What the hell is going on in the world today?
Another attempt to make some kind of sense of what's going on east of the Dniester. Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan come in for special attention.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
What the hell is going on in the world today?
Another very sad day for a Canadian and a Montrealer: Oscar Peterson has died.
Just this Saturday, I was listening to my favourite album of his, Live at the Blue Note, with Herb Ellis and Roy Brown. While I was enthralled by the music, I couldn't help thinking that Oscar had to be getting pretty old.
Here's a piece from the Guardian: http://music.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,2232130,00.html
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 10:24 a.m.
Friday, September 28, 2007
Following the events of recent days (arrests of Okruashvili's allies and Okruashvili's toe-curling accusations against Saakashvili,) Okruashvili himself has now been arrested.
So what's the deal?
Is Okruashvili telling the truth - even partial - and Saakashvili taking him out with politically-motivated charges of tax evasion, corruption and criminal negligence? Or, was Okruashvili's speech and the hideous charges contained therein delivered in anticipation (and in an attempt to blacken his accusers first) of what he knew would be grounded charges coming his way?
At first, I had entertained thoughts about the whole thing being an LDPR-like attempt to play the Russians, suggesting that "either you deal with Saakashvili, or this is the nut you'll be forced to deal with." That could have been possible, had the accusations not been so serious. Having left no way for himself to climb down now, Okruashvili has to be seen as an implacable enemy of the president.
As he is the second-most popular politician in Georgia, this could start a political earthquake. Already, there have been calls for mass rallies in Tbilisi, starting today.
You tell me. I find this story fascinating.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Well, someone's got to do it, so let it be me.
Saakashvili and Okruashvili going at it, hammer and tongs. Accusations of corruption fly both ways. Mr. O accuses Saaka of fascism, nepotism, incompetance, backing down in the face of Russia, etc. Another charge was attempted murder of Badri Partaksishvili a friend and ally of whom? That's right - Boris Berezovsky.
Discuss among yourselves and see my post (planned for tomorrow) on convergence in post-Soviet politics, but, for now...fill in the dots for fun. Craziest theory wins a prize.
Here's a book that I recommend highly to anyone with an interest in linguistics, history, Jewish culture, Woody Allen, Mordecai Richler or in just plain, good, informative and hilarious writing:
Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods.
The author, I was very pleased to discover, is a fellow Canadian, Michael Wex.
I'm only 4 chapters in so far, but I've already raised my knowledge (and consciousness) regarding Yiddish and Jewish history by an order of magnitude.
If there's one big plus to living on one side of the Dnipro and working on the other (with a 40-minute metro ride each way,) it's having books like this to absorb and amuse one.
If you've got tsuris, don't be a glomp - buy this book, even if you're a goy or goye. Wex tells no bobe-mayse!
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 4:21 p.m.
Also about a heavy clash, but one in which all of Georgia came out the winner.
The Georgian national rugby team beat Namibia 30-0 to secure their first ever victory at the Rugby World Cup.
Just one win may not look like a lot, but it has to be said that the Georgian team has played magnificently this year, even managing to give the Irish team (underperforming so far, but still a perennial power in rugby,) a scare bordering on outright terror.
It looks as though we'll see more Georgian players playing for top-flight clubs in Europe and I'm guessing there's a lot more to come from Georgia, now that they've got people's attention.
Well done to the Lelos!
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 4:14 p.m.
In response to Irakli Okruashvili's verbal Molotov cocktail aimed squarely at President Saakashvili, Giga Bokeria - a big noise in Saakashvili's ruling party - has come out swinging too, labelling the speech as "hysterical" and "groundless."
In what would have to be seen as a below-the-belt shot, considering the views of both the puncher and the punchee, Bokeria goes on to compare Okruashvili's speech to that of Russian politicos and to the manner of Igor Giorgadze.
Blood mops to the centre of the ring, please...
One thing you have to say for Irakli Okruashvili: he doesn't mince words.
In the past, he's been known for making rather...erm..."forceful" statements, with regard to Ossetian and Abkhazian separatism ("We'll see the New Year in in Tsinkhvali," for example,) or on the tolerance of Russian wine consumers for fecal matter. In fact, many speculated that his inability to moderate his statements in public had a lot to do with his removal from the post of Minister of Defense.
Others, however, saw it as a preliminary move by President Saakashvili to pre-empt Okruashvili's emergence as a credible challenger to his own unrivalled power.
Adherents of both sides of this argument are going to gain sustenance from recent events in Georgia.
The first blow (not counting Okruashvili's removal from the Ministry of Defense) was struck when Mikheil Kareli, former governor of Shidi Kartli, was arrested for bribery September 23rd. It may or may not surpise you that he is viewed as a friend of Irakli's.
Next, Dimitri Kitoshvili, Saakashvili's press secretary and parliamentary secretary, was arrested on charges of extortion. "But that's Saakashvili's man," I hear you say, "and surely his arrest goes against Saakashvili's interests and is, therefore, likely legitimate, as it would have had to have been carried out with his knowledge?" But, - aha! - it turns out that Mr. Kitoshvili was formerly a partner in a legal practice with Okruashvili, and is felt to have been a sympathiser. "So what?" you say. So this: IF it is true that Saakashvili wants to make sure that Okruashvili will not be a threat to him, he's not only going to want to see to it that there are no "Okruashvili spies" within his own perimetre; he's going to want to kill two birds with one stone, removing Kitoshvili AND pre-emptively nailing Okruashvili with a corruption-by-association charge.
Outlandish? I think not, particularly as - on the same day that Okrauashvili made a savage speech, condemning Saakashvili(see below) - the tax authorities opened an investigation into the latter's acquisition of his office space in Tbilisi.
The speech itself - wow. In the space of 10 minutes, Okruashvili accused Saakashvili of murder, corruption, weakness, incompetance, fascism and hatred of the Georgian Orthodox Church. In short, something to un-appeal to everyone. Perhaps his time ran out before he could claim that Saakashvili eats babies, kicks kittens and framed the Grinch over that whole Christmas thing.
Now, I'm no fan of either of them. I don't go for this "good guy Misha" act of Saakashvili's, or for his demagoguery (though I guess it works, if he gets 96% in elections, and arrests swathes of oppositionists on charges of treason, without anyone in the West batting an eye.) Nor am I particularly fond of Okruashvili's boorishness and visible tendency to believe his own hype as a military genius (a weakness of many purely civilian defense officials.)
These two are obviously shaping up for a cataclysmic battle in the Georgian political space and it promises to be highly entertaining, in a horrifying way. If this is the beginning, what can we expect to see by the end?
I'm still in shock from the savagery of Okruashvili's speech. I imagine that his supporters will say that the tone and the accusations are entirely justified by the acute horror into which Saakashvili has plunged Georgia (which even I don't believe he's done.) My only question would be: "Why has Mr. O taken such an irredeemable step?" With the things he's said, there's no going back, no wiggle room, no way of saying he "misspoke" (a word for which Larry Speakes should burn in hell forever.)
It would seem to come down to two very stark choices: either Saakashvili, in some way, resembles the wholly unflattering painted by Okruashvili, or it is the latter who is a lying scumbag.
Conspiracy theorists take note: I have discarded the idea that it all may be intended to fool Russians.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Kirilenko threatens new election, if the new Rada fails to pass the motion on removing immunity from deputies. Yawn - more elections is hardly what Ukraine needs.
Anyway, the more interesting part is that he addressed this threat to PoR: has NU-NS already come to the conclusion that they have little to look forward to in this election, and that PoR does?
This morning's Сегодня had a worrying rundown of the techniques we may see used by the losing side (or sides) in the upcoming election. From party scrutineers at the local level refusing to certify results, right up to deputies' refusal to accept their seats in the Rada.
It's all eminently possible.
Read it here: http://vybory.segodnya.ua/news/468833.html
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Had a superb 8 days in Montreal, house-hunting and taking part in a drink-soaked 50th anniversary celebration for my club, the Montreal Wanderers RFC. Great to see a lot of the fellows I played with starting in 1981. Some serious hangovers, but no serious injuries, despite the fact that I hadn't played in 5 years, after doing my back in at a training session in Kazakhstan. Two days after the match, however, I did manage to twist my ankle painfully, getting up out of an armchair at my mother's! The ravages of age...
The Ukrainian election campaign is in full, brutal swing. I hope to have some time to jot down some of my impressions tomorrow. For now, all I can say is that, whatever party is elected is going to have to come up with unimaginable stacks of cash to pay for all our their promises. What am I saying...?
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 10:20 p.m.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Another off-topic post, but it's my blog and I'll do what I like!
I downloaded a few tracks off the new album The Else by They Might Be Giants yesterday. Hardly shocking, but I am very impressed again by their creativity and musical ability.
