‘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.

New article: ‘Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?’

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 09.23.14Just a quick note, that an article of mine has appeared in the latest issue of Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 27, no. 2, a special issue on ‘Proxy Actors, Militias and Irregular Forces: The New Frontier of War?’ pulled together by Alex Marshall of Glasgow University. It emerged from an excellent workshop that Alex convened last year on this important and under-researched topic and the issue includes, along with all sorts of first-rate material, the always-great Vanda Felbab-Brown on Afghan militias and an interesting conceptual piece by Robert and Pamela Ligouri Bunker. My contribution, Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia’s ‘new way of war’?, places recent Russian practice very firmly within an historical tradition going back to pre-Soviet adventures. Here’s the abstract:

Russia’s recent operations in Ukraine, especially the integrated use of militias,
gangsters, information operations, intelligence, and special forces, have created
a concern in the West about a ‘new way of war’, sometimes described as ‘hybrid’.
However, not only are many of the tactics used familiar from Western operations,
they also have their roots in Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian practice. They are
distinctive in terms of the degree to which they are willing to give primacy to
‘non-kinetic’ means, the scale of integration of non-state actors, and tight linkage
between political and military command structures. However, this is all largely a
question of degree rather than true qualitative novelty. Instead, what is new is
the contemporary political, military, technological, and social context in which
new wars are being fought.

Park Pobedy (Victory Park) – a warrior state’s love poem to itself

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Do you feel small yet, petty human?

Snow day at Park Pobedy, Victory Park, billed as a memorial to the people who fell defending the Motherland but, frankly, rather a monument to tsarist and Soviet regimes that comfortably allowed their people to be used as human ammunition, in the name of defending, asserting or extending its own power. In winter, it is inevitably especially bleak, a chiaroscuro landscape of blowing snow and darkly skeletal trees. I’m sure in summer, with green grass and lush foliage, children playing below and sunlight above, it’s a very different place, but to be honest, I am glad I saw it in its starkness. Given the message of the place, it seemed much more fitting; softening the edges with excess humanity would be a little like furnishing Death Row with chintz curtains and bean bags, insulting brutal purpose with twee distraction.

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Victory Park is on Poklonnaya Hill, literally ‘Bow Down Hill,’ the symbolic site where Moscow’s princes–who rose, after all, as the chief quislings of the Rus’–met and abased themselves to the emissaries of the Mongol Horde in early medieval times. It was on this vantage point that Napoleon waited in vain to be presented with the keys of the city. And here the Soviet leadership decided first to build a monument to victory over Napoleon, and then later a major complex commemorating the Great Patriotic War.

Completed under Yeltsin, it nonetheless has the understated touch and elegant finesse for which Soviet architectural iconography has never, ever been known. It is massive, a brutalist concrete and marble monument to an unyielding, uncaring state. And fittingly, it continues to be expanded and developed, effortlessly folded into the new, syncretic tsarist-Soviet-postmodern Putinist Russia-for-all-seasons.

There is a truly huge museum, behind an equally dramatic obelisk 141.8m high (that’s 10cm for each day of the war). There’s a glittering, onion-domed church–but also a memorial synagogue and a mosque, and the promise of a monument to the Armenians who fell in the Great Patriotic War, and even something for the Buddhists too. (I wonder if the latter reflects the influence of current Defence Minister Shoigu, a Tuvan Buddhist by birth?) There are memorials to the Republicans of the Spanish Civil War. There are tanks and guns, railway engines and planes. There are, needless to say, children’s play areas with slides and swings festooned with pictures of Russian heroes.

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To the heroes of the First World War, too

And it hasn’t stopped. There is, for example, an impressive monument to the “soldier-internationalists” who died in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, with a dedication making it clear that Putin was a backer. I wonder how long before Chechnya gets its own slab and statue, historically entombing it and converting it from tragedy in living memory to glorious exploit of official history?

Don’t get me wrong, it is an extraordinary impressive site, well-done and carefully maintained. Even in the middle of winter, with very few visitors, it was being tended and watched, the snow was being dug from the paths, the rubbish cleared. But compared even with the serried ranks of austere mass graves at St. Petersburg’s Piskarevskoe cemetery, this was all about victory and national will, and not about people. The statues were all square-jawed and defiant, the iconography dwarfing the human scale. This was–and is–a state’s love poem to itself, not a celebration of the people on whose backs and lives it rested and rests.

Not a new Cold War: Great Game II

This is just a short introductory excerpt from a longer piece published on the EthZ International Relations and Security Network (ISN) here.

GreatGameSuddenly the talk is of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, as Crimea is quietly written off as “lost” for the foreseeable future and the diplomatic focus moves to preventing a further—and potentially devastating—move into eastern Ukraine. While an understandable metaphor, though, this is a dangerous one. The Cold War, for all its brinkmanship and proxy conflicts, was a relatively stable and even rules-bound process. Instead, in this new “hot peace,” perhaps a better, if less comfortable analogy would be the Great Game, that (since mythologized) nineteenth-century era of imperial rivalry over Central Asia between Britain and Russia,, the freewheeling nineteenth-century struggle for authority in Central Asia.

