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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
28 January 2021: Curtain calls, plus texts and tunes
It’s been a week of curtain calls, which have me in a verbally expansive mood—a fancy way of apologizing in advance for what will be a long newsletter this week.
The first was the announcement, not at all unexpected, that a Russian court had ordered the closure of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the country’s oldest and most influential human rights organizations. The second, though not really a curtain call, was the designation of Meduza as an undesirable organization, which threatens its remaining correspondents in Russia with criminal prosecution. But the one that hit hardest for me, at least, was the decision by Moscow city authorities to seize the premises of the Sakharov Center. Even as the Helsinki Group, Memorial and others came under increasing pressure, the Sakharov Center—with its public discussion space, and its one-of-a-kind museum of Soviet-era repression—remained an oasis. In 2019, it was where I was privileged beyond belief to hold the first book launch for Putin v the People. The property seized also includes Sakharov's former apartment, which now houses his archive, in which I was privileged to conduct part of my PhD research.
In the scheme of things, it was an inevitable loss, and the things that really matter—the archive itself, and the people who made the center real—will persevere. The fact that it hit home so hard for me is a matter of sentiment, not analysis; there is no rational reason to mourn the loss of the Sakharov Center more (or less) than the Helsinki Group, I suppose. But it does, nonetheless, hit home, probably because it was a place where I, and so many other people who mattered to me, knew we were always welcome. If there is a solace to be taken, it is that history will inevitably generate another generation of dissidents, in whose name new centers will eventually flourish. This I will always believe.
What I’m thinking about
This week brought one more curtain call, though perhaps not one that many people would notice.
In January 2017, I was invited to take the reins of Russian Politics & Law, an academic journal, published in one form or another for some sixty years, with the mission of bringing English-speaking readers face to face with important works of political science published originally in Russian. The meaning of that mission—and, indeed, the meaning of the word “important” in that context—has changed radically in the five years I was privileged to edit the journal.
This week was my last as the journal’s editor-in-chief, but not because I was done with the journal, or the journal was done with me. Russian Politics & Law, together with its sister Russian translation journals, has been shuttered by the publisher. In my final editor’s essay, I tried to reflect on what might be lost if we stop reading deeply into the debates and discussions inside Russia itself. An excerpt of that essay follows, but if you have the time, I would urge you to read the full essay here. And if you’re convinced, you can browse through the journal’s back issues here.
This will be the final issue of Russian Politics & Law. In truth, the journal has been dying a slow death for quite some time, beset by several ailments, including the increasing scarcity of high-quality Russian-language journals from which to source materials; the increasing propensity of the remaining high-quality journals to translate their own material into English; and the challenging economy of translation journals in the best of circumstances. As a result, Taylor & Francis have taken the difficult decision to shutter the journal, together with the rest of the Russian translation journals.
Whatever the reasons for their passing, however, I cannot help but wonder whether Russian Politics & Law and its sister journals will be much missed. As an academic and a public commentator, I frequently encounter people who feel that now is not the time to give a hearing to Russian voices. There will, undoubtedly, be a contingent of academic readers who will see the journals’ disappearance as a loss. Founded in 1962 as Soviet Law & Government, this particular journal has tried to bring to English-speaking readers important Russian texts in the fields of political science, international relations and law – even if those were texts with which very few English-speaking readers would agree. Indeed, while there was a period of its post-Soviet history in which the journal brought to readers genuinely exciting analytical voices that non-Russian audiences would never have encountered, the journal had in recent years reverted largely to its Soviet-era roots, providing a window into discourses with which Western readers would struggle to identify. Nonetheless, the journal’s editors, myself included, have always seen it as our mission not to help readers agree with Russia, but to help them understand how the world looks to influential Russian authors. I hope that the field of Russian studies will find another way of making that happen.