I was first turned on to them back at McGill, by a friend, the ever-hip all-round goddess, Becky Scott. The album was Flood and I was immediately taken by the witty, often hilarious lyrics and well crafted songs, great harmonies, etc. My St. Petersburg girlfriend was absolutely besotted with their cover of the old standard "Istanbul (Not Constantinople.)"
Now, the new album sounds very promising! I started out yesterday with the track "The Mesopotamians," which sounds to me like an homage to the Monkees' "Hey Hey We're the Monkees" - only considerably more literate. How often do you hear a pop song referring not only to Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal and Gilgamesh, but also to the Mohenjo-Daro civilisation of the Indus Valley? Not very often, dammit! Lest you think that this makes the song a boring reference-fest (like Billy Joel's boring "We Didn't Start the Fire,") I can assure you that it does not:
This is my last stick of gum
I'm going to cut it up so everybody else gets some
Except for Ashurbanipal who says my haircut makes me look like a Mohenjo-daroan"
What's not to love? Snappy lyrics, punchy guitars, swirling harmonies - it's got it all.
Another outstanding track is "Shadow Government." The same formula - and, in this case, "formula" is a winner.
TMBG remind me quite a bit of XTC, another band that showed that you can write extraordinary pop music (just think "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" or "The Mayor of Simpleton") with lyrics to make the audience think, laugh, cry, or all of the above, marrying it with flawless pop constructions.
Go get the album!
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
When I was doing my M.A. at Carleton, the Russian and Slavic Studies Programe offered a course on Balkan history, for which I eagerly signed up. Strangely, no one else did. I was afraid that the course would be cancelled but, mercifully, the department decided to go ahead with it.
The prof in charge was a great guy - John Fraser. Long-time civil servant with the Department of Foreign Affairs and former Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia, John was not only a Rhodes Scholar, but a man who could tell a story. His Oxford background and the size of the class (i.e. me) combined to turn the course into an Oxford style tutorial. I was inundated with reading and had to do a 10-page paper every week, but the intensiveness, coupled with John's superb wit and style, made it one of the most memorable courses I have ever taken (along with Serge Hervouet-Zeiber's fabulous Russian Comparative Grammar course at McGill.)
There's just something about one's teacher saying, "Well, as Tito told me..."
Among the reading that John assigned was the weighty tome by Dame Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, The Yugoslavs by Dusko Doder, Misha Glenny's Balkans, and endless other worthy titles.
I think it fair to assume that - if the course is still being offered - Robert D. Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History would be one of the books assigned. While I'm not a fan of his politics, he does write a good book, with far fewer set assumptions that one would normally ascribe to the author of Imperial Grunts. For those who are fans of his politics, I heartily recommend the blog (named after one of Kaplan's books) The Coming Anarchy.
Anyway, having been away from full-time study for a long time, reading more Harry Potter and Dr. Seuss than serious history, I've decided to get back into the real stuff, starting with a re-reading of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. What could be a scarier bedtime story for kids than the exploits of IMRO?
Any recommendations for further reading in the area would be greatly welcome.
Sure, I was a Star Trek fan when I was a kid. However, I think I've grown to love Bill Shatner more since then. His famous "Get a life" bit on Saturday Night Live many years ago and the "I am Canadian" parody at Just for Laughs (mentioned in the article below,) point out a man more than happy to take the mickey out of himself. And that's a trait that I find very endearing.
Added to that, of course, is the fact that he's not only a Montreal boy, but is even from my neighbourhood. Awesome.
From the Montreal Gazette:
The man, the myth, THE SHAT
AFTER 55 YEARS IN SHOW BIZ THAT HAVE ENCOMPASSED EVERYTHING FROM STAR TREK TO BRAN FLAKES, WILLIAM SHATNER IS COMING BACK HOME FOR A RETURN APPEARANCE AS JUST FOR LAUGHS GALA HOST
BILL BROWNSTEIN on William Shatner
In this very galaxy not that long ago, William Shatner had to spend many a day and night trying to dodge overzealous Trekkies (Trekkers, if you will) sporting Spock ears and Vulcan masks (then again, maybe they weren’t masks).
Not that N.D.G.’s gift to the worlds of acting, sci-fi and the surreal didn’t appreciate the ardour of these fans, but there is far more to the man than his Captain Kirk alter ego from the iconic Star Trek series. On the other hand, if he had a buck for every Spock-eared goof who requested that Shatner “beam me up,” he probably could have retired several light years ago.
But he didn’t. Rather, Shatner, 76, reinvented himself and as a result, goes boldly where few actors, even those half his age, still go. To work. He sings, he dances, he shills, he acts.
Some 55 years in the biz, and there’s still no stopping him. It may often be self-parody, but he is most certainly a bigger star today than he was when navigating through the stars and cruising the cosmos decades back on Star Trek. He has the silverware to prove it: two Emmy Awards, among others, for his work as the batty barrister on the hit series Boston Legal.
Plus, you know you’ve made a cratersized impact when you are the subject of the doc How William Shatner Changed the World and when you are singled out for a little love and a lot of basting in The Uncensored Roast of William Shatner
“Honestly, I attribute all my longevity and success to Canadian meat and vegetables – organic vegetables, that is. Oh, and can’t forget those fabulous Canadian blueberries, so rich in anti-oxidants, from Ste. Agathe,” says Shatner, perhaps tongue-quite-a-bit-in-cheek, in a phone interview. He’s in his trailer, waiting to return to the Boston Legal set in Hollywood, and he’s in a particularly buoyant frame.
Shatner returns to his hometown Saturday to host two Just for Laughs galas at Theatre St. Denis. Seven years ago, the first and last time he served as master of ceremonies for a gala, Shatner cracked up the house with his “I am Canadian” routine – a wacky take on the Molson Canadian beer ad of yore. “I can’t take all the credit. They wrote some kind of inspired material for me,” he says. “It’s all about the material and I’m hoping for more of same this time.”
Some of the material written for the 2000 gala referred to the then-renaming of McGill’s Student Union as the William Shatner Building. “I just hope the building is earthquake-proof and has sprinkler heads,” he cracks. “I spent four great years at McGill, diligently trying to play football and act at the same time while pursuing women and studies – about in that order, too.”
But the Festival City that is Montreal today is not the one that Shatner recalls from his formative years. “Not at all. The city I remember was for me mostly in the west end. The city today seems like such a welcome place.”
“It’s not just the quality of the music and comedy at the festivals, but it’s the way the city has laid itself out as such an endearing spot to spend time.”
Despite the fact Late Late Show host and Just for Laughs alumnus Craig Ferguson selected him as his favourite Canadian humorist, Shatner doesn’t think of himself as a comedian per se. But he does have interesting views on Canadian comedy. “What’s funny is that Canadians aren’t perceived as being funny, yet many of the best comics in America are Canadians. It’s a bit of a dichotomy. It’s interesting that many think that Canada is so dour, but it’s Canadians like Mike Myers, David Steinberg and Jim Carrey who’ve helped foster comedy everywhere.”
Perhaps Ferguson picked Shatner as his fave Canadian comic based on his Boston Legal work. “There’s no question that what we do on Boston Legal is really amusing, but it’s also quite meaningful, too,” Shatner says. “James Spader (the show’s costar) and I looked at each other at the end of a scene the other day and he made the remark that, what other TV show writes scenes like this? We couldn’t come up with another name.”
Shatner is hoping to catch a break from his Boston Legal shooting schedule in order to stay in Montreal for more than a weekend. “Except for two sisters and a few relatives, I really don’t know too many people in the city,” he notes. “But the garlic spare-ribs are calling out for me and I have to heed the call.”
As seasoned Montrealers are likely aware, he is referring to the garlic spare-ribs of the longdefunct Ruby Foo’s which have been nearly replicated at Le Chrysantheme downtown. “They must have the Ruby Foo’s spare-ribs under spectrum analysis to determine just how much garlic goes into them.”
Also calling out to Shatner are, natch, Montreal bagels, barbecued chicken and smoked meat. “I’ll tell you just how good the smoked meat is. Over the last few years, I have sent out for loads of smoked meat, and of all the things I have done in four years on Boston Legal, the biggest contribution I have made to the show – more than my dialogue or comedy scenes or meaningful moments – is the smoked meat. All the other stuff pales before that pink mass of Schwartz’s smoked meat.
“Of course, I might need a whole load of bran after eating all that smoked meat in town.”
Fortunately, Shatner knows where to find it. He just happens to be the pitch-man for Kellogg’s Bran Flakes. Ah, when it rains, it pours for the man.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 6:35 a.m.
Monday, July 23, 2007
From the TSN website: http://www.tsn.ca/tools/print_story.asp?id=214226
John Ferguson Sr.