One of the particular characteristics of the original Great Game was that there was little real distinction between the instruments of conventional conflict and competition such as wars, diplomatic missions and treaties and those of the informal realm, from subsidized bandit chieftains to third-party intelligence freelancers. Although even during the Cold War there was a place for the mercenary, gangster and assassin this was, it has to be said, very much at the periphery. Even proxy wars fought by irregulars, such as the mujahideen resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Viet Cong in Vietnam, were more-or-less formally acknowledged by their patrons. Now, though, Great Game II is one in which open state actions, deniable missions by state agents and the activities of mercenary agents (from computer hackers to local warlords) blend much more seamlessly. Furthermore, the nature of those operations ranges from military missions and shows of force, through espionage and sabotage, to subversion and misdirection by paid mouthpieces and front companies.

Is Khodorkovsky the patron saint of the Russian opposition?

The icon of St Mikhail of Segezha?

The icon of St Mikhail of Segezha?

Bear with me here. Free associating in the course of an interesting discussion with Brian Whitmore and Kirill Kobrin on the latest Power Vertical podcast, on Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case as he turns 50 in Segezha Prison Colony  7 in Karelia, I described him as the “patron saint” of the opposition. Of course, he is not a patron saint in the technical sense, an intercessor to God. But it is worth dwelling for a moment on the role he plays within the Russian political–and especially opposition political–cosmology.

1. He is (or at least seems to be) the sinner redeemed. This is a powerful theme within many saints’ lives. While by no means the dirtiest of the 1990s oligarchs, he certainly did not make his fortune through wholly legal or moral means. He played by the real rules of the time, and they were murky and carnivorous ones. But then, as Brian convincingly argues in the podcast, in the 2000s he genuinely seems to have tried to clean up his own act and that of Yukos; indeed, that was one of the things which made him so dangerous to the elite. Now, he continues to articulate views that place him within the liberal wing of Russian politics, even though that probably extends his time in prison.

2. He is suffering for his views. Martyrdom is central to sanctification, and Khodorkovsky’s tale is not just a rags-to-riches-to-handcuffs tale, but his continued refusal to recant (he would, in my opinion, have been pardoned long ago had he been willing publicly to say what the Kremlin would like to hear) demonstrates the kind of moral fiber a good saint needs.

3. He stands for values, not a particular party. On one level, this means he has no direct caucus of followers, but it also means that he is a symbolic figure who could potentially (re)unite a disparate opposition. Although I hesitate to draw comparisons, figures such as Havel, Sakharov and even Mandela were powerful precisely because of their moral stature rather than organizational powerbase. Khodorkovsky is not in the same pantheon, or at least not yet, but if the current regime continues to delegitimize itself, and if none of the active opposition leaders manages to capitalize on this, then a figure such as him might become the focus for moral outrage against the system.

According to the latest Levada polls, 33% of Russians favor his early release (and given the propaganda state in which they live, that’s quite a strikingly high figure). And yet the Kremlin is probably gearing itself up for a new court case, on an even more serious charge, of being behind the murder of Nefteyugansk mayor Vladimir Petukhov in 1998. Rather than let him be released when his current prison term ends in 2014, Putin would rather see him face a third charge. Three trials in the wilderness; it certainly sounds like a saint’s hagiography…

He is the very model of the modern media monarch…

For the record, Putin is not a fascist, nor is he a tsar...

For the record, Putin is not a fascist, nor is he a tsar…

In my most recent post for Russia! magazine, Hail to the Prince!, I find myself–perhaps provocatively–looking at Putin and the tawdry extravaganza of the Popular Front for Russia convention and raising the specters of tsarist coronations, fascist rallies (more of the Mussolini than Hitler variety, for what that’s worth) and the crass theatricals of modern TV (“Putin is if anything a populist tsar, a tsar for the reality TV generation.”)

The serious point relates to the personalization of rule, a compound of patrimonial habits (in which everything is the property of the state/monarch and merely assigned at his pleasure) and a messianic belief in the ruler’s specific and numinous mission:

And this is where monarchy and fascism intersect. Both, ultimately, are personalized forms of rule, where the role of court, aristocracy, party and government are all about connecting the autocrat with his people rather than—in theory—having agency and agendas of their own, let alone acting as counterweights and constraints on him. This has been one of the striking phenomena of Putin’s recent political strategy, what I’ve (rather clumsily) described elsewhere as “institutionalized deinstitutionalization.” The People’s Front may perhaps one day become a party, but at present it is explicitly intended not to be one, or rather to be a structure which can embrace parties, individuals, groups and blocs. It is open to all, so long as they share a common worldview which, frankly, can also be summed up in all its intricate complexity by one of the rally’s chants: Narod! Rossiya! Putin! “The People! Russia! Putin!”

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