To illustrate why that mission is important, let us turn back the clock eight years. In January 2014, the independent Russian television channel Dozhd, then still available on cable, posted on its website a poll with the following question: “Should Leningrad have been surrendered [in World War II] in order to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people?” The poll was deleted mere minutes after being published, but it was up long enough to cause a scandal that evicted Dozhd from Russian cable networks very nearly led to the closure of the channel. The squall of public anger that Dozhd evoked with that poll, and the ways in which that squall was weaponized by the Kremlin and its acolytes, helped instigate a special issue of the Russian-language journal Otechestvennye zapiski later that year, under the heading “Degree of insult: Sources of popular offense”. More broadly, however, the issue’s authors were concerned with understanding their country’s emotional reactions to events in Ukraine – both the negative emotional to the Euromaidan the previous year, and the positive emotional reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the initial invasion of eastern Ukraine. In his contribution, the political anthropologist Sergei Medvedev wrote:
This unhealthy fixation on a neighboring country bears witness to a deep post-imperial trauma. Ukrainians were too close, too similar, for Russia to simply let them go. For the entire 23 years of independence, Ukrainian independence has been seen as a misunderstanding, a joke – even the word was pronounced in Russia with an ironic subtext. Russians could calmly accept Moldovan, Tajik, even Belarusian independence, but not Ukrainian independence. And we are not talking about imperialists and ‘soil men’, but about broad swathes of the educated class, who saw Ukraine as a banana republic while harboring a deep sense of offense against their unreasonable ‘younger brother’, who so boldly rejected their blood relation.
Medvedev’s essay was, by any standard, a damning indictment not simply of the Kremlin, but of Russian society – including liberal society – as a whole. It was also, not incidentally, an indictment of several of his co-authors’ contributions to the same issue of Otechestvennye zapiski. Thus, the liberal commentator Alexander Baunov wrote:
In Ukraine many are writing in their columns and on social media: how disgusting your Dozhd’ is, Ekho [Moskvy] is a Kremlin doormat, [Alexei] Venediktov has sold out, Slon is amoral, Snob is fascist, Vedomosti is imperialist, [Alexei] Navalnyi is an occupier, [Mikhail] Khodorkovskii is an aggressor. Evgenii Kiselev, who has been a Ukrainian television anchor for seven years, is reminded that he is from Moscow, and thus unworthy of trust. A Ukrainian commentator on Dozhd conducts his dialogue in such a way as to attack Dozhd’s audience and anchor: you think you’re different, but you’re the same, and maybe even worse. You, Russians pretending to be people, are worse than Dmitrii Kiselev and [Igor] Strelkov-Girkin, and you march not for peace, but for parmesan. One of the most important things we have heard from Ukraine this year is this: for us, there is no difference between propagandists and honest people, between the authorities and you, between people prepared to talk and listen and those unprepared to do so. Those who have heard this are offended. The target has been reached. And what was the target? To impede communication. … We [Ukrainians] don’t need dialogue. We don’t need communication. We only want to hear ourselves.
Or take Konstanin Skorkin’s essay in the same issue:
From the social networks the language of hate seeps into everyday vocabulary and thence into the speech of public figures. In turn, the rhetoric of politicians and other public figures evokes a response among the masses. Notably, the rhetoric of hate poisons in particular the Russian-speaking space, shared by Russia and Ukraine, causing irreparable damage to intercultural dialogue. People speak the same language not in order to better understand one another, but in order to insult one another with greater sophistication.
All three of these essays, of course, were written with Russian-language audiences in mind. From its founding in 2001 until its closure in 2014 – the issue quoted above was the journal’s last, just as this is the last issue of Russian Politics & Law – Otechestvennye zapiski was an important and influential journal in Russian intellectual life. And yet Medvedev on the one side, and Baunov and Skorkin on the other, talked right past each other. Medvedev called on Russians, including his co-authors, to learn to listen not only to Ukrainians, but to the way that they themselves talked about Ukraine and Ukrainians. Baunov and Skorkin claimed to be listening, and indeed aimed as much or more criticism at their compatriots as at Ukrainians, but they repeated many of the same patterns of disdain that so vexed Medvedev.
What might English-speaking readers have taken from this exchange? For one thing, had we read it in 2014, we might better understand the history of Ukrainians’ grievances against Russian liberals, which have been present since Russia’s initial invasion in 2014, and perhaps earlier. But we might have also noticed that disparity and understood that even many of those Russians most implacably opposed to the Kremlin would have to travel some distance before they became implacably opposed to their country’s brutal invasion of its neighbor. To grasp that lesson – and others like it – we would need to be reading things that were not written for us.