7/21/2007 1:50:24 PM
WINDSOR, Ont. (CP) - Hit first and keep swinging.
That was one of the credos by which former Montreal Canadians enforcer John Ferguson Sr. led his life - on and off the ice.
But while Ferguson made his name as a tough guy in the mid 1960s to early 1970s, the hundreds of mourners who packed the All Saints Anglican Church here Saturday morning remembered a devoted father and husband.
"I strive to emulate my father's traits," said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr., who remembered his dad as an altruistic, caring and compassionate man.
Ferguson, who rarely lost a fight on the ice during his career, succumbed to cancer last Saturday at the age of 68.
"He lived by standards that may seem incongruous to those who don't know him," the younger Ferguson said.
The service began with a family procession punctuated by the sombre sound of bagpipes. And during an emotional eulogy, the younger Ferguson shared some of his favourite memories.
Once, when his father came home with a cast on his fist after an on-ice incident with Eddie Westfall, the younger Ferguson, who was five when his father retired, asked his dad if he'd ever lost a fight on the ice.
"Only to your mom, son," the enforcer replied.
Ferguson Jr. also told the crowded church how his parents met 56 years ago in Vancouver, and how their love and dedication to one another was an inspiration and an example.
"I now know that no boy or family could ever have a better father," he said.
Ted Foreman, a close friend who worked with the elder Ferguson during his tenure as general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, said his friend was like a "good dinner roll - crusty on the outside but soft on the inside."
Ferguson Sr. was diagnosed with prostate cancer in September 2005, and Ferguson's daughter, Joanne, recalled how her father's courage and determination never swayed.
"Cancer is so limited, it cannot cripple love or shatter hope," she said.
Ferguson Sr. was an integral part of a Montreal Canadians squad which won the Stanley Cup five times during his career from 1964 to 1971.
In 500 regular-season games, he accumulated 303 points (145 goals, 158 assists).
His rugged playing style also earned him 1,214 penalty minutes.
Joining the senior Ferguson's four children, 10 grandchildren and hundreds of friends were many familiar faces from the hockey world such as Montreal Canadians legend Serge Savard.
"People have to remember that when John Ferguson played in the American League he was an all-star who scored 40 goals," said Savard, who added Ferguson scored 29 goals one season and shared the ice with the likes of Jean Beliveau.
"Sure, he was a tough player, but he was also a very good player."
Savard was joined by fellow Habs legend Guy Lapointe and NHL dignitaries like Scotty Bowman, Glen Sather, Doug Wilson, Leafs coach Paul Maurice and Phoenix Coyotes centre Mike Ricci.
After retiring as a player, Ferguson Sr. managed and coached the New York Rangers before becoming the Jets general manager - a position he held from 1979 to 1988.
Ferguson, who loved horses from childhood, also managed Windsor Raceway and worked as director of player personnel for the Ottawa Senators.
Up until his death, he worked as a senior scout for the San Jose Sharks.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 10:26 a.m.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
I had really hoped that it wouldn't come to this, but the Russian Foreign Ministry informed the British Ambassador today that 4 British diplomats would be expelled.
While I realise that reciprocity is nearly always the principle at work in affairs such as these, I still regret that the Russians took this step.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 4:33 p.m.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
As much as I dislike Boris Berezovsky, I have no desire to see him bumped off by assassins, especially if the latter are Russians.
The Sun, Daily Telegraph and Times are all reporting today that Berezovsky - acting on a tip from Scotland Yard (or MI5) - fled Britain 3 weeks ago, believing that his life was in imminent danger.
The one thing I find very weird about this is that Scotland Yard would advise a potential target of an assassination attempt to leave Britain - why on earth would they do that? Wouldn't it make more sense to keep him there, under 24-hour watch by MI5, Special Branch and his own security detail?
A bit fishy, no?
Berezovsky's certainly playing a starring role in the British press these days, however. Whether it's the man himself, or his friends and colleagues (Litvinenko, Goldfarb, Gordievsky,) it's the all-BAB show!
Will Ferguson (another Canadian Ferguson on this page?) is a very funny man, who's written some very funny books, among them Why I Hate Canadians, How to Be A Canadian (Even If You Already Are One) and Bastards & Boneheads: Canada's Glorious Leaders Past and Present. Good stuff, especially for my fellow Canadians out there.
Here, to takes on Conrad Black, after the latter's recent conviction for fraud and embezzlement. Ferguson nails it when he states that Canadians are damned pleased about the verdict due to Black's public renunciation of his Canadian citizenship. That's right on the money. Of course, Black's insults to Canada didn't help matters either.
I was I was still in Ottawa, reading Frank, a hilarious publication that was always savage towards "Tubby."
Anyway, here's the piece. I thought it was superb.
July 18, 2007
Canada’s Black Heart
By WILL FERGUSON
FORGET the cowboy. The true all-American hero is the confidence man: breezy, self-invented, ambitious, protean. So too with Canada. Ignore the scarlet-jacketed Mountie who is strong of jaw and pure of heart. Up here, the voyageur — a jaunty, indomitable, unpretentious, rough-hewn New World figure — is closer to the mythical Canadian heart.
But just as the Puritan stands in thin-lipped contrast to the American confidence man, so does the Upper Canadian Anglophile oppose the woodsman. (Never mind that the back-breaking reality for the French-Canadian fur trappers was far removed from this romanticized image. We are dealing with iconography here.)
Which brings us to Conrad Black, Canada’s fallen press baron. Although from Quebec, and therefore technically a Lower Canadian, Mr. Black has a character that is Anglo and Upper all the way through. Though newly convicted on three counts of fraud and one of obstruction, Mr. Black could just as easily be considered as guilty of one crime: hubris. He thought he could bully American prosecutors in the same way he bullied his shareholders.
Standing up to Americans is normally the sort of thing that would endear a Canadian to his countrymen. But not in this case. Instead, there is a quiet feeling of glee among Canadians over Mr. Black’s comeuppance. Not because Mr. Black is rich and powerful or in need of ego deflation. And not because he was revealed to be a swindler on a grand scale. The schadenfreude up here is because Conrad Black — for reasons that were purely Upper Anglo — publicly renounced his Canadian citizenship.
Was Mr. Black’s repudiation of Canada an act of protest against government policies abroad or at home? The seal hunt, say, or the export of cold fronts, prescription medicines and Celine Dion? No, Conrad Black renounced his citizenship in 2001 so that he could dress up as a British lord and play out the ultimate Upper Canadian dream.
Mr. Black was forced to choose between his Canadian-ness and his love for the aristocracy because his entry into the British House of Lords was blocked, you see. Blocked by a French-Canadian voyageur, as it were.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a tough little scrapper from the boonies, refused to allow Mr. Black’s ascent into the higher echelons of snootiness. Canadian citizens, Mr. Chrétien said pointedly, do not accept foreign titles.
Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Black are opposites in any category you care to mention: class, language, culture, diction. Conrad Black is from a wealthy Anglo Montreal family. Mr. Chrétien is from blue-collar Quebec. And their feud played out along Canada’s classic fault line, a conflict between Upper Canadian pretensions and French-Canadian disdain for those very same pretensions.
It ended with Mr. Black stomping off in a huff, rejecting his Canadian citizenship to don the musty robes and puffed up title of Lord Such-and-Such.
Lord Black wasn’t burned in effigy for his apostasy, but he did greatly irk a lot of his former fellow citizens. And there is nothing so frighteningly passive-aggressive as a well-irked Canadian.
More than merely irksome, on a deeper level Conrad Black represents that most Anglo-Canadian of conceits: the blustering royalist, the imperially infatuated capitalist.
Remember the Tories that you Americans hounded out of your country after the War of Independence? In Canada they are known as “Loyalists.” They are considered heroes, men of principle who sacrificed everything except their honor in the face of American mob rule.
The Tories who came north to Canada paid a heavy — and, yes, a heroic — price for their loyalties. They also established a precedent, one that lingers even now. In Lord Black, we see the self-inflicted colonialism, the infatuation with all things British, that has both marked and marred the Canadian character over the years.
From British lord to convicted felon, Mr. Black’s swan dive has been breathtaking. Almost heroic. Even better, he is now asking for his citizenship back, so he can serve his sentence in a Canadian jail. Good luck with that.
In Canada, any disagreement with the United States is typically cast in David and Goliath terms, with the Canadians as beleaguered underdogs and the Americans as rapacious swindlers (see: soft wood lumber, treaties regarding). Remember Ben Johnson, the 1988 Olympics sprinter pumped up on steroids? In Canada, he was the underdog. At least, until he got caught. And Carl Lewis was, well, the American, which by definition made him the villain of the piece.
The War of 1812? Same thing. We were the underdogs. You were the marauders. (I’m told that in American history books you won the War of 1812. Bizarre.)
