Launch events in London for ‘The Vory’

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 14.09So, although alas it will be be weeks before I get to see the final version myself, the advance copies of my new book, The Vory: Russia’s super mafia (Yale University Press) are here, and the count-down to its release begins. It will be published on 10 April in the UK, and 22 May in the US. Meanwhile, I just wanted to flag up some launch events in London next month.

The actual launch will be at Pushkin House at 7pm on Monday 16 April, at which I’ll be talking about the writing of the book and, especially, the historical and cultural evolution of this organised crime subculture, and how far it has come to permeate Russia today.

Then, at Waterstones Gower Street on 6:30pm on Tuesday 17 April I’ll be in conversation with Matt Potter, author of the excellent Outlaws, Inc. (on Russian arms-and-everything-else air smugglers) on gangsters, Russia, and writing about these shadowy topics. Note that the price of a ticket includes a copy of The Vory and a drink – a bargain!

There will then be a closed session at Chatham House on Wednesday 18 April, which will soon be up on their events schedule, discussing the current Russian organised crime situation. I’ll update with a link when it is available.

***PLEASE NOTE – MY US TRIP HAS ALAS HAD TO BE CANCELLED, AND THESE EVENTS WITH THEM. For those of you in the States, I would also parenthetically mention that I’ll be giving a book talk at the NYU Jordan Centre on the Advanced Study of Russia at 12:30 on 4 April, and another talk on Russian organised crime at Colgate University on 2 April at 4:30pm.***

Beyond that, there are one or two other possibilities still under discussion, and again I will update this post if, as, and when they firm up. You can also keep up to date by following me on twitter (@MarkGaleotti) or on my Facebook page Mark Galeotti on Russia.

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‘The Death of Stalin’ – arguably all the more accurate and honest for not pretending to be either

DeathOfStalinA few people have asked me to give my take on the film The Death of Stalin, so here are my thoughts, in no great depth or particular order. First of all, at its most basic, I thought it a very good film, extremely funny, but even darker in its humour than I had anticipated. Jason Isaacs is a wonderful genially thuggish Zhukov, but the real star, if that’s the appropriate term, was Simon Russel Beale’s mesmerizingly ruthless Beria who is also, in a way, one of the most honest figures around. The corrupting influence of terror is evident throughout. Frankly, it takes someone like Armando Ianucci, whose humour so often is based on tiptoeing up to the limits of taste and then deliberately stepping over that line, to write this.

Of course, it is not a biopic and doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. The timeline is compressed to fit months of scheming into a week or so leading up to and right after Stalin’s funeral. Stalin’s daughter was not whisked out afterwards by Khrushchev. And so on: there are all kinds of concessions made in the name of the story. Personally, though, I don’t think that is at all a problem: quite the opposite. First of all, and this is something Simon Jenkins has recently written about in the Guardian, much pseudo-historical film is really just as much in the myth-making business, simply with more pretension and less honesty. He especially talks about All the Money in the World, based on the kidnap of John Paul Getty III, Darkest Hour on Churchill, and The Crown on Queen Elizabeth II, but there are so many more examples. However much we – rightly – decry the new bombastically nationalist and propagandistic turn in Russian film making with such ‘epics’ as Crimea (Romeo-and-Juliet-meets-annexation) and Panfilov’s 28 (fictional-Soviet-diehards-hold-off-nasty-Nazis) – let us not forget the extent to which American audiences have for generations been told how they pretty much won WW2 by themselves, Brits have been fed a sugar-coated image of ‘Blitz spirit’, and so forth. Fictionalising history is more honest: it makes no claims to an accuracy very few films really embody.

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“”Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.”

But also I felt that through the fiction, The Death of Stalin did a first-rate job of conveying the macabre spirit, the feel of the times. The terrified paranoia, the constant scheming, the degree to which everyone was vulnerable, the easy re-invention of history. One of the of the brilliant aspects of the film’s Beria is precisely the way he uses yet also mocks the self-justificatory compromises of the others. He is a ruthless cynic and knows it, owns it; the others are (while less personally repugnant) willing to work within that system , all the while pretending to some higher moral or political cause. There is an interesting moment when Svetlana, assailed on all sides by politicians trying to use her for their own purposes, asks Beria why she should trust him, and he says she shouldn’t, that she should ‘trust nobody” – but adds that she should remember that at least he told her that. Maybe this is the highest level of honour in such a toxic environment…