What I’m reading
Before I do what I’m about to do, I fear a pre-disclaimer (preclaimer?) may be necessary: it is my considered analysis that Russia is losing its war in Ukraine, that Western sanctions on Russia are broadly effective, and that, broadly speaking, Ukraine and the West are winning. More than that, it is my considered analytical opinion that the only way for lasting peace to be restored to the European continent is for Russia to be dealt a decisive defeat. And even more than that, it is my considered opinion that dealing Russia a decisive defeat is more or less the only way for my Russian friends to achieve anything like democracy in my (or their) lifetime.
Having said all of that, there is a growing triumphalism in the discussion of this conflict—particularly, though not exclusively, the American discussion—that is beginning to irk me. Actually, that’s an understatement: triumphalism, based on bad analysis, is the best way to turn victory into stalemate. (To be clear, I don’t think that there is any real way for Russia to win, and thus for Ukraine and the West to lose; but permanent stalemate is almost as bad an outcome.)
Enough of the throat-clearing: Bring in Exhibit No. 1 — Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s piece in Foreign Policy late last week, under the headline “The World Economy No Longer Needs Russia”. Now, in fairness to Prof. Sonnenfeld, his piece is considerably more nuanced than that spectacularly un-nuanced headline. Is focus, in truth, is on energy markets, not on the economy as a whole; and on Europe, rather than the planet. And he is right, by and large, that Europe, at least for the time being, has managed dramatically to reduce Moscow’s energy leverage, particularly as concerns natural gas. He is similarly optimistic, and not without reason, that the G7-imposed cap on Russian oil prices will also be effective, although, for many other analysts, the jury on that one is still out.
My biggest problem with Prof. Sonnenfeld’s argument is his attempt to extend it beyond oil and gas. He writes:
Even Putin’s other commodities cards are all used up. His gambit to weaponize food abjectly collapsed when even his nominal allies turned on him. And in certain metals markets where Russia historically dominated, such as nickel, palladium, and titanium, blackmail-fearing buyers combined with higher prices have expedited reshoring and reinvigorated dormant public and private investment in critical mineral supply chain and mining projects.
Sorry, but no. This is cherry-picking in the extreme. Yes, it is true that Russia’s attempt to blockade Ukrainian grain exports has failed, although supplies to the developing world remain too shaky and prices too high to claim that Vladimir Putin has failed entirely to weaponize food. The evidence of new investment in onshore supplies of nickel, palladium and titanium—of which Russia is indeed a major exporter—is considerably more tenuous: a bill to encourage investment, introduced by Senator Joe Manchin, which has gone precisely nowhere.
Moreover, the emphasis on nickel, palladium and titanium is odd, given that Russia is also the world’s largest producer of diamonds, third largest producer of aluminum and gold, and fifth largest producer of iron ore and steel. Can the world replace all of that, or even enough of it to matter? Or will Russia find enough willing buyers to anchor a trading bloc effectively sheltered from Western sanctions? What will the costs of that kind of trade realignment be for Russia, and for the West? When we have reassuring answers to those questions, I’ll be a bit more convinced of the argument that Russia has genuinely backed itself into a corner. But to answer those questions, one would first have to ask them, which, alas, I don’t hear many people in Washington doing. (Stay tuned, though.)
Exhibit No. 2 is Zoltan Barany’s essay in the Journal of Democracy, “Armies and Autocrats: Why Putin’s Military Failed”. It is, in fact, an elegantly constructed and broadly convincing essay, aiming to explain—for the umpteenth time—why Russia’s invasion hasn’t gone to Putin’s evident plan. It is also emotionally uplifting, and therein, for me at least, lies part of the rub. Barany writes:
We should note five key points. The first is that Putin’s monopolization of control over the armed forces and refusal to allow an independent legislature have driven critical voices and searching, honest debates out of military and defense matters. Second is the failure of reform—as the world can now see, efforts to overhaul the bloated, ill-equipped post-Soviet military have not produced a twenty-first–century fighting force that can match the world’s best armies or counter their capabilities. Third, Russia’s military has been unable to attract talented young people. Senior officers stubbornly refuse to delegate authority, robbing juniors of chances to develop initiative and leadership qualities, while most noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and their troops are poorly prepared. Fourth, Russia’s mammoth defense industry—largely owned and run by the state—produces too few weapons, and those it does turn out cannot match sophisticated Western arms. Finally, the operations in Georgia, Crimea, and Syria proved nothing: They were conducted against feeble adversaries and said zero about how Russian forces would perform in a conventional land war against a resolute, well-armed enemy.