This whole “Canada as plucky underdog” narrative hasn’t been applied in the case of Lord Black versus the United States, though. Instead, The Beaver, Canada’s gloriously named history magazine, is running a contest to name “the worst Canadian ever,” and sure enough, Mr. Black, having forsaken his own country and been convicted of swindling his shareholders, is one of the top nominees.
Lord Black may find himself bequeathed a new title when the results are announced at the end of July, if only because he reflects so sharply a side of ourselves we so often try to deny: the Anglophilia, the once-defiant but now dated Loyalist mind-set, the yearning for an Old Country that exists only in the imagination.
On the day the verdict was announced an American journalist called me, asking if Conrad Black — aggressive, unapologetic, imperially ambitious — was Canada’s future.
I thought about the ermine robes, the bluster, the House of Lords pretensions. “No,” I said. “Not the future. The past.”
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
I have avoided writing about the entire Litvinenko affair and its fallout, if you'll excuse the last word. I find it all so depressing.
It's depressing due to the possibilities contained therein. If the Russian state, or even just a rogue arm of it, if responsible for the murder, we've entered a frightening new (or old) phase of state development, in which critics can be murdered abroad. It matters little that I think that Litvinenko was patently loony (sorry, but "Putin responsible for 9/11" or, "Putin expelled from KGB for paedophilia?") - murdering citizens of other countries (of which I am a citizen, particularly) is still not something I want the Russian Government to be getting up to, to say the least.
Is it possible that the government is behind the murder? Yes. Does that mean that they definitely did it? No.
Nearly as depressing for me is the possibility that the Russian government had nothing to do with it, meaning that the ...ahem...forceful editorials produced by Edward Lucas and, today, Sir Oleg Gordievsky, are symptomatic of something rather worrying in the press, and not just that of Britain. Although I'm certainly not of one mind with Tony Blair, I have to wonder, "Is there, indeed, a pack mentality?" And, if so, does it mean that a mistaken meme will be played out endlessly, doing damage even after it is refuted?
In the last case, I refer to a particular annoyance of mine that took place during the Orange Revolution: the idea that Russian spetsnaz troops - wearing Ukrainian uniforms - had landed in Kyiv, ostensibly to either shoot protestors, or to simply evacuate Kuchma and his circle to Russia. I was instantly skeptical, mostly due to the inanity of the allegations, especially that 1000 fully armed troops had been flown in on two planes. Clearly, that was impossible. But that didn't kill the story - far from it. Yulia Tymoshenko published an editorial (available here) baldly stating that the troops were here. Mykola Ryabchuk and Boris Tarasyuk went charging out to confront the nefarious Russians, having been tipped off where they were...only to go strangely quiet afterwards. A former U.S. Congressman from Colorado and Jane's Intelligence Digest also chimed in.
But they all got it wrong: Oleksandr Turchinov, installed after the OR as head of the SBU, scotched the story, as did Tymoshenko (sottissimo voce) Taras Kuzio, here.
Or did they get it wrong? One as to ask oneself, "Did they believe the story they were telling?" If they did, then it was a simple, though large, mistake and an apology would have been all that one could reasonably expect. If, however, the rumour was floated, bellowed and kept alive in order to score purely political points, only to be quietly abandoned when the purpose was served, then we have a different kettle of fish, don't you think?
Anyway, the Ukrainian "party" Братство liked the technique so much that they decided to use it, too!
Essentially, Russia was being accused of committing an act of war.
This is similar to the Litvinenko case. Whether a state-backed murder of a British citizen would be considered a criminal act or an act of war is one for the international lawyers. However, Georgia and Estonia have also accused Russia of acts of war, albeit limited or even cyber types of war.
Is it possible that Russia is waging a multi-front "war" against the states it sees as enemies. Alas, yes. Does this mean that it's definitely doing this? No.
Is it possible that there is a group of people who will take action to blacken Russia's image in the West? Yes. Does it mean that it's happening? No.
How are we, the hoi polloi, to know where the truth lies? And, is it akin to Lenin's idea of truth, i.e. that there's a politically useful "truth" - the truth as the Party, or whoever, needs it - quite different from real truth? Is it a case of правда versus истина?
I'm afraid that we can't know.
And then there's the issue of bias. I'll admit upfront that I am not convinced of Russia's guilt in any of the aforementioned cases. To say that I'm not convinced does not mean that I cannot be convinced. However, after the Kyiv spetsnaz debacle, I began to look at sensational articles and editorials in the Press - Ukrainian and elsewhere - with a rather more jaundiced eye.
Well, Sir Oleg will not be accused of mincing words! He states unequivocally that the Russian state and Putin himself were behind the murder. A strong statement and, for all I know, a true statement. But I demand more than his editorial to convince me, sorry. Apart from what seems to be a mix-up of actual executors in the 1978 Markov assassination (surely it was the Bulgarian state security service that did the job, assisted by Soviet KGB labs,) he leaves me a bit cold with his assertion that his "friend" Litvinenko's often wacky "criticism" of the Kremlin and Putin was read by "too many." How many would that be, considering how few had ever heard of him, until he died?
Daniel Finkelstein, from The Times:
He sees the murder as "a brazen attempt to silence a Kremlin critic." Again, I'm not convinced that Litvinenko was silenced because he reamed Putin. A phrase that really jumps out if his criticism of Russia "parading of a constitutional ban on the extradition of Russian citizens." Why use that word, parading? The intent looks to be to make it all seem rather cheap and tawdry of the Russians to remember that there is such a clause in the constitution.
That said, I'll go on record to say that I would like Lugovoi extradited to stand trial in a British court. The outcome of that trial would sertainly go a long way towards convincing me of Russia's guilt or innocence in the Litvinenko case. Why? Mostly due to the fact that I do believe in the British courts. Unfortunately, extradition seems now less likely than ever.
(note to self: less rambling, please)
Although I realise that I'm supposed to be writing about Eastern Europe, I feel obliged to share good things when I come across them
As a bit of a podcast junkie, especially regarding BBC podcasts, I would like to recommend Front Row Interview (among others.) It's normally 2-3 rather in-depth and always interesting interviews with political or cultural figures from around the world.
It just so happens that the latest issue kicks off with an exceptional interview of another of my heroes, fellow Montreal boy and fellow McGill alumnus Leonard Cohen. What an utterly fascinating man.
I like to think of him as a classmate: on the same day that I received my McGill B.A. in a sweltering Place Des Arts, Leonard was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters. I spoke to him once in a lovely bar on St-Laurent called La Cabane.
Anyway, in this interview, he tells with great warmth and wit about his creative process, his time spent in a Buddhist monastery, his troubles with money (after having been ripped off by his manager) and many other things.
Do yourself a favour and download it at: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/rmhttp/downloadtrial/radio4/frontrowinterview/rss.xml
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 10:42 a.m.
Ferguson was a force on and off the ice
TOOK ON ANYONE He also proved to be a great hockey mind
WAYNE SCANLAN CANWEST NEWS SERVICEOTTAWA CITIZEN
OTTAWA – Bobby Hull knew the fury of those fists. Hull, the great left winger of the Chicago Blackhawks of the 1960s and ’70s, had more than one bloody encounter with John Ferguson of the Canadiens.
At news that one of his fiercest adversaries had succumbed to cancer during the weekend, Hull was struck, above all, by a renewed sense of his mortality. Ferguson was 68. “It’s a shame when a guy has to suffer as long as he did,” Hull said yesterday from his home near Kingston, Ont. “I feel for his family and close friends.
“Every time another soldier falls, it brings us closer to the wall,” Hull said. “I’m going to be 69 in January. Where has the time gone?”
Hull respected Ferguson for his work as an NHL enforcer, although it might have cost Hull’s Blackhawks a Stanley Cup. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Canadiens and Blackhawks met three times in the final, and Montreal won all three.
The grace of Jean Béliveau, the speed of the Canadiens, the goaltending of Gump Worsley and Charlie Hodge (1965), and then Ken Dryden (1971, ’73) were factors.
But in that ’65 meeting, it was a beating put on Eric Nesterenko by Ferguson that swung the series. Whether accidentally or with a purpose, Nesterenko brought his stick down on Ferguson’s head in Game 5 – and paid for it with three vicious rights to the face by Ferguson.
Bleeding profusely, Nesterenko went off for “repairs,” and did return, but sheepishly. Montreal won the game 6-0, and though the Blackhawks pushed the series to the limit, their will was gone. Chicago fell in Game 7, 4-0.
Béliveau, the Canadiens’ captain, gave credit to Ferguson’s “hammering fists” for the role they played in that championship. Not exactly the image of the “firewagon” Canadiens of that era, but an honest assessment by Le Gros Bill.
