‘Novosibirsk Report’ were just as much responsible for the collapse of the USSR as Reagan and Yeltsin…)

Not just echoes but ghosts of spring 1991…

No, we’re some away from this yet

In my most recent column in the Moscow News, Echoes of 1991, I considered the recent street violence in Moscow in the context of the mass protests in support of Boris Yeltsin in spring 1991. Of course, there are limits to all historical analogies; in particular there is no Boris Yeltsin to unite the anti-Kremlin forces and Russia 2012 is in a much better place that the USSR in its final — terminal — year. Ironically, one of the key engines of the current protest movement is, after all, economic success and the consequent rise of a middle class not dependent directly on the state, compared with the economic crisis of the late Soviet Union. My key point, though, was to compare how those protests, or rather how the ways in which they were managed by the authorities, were regarded by hard-liners, more moderate forces within the Kremlin and the radicals.

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