It’s macabre, sometimes a little slapstick, always sharply written and observed – very well worth watching. And roll on the day Ianucci writes the film of the Putin years…

Book Review: Open Participatory Security, by Jesse Paul Lehrke

9781538105290Open Participatory Security: unifying technology, citizens and the state by Jesse Paul Lehrke. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

According to Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, “No society is strong if it is not […] an open society, a participatory society.” Fair enough, although as usual with statements emanating from the EEAS, it is hard to see any sharp-edges of policy behind the billowing clouds of comfortable rhetoric. This is one of the problems; especially in the age of so-called, if much-misunderstood ‘hybrid war’ – which I could characterise as political warfare fought in the field of governance, with the aim of reducing the enemy’s capacity or will to resist – then the need to defend ourselves on a societal level is evident.

At the same time, though, experts want to retain their arcane authority, the military still want their tanks and missiles, and too often the debate gets rendered down into banal platitudes about not listening to ‘fake news’ and having good online passwords. In this respect, ‘participation’ becomes a call for citizens to do their duty, as defined by the experts and the government, not really engagement, and hardly especially ‘open.’

In his Open Participatory Security: unifying technology, citizens and the state, Dr Jesse Paul Lehrke of the Deutsches Forschungsinstitut für öffentliche Verwaltung (you can also follow him on twitter here), starts from the usual empty language of participation, and has written an imaginative, even daring book about just what security means in a future of global communications, multiple threats, and weak political ties. To put it another way, how security can be furthered not thanks to, but in spite of those aged, hide-bound, elephantine beasts we call states.

This is in part a cybersecurity question, or at least many of the basic premises emerge from the cybersecurity debate, but what makes this book important is the points it makes about taking those lessons and applying them to wider questions of security. About gamifying security awareness within the population, about democratising information gathering, about emphasising the transitory and uncertain nature of security. In other words, that no security is guaranteed, and that it will always be in what technical types call a ‘perpetual beta’ state – in other words, always being revised and improved as new threats and fixes emerge.

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Here’s a diagram inexpertly snapped from the book that neatly encapsulates his thesis, that we face a world of complex insecurity, marked by a lack of trust and also constant technological but also methodological innovation. The response is not trust in the state itself, so much as that this is a by-product of a series of necessary responses including, and this is crucial, the state’s trust in society. That is, in my opinion, a crucial point; in many ways the complexity of the modern threat picture has led to a pernicious combination of the sort of vaporous platitudes Ms Mogherini deploys along with a retreat, behind that smokescreen, of security into the hands of political, technical and intellectual elites. And that’s bad for society, and bad for security.

This is not always the easiest read, although Lehrke does a commendable job of tempering it with humour, but it is an important one. As with recent initiatives such as the Prague Insecurity Conference, there is something of a backlash against the securitised and secretised consensus that sees security as too important to leave in the hands of outsiders, and this is an important step forward in crafting a new concept of security – imperfect, unstable, democratic – for the emerging world.

Capsule Review: ‘Putin’s War against Ukraine,’ by Taras Kuzio

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‘Putin’s War against Ukraine,’ by Taras Kuzio. Published in Association with the Chair of Ukrainian Studies, University of Toronto, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-1543285864, 474 pp.

I will confess that I have not yet properly read this book cover to cover, but so far skimmed, dipped and sampled, but then again there is a great deal here to read. This is a seemingly self-published book, which I hope does not prevent it from getting a wider audience, as there is a massive amount of extremely useful analysis and information in this dense door-stopper of a work. Anyone who knows Kuzio’s indefatigable and passionate support of Ukraine and its independence, dating back to Soviet times, will be unsurprised by the core theme, that this is a book rooted in national identity, and Russia’s inability or refusal to accept that Ukraine is (or at least has become) a state and nation in its own right. It is hard to disagree.

However, even if the theme does not surprise, there is pretty much guaranteed to be something the reader didn’t know in the densely-argued chronicle Kuzio provides. He may be a Ukrainian partisan, but this certainly doesn’t mean that he closes his eyes to the failures and blunders on Kyiv’s part, and in many ways this is one of the particular strengths of the book. There seemed to be some glitches with the indexing, and I would have rather seen footnotes that reset for each chapter, so we avoid four-figure footnote numbers. And of course there are areas in which I would have painted the scene differently, drawn different conclusions, and so forth, but that is to be expected, not least in such a current and still-unfolding drama. None of this detracts from the epic amount of research and burning commitment in this book, that deserves to be a standard piece of both reference and analysis.