In an eight-year NHL career, Ferguson won five Stanley Cups. He left the Canadiens on poor terms in 1971, not happy with his experience under head coach Al MacNeil, despite winning the Cup that season.
Though Ferguson twice scored 20 or more goals, proving his value beyond a mere goon, there were certainly better players. Arguably, there might have been tougher ones, though not many.
Other than Rocket Richard, there might not have been a player as intense as Ferguson.
Dick Irvin tells the story of Ferguson staggering into a postgame interview like a wild animal.
This was in 1967, when Irvin was a rookie on Hockey Night In Canada.
The Canadiens had swept the New York Rangers in four games, and Ferguson scored the overtime winner in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden.
Irvin waited five long minutes for the post-series handshake ritual – plenty of time for the average player to calm down. Not Ferguson. “I thought the guy was going to pass out,” Irvin said. “His eyes were rotating in his head, he couldn’t get his breath, he was hyperventilating.
“I asked him a particularly long question, to let him catch his breath, and I made sure it was a ‘yes/no’ question, so he could gather himself. But he scared me. I didn’t know if he was going to hit me – he was gasping for breath.
“It was just the moment. He was still caught up in scoring that big goal.”
Béliveau would say Ferguson was every bit as intimidating to Montreal’s players as he was to the opposition. He demanded a measure of his own intensity in his teammates.
In his off-ice roles, the fire still burned within.
It was Ferguson, as an assistant coach of Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, who encouraged Bobby Clarke to take out Valeri Kharlamov, the gifted Soviet forward.
When Ferguson was general manager of the Winnipeg Jets of the NHL, Irvin remembers being in the visitor’s radio booth when a shower of white paper flew out of the GM’s booth beside him, as a frustrated Fergie responded to a situation on the ice.
For a fighter with limited hockey gifts, Ferguson showed a remarkable versatility after retiring as a player. Equally adept at judging race horses and rising hockey talent, Ferguson coached the Rangers and then stepped in to become the face of the Jets, in the World Hockey Association and NHL, for a decade beginning in the late 1970s.
In an odd twist, Ferguson won an Avco Cup as GM of the Jets in their final WHA season, with Bobby Hull, his old nemesis, starring at left wing.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 10:39 a.m.
Monday, July 16, 2007
I read today (http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/news_story/?ID=213602&hubname=) of the death of John Ferguson, one of my childhood heroes from the Montreal Canadiens. The link gives you a brief look at his career, but I highly recommend the two video links contained therein, especially the second, which has interviews with Serge Savard and Yvan Cournoyer, giving their takes on the man's greatness.
Of course, there are those who might see John Ferguson as a villain, not least for his role in the Bobby Clarke hacking of Valerii Kharlamov's ankle at a pivotal moment in the 1972 Canada-USSR series. I can understand that point of view, especially as I've always had a very healthy respect for Soviet and Russian teams (and even adapted an old Red Wings' home jersey to a Soviet Jersey, with Kharlamov's name on the back,) but I have reasons other than purely sporting to be a fan of the big man.
My grandmother, an immigrant to Canada from England, lived in the Haddon Hall apartments, literally around the corner from the old (and one and only) Montreal Forum.) As I often used to go to her place after school to walk her dogs, I often used to see members of the Habs' walking back to the Forum from lunch, or before a game. I can't describe what an 8 year-old boy feels at moments like that: not only seeing one's heroes (nay, GODS) in the flesh, but saying "hello" to them and having them say "Hi, kid" back. Incredible. Beliveau, Henri "the Pocket Rocket" Richard, Cournoyer, Dryden, Jacques Laperierre, etc. and all within touch.
My grandmother herself was - inexplicably for an English woman who had never seen ice hockey until she was well into her 50s - also an enormous fan of the Canadiens. On her bedside table, there were only two photos: one of her dear, departed husband, and the other of none other than Ken Dryden, duly autographed by the man himself. My father once made a near-fatal mistake, by criticizing Dryden's play during a game. He got off lightly: my grandmother didn't speak to him for a week, but probably contemplated more serious sanctions.
I was with my grandmother at Alexis Nihon Plaza (directly across Atwater Avenue from the Forum) in 1972, when we spied John Ferguson entering the building. She nearly shoved me forward, knowing that I would have otherwise been too shy to get his autograph. Naturally, as he must have done thousands of times in his career, he was only too happy to give me his autograph, asked me whether I played hockey and where (I did, for Terrebonne Park, and terribly) and, in general, made my week.
I'm very sorry that this man, great in my opinion, is now gone. His legend lives on, in the hearts of millions of Habs' fans and those of the Canadiens' opponents.
R.I.P John Ferguson.
UPDATE: Here's another tribute to JF, from a super hockey history blog, http://hockeystoughguys.blogspot.com/2006/05/john-ferguson.html
I've decided that it's high time that I get back to this blogging thing. In my absence, a lot has been going on in the area that garners my greatest interest (Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia,) and it's time to post some preliminary conclusions.
Also, there's some news on the friends and family side of things: all good (touch wood,) I'm pleased to report.
But where to begin?
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 11:10 a.m.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Not enough to make me forget the Habs' being out of the playoffs, but the Canadian women winning the World Championship - and in such an emphatic fashion - goes a long way!
Read all about it: http://www.tsn.ca/canadian_hockey/news_story/?ID=203676&hubname=
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 2:38 p.m.
Sunday, April 08, 2007
- the play of Chris Higgins and the whole "CAT Line"
- Saku Koivu is still the man
- Sheldon Souray setting the record for power-play goals by a defenceman
- Jarolslav Halak showed the makings of a good goalie
- we're out of the &!^#%! playoffs
- Souray is likely to leave the Habs in the off-season
- Alex Kovalev played like a twit for a great deal of the season
Oh well. I'll now be cheering for Canada's team in the World Women's Hockey Championship - go get 'em!
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 2:58 p.m.
Saturday, April 07, 2007
I took these today, as I ambled down to the Main Post Office to check my mailbox.
The first shows what looks like a pretty even split between the supporters of the Party of Regions and Socialists.
This one shows the Yanukovich supporters drawn up in ranks, getting ready to march off somewhere (I think they went to the Central Electoral Commission.) They were well marshalled by party activists, who had them moving off in sections. One older fellow was well drunk, but he was the only one I saw. All in all, I found it very hard to tell them from the supporters of BYuT or NSNU that one sees, as a great many seemed to be of university age.
Most importantly, it seems as though the supporters of all sides have been very well behaved.
I couldn't tell what was happening on the stage, but there were sounds emanating from it akin to Tuvan throat singing. From where I was standing, the sound quality was very poor, but if that was a speaker, he should be nominated for Boring Drone of the Year.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 6:36 p.m.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Contradictory signs, so far. Baloga says he's ready to draw up the presidential decree; Tymoshenko comes whipping back to Kiev; the Party of Regions appears to be preparing a contingency plan; but Yushchenko looks to be dithering, as usual, but may well be leaning towards dissolution.
Ukrainian politics are absolutely fascinating.
I'll go out on a limb to say that I've never really liked Yulia Tymoshenko. I just don't trust her. So, take these items with a grain of salt, if you must.
Any of you with an abiding interest in Ukraine have probably come to appreciate Украинская правда as a source of information (and entertainment) on full-contact Ukrainian politics. It's a great source and I recommend it highly.
Here, the paper prints an interesting story about how a Lviv-based Tymoshenko party paper allegedly "edited" a plagiarised interview, in order to remove bits critical of Tymoshenko, as well as falsified a part, in order to praise her. UP claims that, when asked for an explanation, the editor of the paper in question admitted excising the criticism, saying (paraphrase) "after all, we're a party paper."
Украинская правда also reports that Tymoshenko's aunt has filed a lawsuit against Viktor Yuschenko, for violating her rights by not dissolving the Verkhovna Rada. Eh?
Lastly, Yulia's latest visit to Paris has been cut short - see here.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I confess to a less-than-complete understanding of Latvian history and contemporary issues with Russia. I do, however, have a friend who understands them very well and has spoken eloquently on them, time and again.
The border treaty issue has been exercising him for some time and I think I finally understand why. With the treaty due to be signed, Latvia, in essence, not only turns its back on a piece of land forcibly taken from her, but also hamstrings itself, to an extent, in its ongoing struggle to have Russia recognise the fact that Latvia was forcibly incorporated into the USSR, leading to horrors of deportation and decades of subjugation.
I join him in wishing that Russia could recognise its sins of the past, if only for the sake of - I fervently hope - a brighter future.
For those who would like a much more in-depth look at this, and other, Latvian questions, I heartily recommend my friend's blog, Marginalia .
