‘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.

The Practice and Pathos of Power: ruminations on Anna Arutunyan’s ‘The Putin Mystique’

PutinMystiqueAnna Arutunyan’s The Putin Mystique (Skyscraper, 2014) has appeared in a variety of languages before being released in English—a good call on a small publisher’s part to pick this title up—and is a fascinating exegesis of power in Russia. It is also a very Russian book. Indeed, about the only way it could be any more Russian would be if it were written on birch bark by a balalaika-strumming bear wearing a fur hat, drunk on vodka. What does this actually mean? For a start, the prose style weaves seamlessly between political reportage, literary and historical discursion and absurdity (she opens the book “I want the President of the Russian Federation to decree what I should think, what religion to profess, where to live, the number of children to bear, how to live, and when to die.” [p. 9]) in a way subtly distinct from the more clearly compartmentalized writing of the Anglo-Saxon non-fiction tradition. The product is a book that is as entertaining and readable as it is informative, very deserving of a place on every Russia-wonk’s shelves.

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‘Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991’: writings and thoughts

One of Johnny Shumate's preliminary sketches for color plates in my forthcoming Osprey Publishing title Elite 197 'Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991', ISBN 978 1 78096105 7, to be published in August 2013

One of Johnny Shumate’s preliminary sketches for color plates in my forthcoming Osprey Publishing title Elite 197 ‘Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991’, ISBN 978 1 78096105 7, to be published in August 2013

Having been the kind of nerdy kid who frequented the library to scour the Osprey military history titles, who predictably enough grew up to be the kind of nerdy adult who buys them instead, it was a thorough delight to be able to write my first Osprey book, Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991, which is due to be published August 2013. (Elite series number 197,  ISBN 978 1 78096105 7). In part it gave me new respect for the series given the extensive detail and fact-checking involved, as well as the way the artists need to have a distinctive combination of the meticulous and the imaginative when producing the color plates which are such a feature of the books. The accompanying sketch, from the talented Johnny Shumate, is just the first rendering of an operator from the Saturn special forces group of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) in full riot kit. The color version is even more stunning…but you’ll have to wait and buy the book to see that!

However, the exercise also led me to think more about the rise in Russian security, special and paramilitary forces since the collapse of the USSR. The Soviets, after all, were hardly averse to maintaining large parallel armies and also sundry elite forces. However, there has been not just an increase in the numbers of many of these forces, there has also been a proliferation. There are OMON riot police (who do more than just quell riots), KSN/OMSN/SOBR special police response units, various special forces within the MVD’s Interior Troops, numerous commando ‘spetsgruppy’ within the security apparatus, from the FSB’s Alfa and Vympel to the SVR’s Zaslon. As if that were not enough, there are special forces within the FSIN, the FSKN anti-narcotics service, even of a kind within the MChS Ministry of Emergency Situations.

The irony is that the only special forces elements which have shrunk of late have been the regular military’s Spetsnaz — and even then, they still proportionately make up a larger share of the army than in Soviet times. The same is true of the security troops of the Interior Troops: there are fewer than in the Soviet VV, but more compared with the smaller size of Russia’s population.

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A Short Review of ‘Expelled: a journalist’s descent into the Russian mafia state’ by Luke Harding

It shouldn’t be so, I know, but when – as in this case – a publisher reaches out to offer me a review copy, I can’t help feeling there’s an implicit social contract that I’ll speak well of it. What can I say, then? Well, Harding, who was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent 2007-11 before his expulsion, was in some interesting places and spoke to some interesting people, from Lugovoi to Lebedev. His account of an interview inside the infamous Lefortovo prison shed some light on how much has changed there since Soviet times – nothing at all – and his tales of intimidation by the FSB shows how much has changed in the tactics of Russian state security – very little.

All that said, though, this is a rather insubstantial and superficial book, alas. In some ways, the title says it all, with its emphasis on Harding’s personal travails and this handy but dangerous ‘mafia state’ caricature. (more…)

‘State Building in Putin’s Russia: policing and coercion after Communism’ by Brian Taylor (2011)

Another quick foreshadowing of a forthcoming review, this time in the Russian Review. Read the review for my full comments, but in brief, State Building in Putin’s Russia: policing and coercion after Communism is an excellent and deeply-researched book on the MVD and other institutions of internal control under Putin. Brian Taylor (Maxwell School, Syracuse University) very usefully conceptualizes the siloviki of the military and security interests as at once a cohort (a distinct social body with certain common traits and values), clans (competing factions) and corporate (bureaucratic and institutional) interests. However, the core of this book is devoted to assessing the overall contribution of the police and security institutions to the development of the Russian state, demonstrating that state capacity only improved to a very slightly, a process largely limited by an inattention to what he calls “state quality” – essentially, good governance and the satisfaction of society’s needs. Taylor doesn’t really dig into how far poor governance reflects a failure of Putin’s state-building project and how far it is because Putin wasn’t interested in this kind of thing but wanted to create a centralized hybrid state. What this first-class book proves, though, is that even if Putin thinks he got what he wanted from the siloviki, if his aim was lasting, effective and reliable state building, then he was wrong.

(In fairness, though, I’d in any case always be a sucker for a book that declares itself to be committed to “bringing the gun back in” to the comparative literature on states.)

Taylor, Brian D. State Building in Putin’s Russia: Policing and Coercion after Communism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xviii + 373 pp. $95.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76088-1.

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