(By the way, Kuzio gave a video interview about the book, available here.)

‘The Great Fear’ redux

stalin-reborn-as-putinThere is a great deal of nonsense about “a new 1937” brewing in Russia (frankly, paralleling Putin with Stalin is both foolish and also profoundly demeaning to the memory of the millions of victims of the latter’s murder-machine). Nonetheless, bureaucratic engines of repression in authoritarian regimes do have some structural and cultural similarities, and thanks to a recent one of the excellent SRB podcast series I came across James Harris’s equally-excellent The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (OUP, 2016).

A few aspects of Harris’s explanation for the bloodbath are depressingly relevant today:

The Fear. Stalin and his cohorts genuinely felt at risk and assailed, knowing that the Japanese and the Germans wanted to take their land and resources, believing the British, French and the Americans wanted to see them at war, assuming the fifth columnists at home were powerful, networked and bloodthirsty. This was not just a mobilizing propaganda theme, though it was that as well, it was a strongly held belief that inclined the regime towards more murderous and maximalist policies than otherwise might have been.

The Threat Lobby. Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet political police, and his successors not only tended to assume the intertwined domestic and external threats to be more serious than they were, they also had a clear bureaucratic-factional interest in talking them up. At a time when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was up in arms about the impact of the Chekists’ activities, and there was talk of tighter subordination to the organs of justice, what better time to stoke the fear, to present it as a choice between security or legal and political niceties?

The Kremlin Echo Chamber. Harris treads a fine line between the top-down and bottom-up (or strong state/weak state) explanations for the Great Purges. I’m not entirely convinced that squaring the circle by saying it was a strong state that thought itself weak quite works, although there is an undoubted elegance to the suggestion, but it is clear that most of the repression was not directed specifically from the top. Stalin was the impresario, but the performers were largely ad libbing. In this context, local agencies were often driven by the hope of correcting interpreting and predicting the Kremlin’s wishes and also the imperative to tell Moscow what it wanted to hear. Increasingly, the scope for loyal dissent shrank and shrank.

There are clear parallels today. Putin is not about to start a campaign of mass murder or try to modernise his economy on the back of slave labour, of course. But we need to recognise, even if just to help us understand and predict this regime better, the extent to which it genuinely believes itself actively threatened, not just by the impersonal forces of economics and demographics, but by Western machination. It is encouraged to do this by a security apparatus that has learned to play to the more paranoid and defensive instincts of the regime and a bureaucratic culture that seeks to identify what an often gnomic Kremlin truly wants. These were dangerous political pathologies in 1937, and they are again so today.

Capsule Review: Brothers Armed: military aspects of the crisis in Ukraine

BrothersArmed_fullColby Howard & Ruslan Pukhov (eds), Brothers Armed: military aspects of the crisis in Ukraine (East View Press, Minneapolis: 2014; viii+228pp; index, map, timeline; $89.95)

Is it too soon to write anything meaningful of book length about the annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine? I would have said so, until I read this excellent collection of studies from CAST, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Its nine chapters range from an historical context of the conflict through autopsies of the decay of the Ukrainian armed forces—and let’s face it, if Kyiv or the local commanders had opted to put up a fight in Crimea, they’d have lost, but they might have forestalled the subsequent eastern Ukrainian adventure—to detailed assessments of the Russian military. There’s even a useful colour map of respective forces in Crimea.

As such, this offers not just an essential basic reference on the conflict, it also places it in the wider picture of Russia’s changing force structures and very way of war. Much of the Russian military may still be, speaking charitably, only partially reformed, but there is a core of effective, modern and flexible intervention forces that give the Kremlin new options that can offer no great comfort to its neighbors or to a NATO that is having desperately to consider how an alliance built for a “big war” can respond in an age of blended political-economic-information-military hybrid or non-linear operations.

CAST is an outstanding research outfit, and one of the few in Russia that is looking at security issues with genuine independence and acuity. This book is just more evidence of that. Very highly recommended.

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