Monday, March 26, 2007
From The Guardian, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/turkey/story/0,,2042846,00.html
The "money quote":
Turkey's increasingly important regional leadership role is also changing the way it views the EU. As a vital transit hub, it provides much of Europe's oil and gas from the Caspian basin, Russia and, prospectively, the Turkic republics of central Asia. This is leading to closer cooperation with Moscow and reviving ideas of a Turkic Commonwealth from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan.
Now, I have to admit something of a bias, inasmuch as I've always liked the Turks, despite the danger of saying such a thing, in light of the continuing vicious debate over the Armenian genocide, Kurdish issues, Cyprus, etc. While these issues are clearly important and even painful for many, they have no real effect upon my basic affinity for all of the Turks I've ever met.
Apart from liking the people themselves, Istanbul has become one of my two favourite cities to visit in the world (the other being London.) Istanbul is simply staggering in the breadth of history a visitor feels just wandering around. I could happily spend a couple of weeks in a cheap and nasty Kumkapi hotel, just to have the opportunity to see more of this timeless city. Best of all, Aerosvit offers a superb rate from Kiev to Istanbul - $270, with all taxes included. Hard to beat that.
So, I'd like to see Turkey in the EU. And I do agree with the gist of the paragraph above: surely an EU largely dependent upon foreign oil and gas is not going to poke Turkey in the eye?
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 11:41 a.m.
I'm not above tub-thumping for my home and native land. I love Canada and am thoroughly unashamed of saying so.
What is especially nice is to see that others, apparently, think of us in a rather good light as well.
That said, what is one to make of the awful rating for Israel? Or of the fact that The U.S. and Russia score nearly the same in positives, but that the U.S. rates worse among the negatives? The U.S. scores worse than North Korea. Yikes.
Perhaps those results, as well as the Canada-love, is more reflective of demonisation and idealisation, respectively?
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 9:23 a.m.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Found at http://www.cacianalyst.org/newsite/?q=node/70
Hey! The author's a fellow McGill alum!
WORKER RIOT AT THE TENGIZ OILFIELD: WHO IS TO BLAME?
By Saulesh Yessenova (02/21/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)
Tengiz, known for expanding oil production and a bribery scandal involving top officials and prominent shareholders, made different headlines last fall. This was in relation to a mass riot that broke out on 20 October between domestic workers and foreign nationals. The situation was reportedly ‘under control’ within hours, which lends credibility to eyewitness accounts asserting that it caused little surprise among locals and that the oil company, its subcontractors, and, perhaps, the state were prepared for a prompt response to minimize anticipated damage. If so, then was the riot, which claimed several lives and left hundreds injured, preventable?
BACKGROUND: The riot is said to have begun as a personal incident that enthused a massive fight, where Turkish nationals incurred most casualties. Reports and expert assessments have recognized socio-economic disparities that caused the violence. Still, ethnic animosities and the wild rush on the part of Kazakh workers have been captured more intensely than the situation regarding business and labor at Tengiz. This riot is the second serious disturbance at Tengiz, following the one in April 2005. Both centered on the Senimdi Kurylis (SK), a lead contractor of PFD UK and a major player in the construction of the Second Generation Project (SGP) for TengizChevroil (TCO). Both riots have grown out of the increased pressure generated by unresolved labor issues, indicating the absence of mechanisms of labor regulation and conflict resolution at Tengiz. The state and TCO have been aware of systematic corruption and labor discrimination and abuse at the Tengiz Rotation Village, an industrial base patronized by the oil company that hosts its subcontractors and their workers. Yet, no sensible effort has been made to create a more just and transparent environment at Tengiz in response to the earlier labor protests, which made the latest riot so predictable. As such, it appears to be a calculated choice on the part of corporate business and the state both interested in sustaining upward resource redistribution around the oilfield. Industry sources declare TCO to be one of the most dynamic hydrocarbon enterprises in the world. Its steady expansion over the past decade, and especially the launch of the Second Generation Project in 2004 with an estimated cost of $4 billion, boosted business activities around Tengiz. At present, TCO sustains the operations of nearly 100 companies; 14,000 employees are engaged in Tengiz worksites daily. Oddly enough, the economic boom that significantly increased business market and labor demand has been accompanied by recurrent labor conflicts at Tengiz. They began in the mid-1990s with TCO workers calling for more equitable labor arrangements and representation. None of their demands were met by any measure; however, a TCO union, which enjoyed strong support at a grassroots level, enabled peaceful negotiations. Anti-union corporate measures and the ambivalent position of the state subsequently curtailed organized labor. The decline of unionism meant the end of wage expansion at TCO and the beginning of a downward spiral of wages and work conditions among its subcontractors that eventually backfired with violent labor protests. Tengiz employees work 11-12 hours every day, carrying out extended shifts. Even local residents are required to be in camp residence despite their homes’ physical proximity to the worksite. Foreign employers have come to appreciate the situation when all employees engaged in the work process stay at the company premises day and night, since it provides the administration with the most direct means of control. This system, however, increases operational costs. Senimdi Kurylis, claiming 2,500 workers, is the second largest employer after TCO and a sponsor company to 60 other subcontractors. The company responded with transfer of the burden of the non-standard work pattern to its employees: it stripped domestic workers from paid time off, compensation for room and board and transportation to the worksite, as well as accident insurance. In 2005, the amounts SK retained in the form of unpaid benefits nearly doubled the amounts actually paid to workers. This illegal practice of benefit retention has widened the economic and social gap between domestic and foreign workforces, a prime motivation behind the riots. SK also disenfranchised Kazakhstan’s nationals by disregarding professional qualification, experience, and task complexity as the basis for calculating wages, which boosted corruption: human resource officers are said to routinely retain first- and even second-month salaries earned by those whose paperwork they process. In 2005, the average wage of a domestic worker, based on a 28-day shift and overtime work was below 30,000 tenge ($230), i.e., less than $1/hour. In terms of a standard work schedule, based on 40 hours of labor per a week, this pay is located below the legally enforced minimal wage in Kazakhstan.
IMPLICATIONS: In 2004-2005, Tengiz witnessed a series of localized labor protests that were contained by means of company security. The dispute in April 2005 began in a similar way; however, it spread out, igniting a massive strike that involved 3,000 domestic laborers demanding fair compensation and respectful treatment. The protest spilled over the gender divide: hundreds of female workers, employees of canteens and maintenance companies, joined the male-driven protest, embarking on a strike against labor discrimination as well. The state was appalled when learning about the magnitude of legal abuse at Tengiz; its subsequent actions, however, were inconsequential, producing inept initiatives that did not help to improve the situation and severely circumscribed its authority around Tengiz. In the aftermath of the 2005 riot, local authorities expressed their unease with poor conditions at the Tengiz Rotation Village, hosting subcontractors and their workers. TCO has claimed no responsibility, pointing out that it is located outside the corporate property. At the same time, the oil company declined a proposed plan to increase the state’s control at the Village, which was feared to threaten the autonomy and integrity of TCO’s economic activities, protected by its contract with the state. A core crude producer in the country, TCO generates $200 million of annual revenues for the national budget, and the completion of SGP construction is expected to significantly increase oil profits. The state settled the case with a small office in charge of labor-management relations and workplace regulation that focused on the grievances of individual workers. State authorities came to think that should they reinforce the law, it would “hurt” business, pushing many subcontractors out of the Tengiz market, and might even cause highly undesirable work delays just like the riot did by paralyzing the entire construction process. SK has never been charged or even properly inspected. Along with the other companies, it has been allowed to harbor corrupted practices and systematic labor discrimination and abuse that brought another wave of violence in October 2007.
CONCLUSIONS: The situation created at Tengiz points to a dysfunctional relationship between business, labor, and the state, placing the oil project at odds with the ideas of economic and human development. The economic growth trend observed around Tengiz in the past few years has brought no sensible advantages to the domestic labor force that can be translated into long-term gain. This is a direct outcome of an earlier corporate effort to dissolve organized labor at TCO and its continuous strategy to insulate Tengiz from outside interference, while the state has appeared to play along, seemingly prioritizing oil profits over labor development and justice. In June 2007 – the anticipated date of SGP completion, leaving behind thousands of workers beyond company gates without any mechanism that would help to mediate their situation. Other hydrocarbon projects in Kazakhstan, for example, those in Aktobe and Uralsk, have been recently rationalized in a fashion similar to Tengiz. The problems that Tengiz workers have faced therefore are not limited to a single project site; instead, they have direct relevance to other oil enterprises across the Caspian Basin and, perhaps, elsewhere in the world.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Saulesh Yessenova received her Ph.D. at McGill University in 2003. At present she is a fellow at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. She conducts her research in Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea Basin.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 1:20 p.m.
I find Stratfor to be pretty much hit-and-miss, not necessarily "predictive" or "insightful", as they like to describe their podcasts. And their announcer's absolutely horrendous mispronunciation of Russian names is enough to drive one mad. A recent podcast, however, set me to thinking.