All of these things, of course, may be true. Most of them sound true. And I, like a lot of other people, would very much like them to be true. But unlike, for example, work by Michael Kofman and Rob Lee, who have combed through the evidence of dysfunction to find cause and effect, or work by Lawry Freedman, who delves into the mechanics of war itself, Prof. Barany does not really try to ascertain whether or not his arguments are true. There is no evidence in the essay that there are fewer “critical voices, and searching, honest debates” in the Russian military than there used to be. He does not delve particularly deeply into the characteristics and behaviors Russian soldiers and officers, or compare them to, say, the Ukrainians, or even the (once victorious) Red Army. And so on.
I was particularly vexed—though perhaps due to other things that have been on my mind this week—by the fact that Barany’s argument is built almost exclusively on an engagement with Western, English-language sources. In an essay devoted exclusively to analyzing the Russian military, only 21 percent of the cited texts were written by Russian authors (not counting correspondents for Radio Free Europe and the New York Times who happen to be of Russian extraction), and only 6 percent—a whopping two texts—come from Russian-language sources. (None of them, incidentally, come from Russian Politics & Law, though that is plausibly my fault, for failing to publish the right kinds of texts.) Not for nothing, it smacks of an echo chamber, and echo chambers, as Prof. Barany rightly reminds us, rarely produce effective policies.
Having told you what I think of the Sonnenfeld and Barany pieces, I suppose I should leave you with at least one thing worth reading — and that is an engaging essay by the Russian political sociologist Kirill Rogov. Kirill’s subject is an interview conducted by the Russian liberal YouTube sensation Yuri Dud with Oskar Kuchera, an influential Moscow media producer who is clearly cosmopolitan but decidedly un-liberal. Dud’s interview with Kuchera, which is well worth watching if you speak Russian, has sparked endless conversations in Russian opposition circles, including criticism of Dud for giving a platform to someone who supports Putin and his war, and who openly calls for purges against people like Dud. For Kirill, though—and, I suspect, for Dud himself—the interview is an ideal sociological, or even anthropological, vignette. Kirill writes:
The 'collective Kuchera' does not understand Putin or the logic of his actions. He possesses an 'inaccessible rationality,' they say. At the same time, Kuchera states unequivocally that he supports the President. The question 'in what?' is answered in a way that throws off the interviewer's trademark composure (because based on their conversation, it is almost certainly not the war and its goals, as these are subjects fraught with doubt and misunderstanding). 'I support his domestic policies, particularly the purges.' Kuchera is referring here to a repressive policy against those 'who are not with us' — the expulsion of functionaries, writers, directors, and activists who oppose the war. Kuchera supports this, although fidgets in his chair as he says it.
We’re all fidgeting, I suppose. At least, I am.
What I’m listening to
Paul Krugman, in some of his New York Times blog entries, used to post music he was listening to — and yes, that is where I got the idea. I remember one entry in particular, somewhere in the depths of one of the national catastrophes that now seem quaint, when he posted a song by the Civil Wars and said something to the effect of “we don’t deserve this.”
I was reminded of that when H.C. McEntire’s new album, Every Acre, dropped this week. I’ve been an H.C. McEntire fan since she was fronting Mount Moriah, and not just because she (and they) call Durham (North Carolina) home. If Mount Moriah weren’t on your playlist a decade ago, listen to a couple of tracks (try ‘Bright Light’ and ‘Lament’, for starters) and question your life choices. Since leaving Mount Moriah, McEntire took a turn towards country, but the soft kind of country that aches. The ache is very much there in Every Acre, too, but there’s a bit of an edge that reminds me of Mount Moriah. And you’re right, Prof. Krugman: we don’t deserve this.