‘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.

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.

(more…)

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.

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