In it (the March 13th edition,) they suggest that Russia does not intend to ever complete the Busherhr project in Iran. By refusing to do so, they maintain leverage over both Iran and the USA, and play a bigger role on the world stage. The USA will have to play nice, to avoid pushing Russia to continue the technology transfer, as will Iran, if it ever wants the project done.
It certainly sounds possible. Anyone else want to discuss this one? I'm looking at you, Vilhelm.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 12:15 p.m.
As a subscriber to the Action Ukraine report (an often tendentious, but welcome sort of JRL for Ukraine, subscribable by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org) I received this on Monday.
I had read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian last year, so this rather piqued my interest. While it's not the greatest book I've ever read by a long shot - not even the best in the past few months, that honour being held by A Confederacy of Dunces -- I found it a very enjoyable read. And isn't that the most important thing?
And, anyway, I found this to be a rather charming story.
HER DARE-DEVIL LITERARY LEAP FROM TRACTORS TO CARAVANS: PROFILE OF AUTHOR MARINA LEWYCKA
PROFILE: Of novelist Marina Lewycka First Novel: "A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian"The Sunday Times, London, UK, Sunday, March 18, 2007
High-octane wit and sparkiness helped boost Marina Lewycka's improbably named first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, into a runaway bestseller. Her uproarious comedy of manners made nearly every must-read list and was even the No 1 choice of holidaying Labour MPs.
Two years on, the imminent publication of her follow-up book is prompting speculation over whether the 60-year-old author has fulfilled the highexpectations of fans.
Writing a successful second novel can be a difficult trick to pull off.Muriel Spark's follow-up, Robinson, was her worst book by far. Neither Monica Ali nor Zadie Smith were given rapturous receptions the second time around. Often, a writer's best efforts are eclipsed by the starburst of hype surrounding their initial discovery.
The first shots in a likely critical battle over Lewycka's new tragicomedy Two Caravans, published this week, were fired in The Times.
The reviewer either had a sense of humour failure that day or was critically unsparing, accusing the author of playing for "cheap laughs" and indulging in linguistic "caricature" reminiscent of Manuel from Fawlty Towers.
But it will take more than one critic to shatter Lewycka's belief that she is about to stretch her literary wings.
"Publishing one's first novel at 58 is both wonderful and terrifying," she said. "Terrifying, because I feel this sense of urgency now. I have so little writing time left, and so many things I want to write."
Such aspirations are only natural after being shortlisted for the 2005Orange prize for fiction and winning the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse award.
A Ukrainian born in a refugee camp in Germany before growing up in Yorkshire, she had been contemplating retirement from her job as a lecturer on media and public relations at Sheffield Hallam University when her quaint debut novel made her a rich woman who could take her pick of literary festivals and foreign tours.
People who meet Lewycka tend to fall in love with her warmth and sense ofhumour. "She is extremely likable and funny, without any pretension," said one. "She lives in the same house in Sheffield and has the same friends."
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is the infectiously funny tale of the ructions within a dysfunctional Ukrainian immigrant family in Britain when the ageing widower Nikolai is beguiled by a young, grasping Ukrainian divorcee with Botticellian breasts who marries him to get a British passport. Nikolai's quarrelling daughters unite to resist the "fluffy pink grenade" who explodes in their midst.
Two Caravans deals with another kind of economic migrant - workers on strawberry farms exploited by gangmasters. Here is a larger cast of characters, including Irina, just off the coach from Kiev and eager to find true love with a romantic Englishman, two Chinese girls and an 18-year-old from Malawi who has come to England to look for her sister.
Lewycka would have been happy to write a sequel to the Tractors book, she admitted. "But everyone advised me against it, saying that sequels inevitably compare badly with the original. They said I should write something completely different but exactly the same - a tall order, but Ihope I've pulled it off."
That's precisely what she has done, according to Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times fiction editor - an indication that a battle of reviewers lies ahead."Her last book was entertaining, but this one is better," Kemp said.
"It's a very buoyant, witty and informative book about the horrible jobs that people from eastern Europe and Africa find themselves trapped in. It's a stylised comedy and not meant to be social realism. In fact I admire the way she had managed to moderate the tone."
For the disparate ensemble of Two Caravans she found inspiration in Chaucer - one of her favourite poets, along with Shakespeare, Donne and Keats. Unlike Chaucer, she writes mainly in bed, from early morning until lunchtime. "It's to do with the business of being in a separate world," she explained.
Her "lovely" husband, a mining consultant who once worked for the National Union of Mineworkers, brings her porridge. ("He works at home, too, though not in bed.") She then places her laptop on the tray, which rests on a beanbag to protect her from its heat.
The couple, who have a grown-up daughter, were 1960s left-wing activists who met in the London commune where Lewycka was living. "It was all a bit sordid," she recalled. "When my mother visited, she would come down the stairs with a dustpan and brush."
One of the two unpublished books in her drawer was a serious political novel that she hoped would "change the world".
"I sent it to everybody, but no one wanted it. It was so mortifying." She started writing Tractors about 10 years ago, but her lucky break came when she joined a free MA creative writing course at her university.
The students' novels were sent out to an external examiner, who also happened to be an agent. Bill Hamilton, of A M Heath, recalled: "Her bookwas extremely polished.
She had the attention of the tutors, all of whom were well established novelists who gave wonderful hands-on support and advice. That's what gave her the confidence to complete it."
Lewycka not only presented Hamilton with a fully fledged book, but also a title that stood out as strikingly original. It initially caused some bookshops to shelve the novel in their agriculture sections, and Amazon to list it under science and technology.
She even suggested the cover, arriving at a lunch with some "lovely, rather naive Christmas cards to show the rather incompetent Ukrainian artwork that she thought would be a good style", Hamilton said.
Her acclaim in Britain was in stark contrast to the sense of alienation she experienced in Yorkshire as a child. "I got picked on. They call it dual heritage now: you're one person with your friends, another with your family." Her parents ate borscht and spoke a strange language.
She was born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, at the end of the second world war, the younger daughter of Ukrainian refugees. She was too young to remember the camp.
"As I understand, when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, they took a lot of able-bodied people to labour camps. My parents were part of that. At the end of the war, they met through the Red Cross. I was the product of that union."
They came to England because the camp was in a part of Germany that had been liberated by the British in order to escape Stalin's Soviet Union where a grisly fate often awaited prisoners of war and labourers.
Her father was an eccentric who, like Nikolai, had written a book about tractors. She thought the notion was hilarious. "But once I started looking into the world of tractor enthusiasts, I got hooked. Tractors lack glamour,but they feed the human race and they changed the world."
She has been writing for as long as she can remember. She composed her first poem at the age of four and a pile of rejection slips attest to her perseverance. "It's a compulsion. I have a story and I have to tell it. I'm an Ancient Marina, in fact."
Before Lewycka's mother died, Marina taped their conversations, hoping to write her story. But the war was taboo for both her parents, and she created a blend of fact and fiction in Tractors.
It was only when she began researching Tractors that she realised she had a family in Ukraine. Her parents had lost contact with their relatives and believed that had all died in the second world war.
Chancing upon a Russian family-search website, she posted a query and several months later three Cyrillic e-mails appeared in her inbox, purporting to be from relatives. "This must be an e-mail scam," she thought.
But the letters that arrived next took her breath away. There were photographs of her parents as children and sepia photos of unknown grandparents, aunts and uncles - "men with long moustaches and women in crepe de Chine dresses and amazing hats". And an invitation: "Marinochka, please come!"
Her cousin Yuri met her in Kiev and took on her on a magical mystery tour of her family in his old BMW. "I have an intense sense of homecoming," she wrote. There was her father's dilapidated old house with its earth closet at the back, and an 86-year-old neighbour who burst into tears.
"She tells us what she remembers: that the old Lewyckyjs were loved by everybody; that the Germans tried to drive the whole population into the River Bug as a reprisal for two soldiers killed by partisans." The whole experience, she said later, was "like stepping into the pages of my own book".
She can only watch helplessly as the pages of her latest work are dissected.But those who know Lewycka have little doubt that she will observe theadvice she gives to literary late-starters and those with other dreams to fulfil: "Keep going, keep going. It's not too late."
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 11:56 a.m.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Having had a bad enough night on Saturday, when Scotland gave up three tries to Italy in seven minutes and wound up losing the match, things got worse on Monday.
When in Almaty, I frequent an Internet cafe called Cafemax. It's really very good: big, clean, bright, well equipped, etc. Even the coffee is pretty darned good.
So, there I was, well ensconced in my favourite corner, when two groups of young lads came in, taking up two tables on either side of me. Now, I'm getting older, but I'm not yet a crotchety old man. Still, to hear these kids (they were all about 17-18) depressed me: they spoke in nothing but Russian мат. That strikes me, in an Enoch Powell-y sort of way, as a real degradation of the culture.
The work that I was doing in the cafe made my mood even worse. I was doing a Russian to English translation of a monitoring and evaluation report of an international programme to support Kyrgyz environmental NGOs. These things are normally written in a rather flowery way, bearing very little relation to the facts on the ground, but making everyone -- especially the faraway governmental aid agencies -- feel very good about themselves and allowing them to continue to draw public funds for doing something they appear to know very little about.
What struck me about the report was that it pointed out just how little has changed in the 11 years since I first arrived here to work on a USAID-funded NGO support project. The same old tired approaches, the same complaints and recommendations ("more funding," "help us connect with other donor organisations, etc.") from the NGOs. I felt sure that I could have simply substituted a report from my earlier time here, and that no one would have noticed the difference. How many more "bulletins" (largely unread, in my experience,) can the taxpayers of the U.S.A., Europe or Canada fund? How many more times must a new programme be established, without even a cursory attempt to learn from the minimal success, and much more frequent failure, of previous programmes, to achieve the Golden Fleece of the conventional aid world - "impacts" and "success stories."
Working in Uzbekistan brought those issues into sharp relief. We were under constant pressure from our Washington office, and from the local and Central Asian USAID Missions, to come up with success stories. Not "successes," mind you. I would obviously agree that "success" is what we were all looking for, but this was "success STORIES." This involved taking some completely insignificant event, which we funded, and "spinning" it into a notable success for democracy, women's rights, etc. I even received two wiggings for not being "creative enough" in my reporting of these alleged impacts. No one was interested in knowing that we were NOT making even the slightest dent in the general repressiveness, poverty, extrordinarily poor health care system (more about that in an upcoming post, or anywhere else. Honestly, it looked as though we were just trying to shove money out the door, reaping the vast overheads for the D.C. offices, and not really caring a fig about what was really happening.
When Matt Bivens, who -- prior to working for the Moscow Times -- had worked for a USAID-funded market reform project in Almaty and written (hilariously) about the experience in Harper's (the article, titled "Aboard the Gravy Train," may still be someone in online archives,) he provoked a furious response from the USAID Central Asia Mission, but one that was extremely unconvincing and fell strangely flat. Why? Because Matt was right on the money - U.S. tax money, for that matter.
"Blame," such as it is belongs to both sides. NGOs need to understand that, until they become relevant to their own "constituencies," no amount of foreign aid can make them sustainable. Enough of the "experts" taking charge of a disadvantaged community's agenda (oft unrealised by the community itself,) and spinning it into a money-maker for themselves and relatives. The only NGOs worthy of respect, in my view, are those in which people with a real stake in the expected outcomes are involved. Special Olympics in Kazakhstan, for example. It's run by parent WITH disabled children, so they have a real stake in improving the lives of their loved ones. There are, of course, other examples, but they're fairly thin on the ground.
On the foreign aid side, how about reading the reports of preceding projects and taking a real look at where they've failed, before attempting exactly the same approaches? As these reports belong to the donor, it's not as if there are any real trade secrets in there that cannot be shared. Perhaps send a few people out who actually speak the language, or languages, of the area at issue? And, for God's sake, try to do a little real monitoring and evaluation, not just a whitewash and all-round pat on the back, but one that looks for what REAL impact a project may have had, or at the reasons for its failures!
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 7:55 a.m.
Friday, February 23, 2007
I can't recommend it highly enough. Sean, along with Eric Sievers, is one one the smartest people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with.
His official blog bio says:
Sean R. Roberts is presently the Central Asian Affairs Fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He has lived in Central Asia on and off since 1989. He has a Masters degree in Visual Anthropology and a Doctorate in Social Anthropology both from the University of Southern California. In addition to conducting extensive research in the Uyghur community of Central Asia, Dr. Roberts also worked for approximately six years at the United States Agency for International Development in Central Asia.
He is all that, but even more, he is an honorary Canadian. His only failing is his refusal to embrace the Montreal Canadiens, preferring to stick with the Buffalo Sabres.
He's been all over Central Asia and we had more than a few good times in Almaty and Tashkent. One, I remember very well (parts of it, anyway). Celebrating Mustakillik (Uzbek Independence Day) in Tashkent, Sean complained of a cold, to which I replied that the only responsible approach would be to drink a bottle of pepper vodka together. We did, then had another. And, possibly, another.
It all ended up with Sean in Nukus discovering that he didn't have a cold, but pneumonia, and my wife asking why I arrived home missing a shoe. The photo shows us before the evil began.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 9:00 a.m.
From RFE/RL Newsline, Vol. 11, No. 34, Part I, 22 February 2007
KAZAKHSTAN THREATENS OIL CONSORTIUM WITH SANCTIONS. EnvironmentalProtection Minister Nurlan Isakov announced on February 21 in Astanathat the Tengizchevroil consortium has one month to put an end toenvironmental violations or it could face a court-ordered workstoppage, Khabar reported. "We reserve the right, if the enterprisedoes not present us shortly, and we'll tell the media about this,with concrete actions in the near future to liquidate sulfurbyproducts in compliance with environmental legislation, we reservethe right to halt the enterprise's activities through the courts," hesaid. Isakov said that Tengizchevroil, which is developing the Tengizoil field, has stockpiled 9 million metric tons of sulfur, APreported. The Chevron-led consortium also includes Exxon Mobil andKazakh state energy company Kazmunaigaz. Oil production at the Tengizfield was 13.3 million metric tons in 2006, with production expectedto double after 2008. DK
I used to work at TCO, and I remember the sulphur storage quite well. If the wind shifted, blowing towards the residential camp (about 15 km from the plant and the sulphur block,) you caught quite a whiff of the stuff. The block of sulphur is truly massive, about the size of a sports stadium.
This is not the first time that the Kazakh authorities have complained about the sulphur storage, nor the first time that TCO has been threatened with sanctions over the issue (and I think they've already paid some rather large fines for it.) TCO responded in the past in a couple of ways.
For one, they took a technological approach, building a plant to re-process the sulphur into flakes and pellets, for sale and use in agriculture. The problem is the Tengiz oil is very rich in sulphur, and the sales (mostly to China, if memory serves) of re-processed sulphur cannot keep pace with the the extraction of oil and build-up of the sulphur block, so it grows.
The other approach was to point out that sulphur is a harmless substance, and that large stores of sulphur can be found in the West, as well (I remember a picture of a sulphur mountain in Vancouver being used).
It seems as though the authorities are either unconvinced, or that they refuse to be convinced.
Tengiz will always come under pretty heavy scrutiny, and not for the sulphur alone. As the recent riots at the site showed, inequality between the pay rates for Kazakh nationals and their foreign counterparts really rankle.
However, there's lots of humour to be found, as well. For those who read Russian, I recommend the following site: http://www.vaxta.ru/ If you're a Westerner easily offended by the opinions of what local nationals think of our work (and other) habits, you may want to give it a miss! They regularly excoriate the company I worked for there (and here in Ukraine,) but you'll be missing some very good humour if you're squeamish.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 7:24 a.m.
Friday, January 19, 2007
London Review of Books, that is. I've been a subscriber for 5 years now and consider it money very well spent. Thoughtful and insightful articles abound, and there's no fear of creating controversy, either; witness last year's brouhaha over the LRB's publication of "The Israeli Lobby."
Here, Perry Anderson takes a deep look at Russian politics, society and culture, without once using the phrase "ex-KGB colonel Putin." How does he do it? Simple: he's neither lazy, nor an idiot, apparently.
You may not agree with everything here - I don't. But isn't it nice to see someone actually putting in an effort in writing about Russia, instead of rumbling out the old, familiar and worn-out phrases like the aforementioned?
LRB | Vol. 29 No. 2 dated 25 January 2007
Russia’s Managed Democracy
Under lowering skies, a thin line of mourners stretched silently outside the funeral hall. Barring the entrance, hulking riot police kept them waiting until assorted dignitaries – Anatoly Chubais, Nato envoys, an impotent ombudsman – had paid their respects. Eventually they were let in to view the corpse of the murdered woman, her forehead wrapped in the white ribbon of the Orthodox rite, her body, slight enough anyway, diminished by the flower-encrusted bier. Around the edges of the mortuary chamber, garlands from the media that attacked her while she was alive stood thick alongside wreaths from her children and friends, the satisfied leaf to leaf with the bereaved. Filing past them and out into the cemetery beyond, virtually no one spoke. Some were in tears. People dispersed in the drizzle as quietly as they came.
The authorities had gone to some lengths to divert Anna Politkovskaya’s funeral from the obvious venue of the Vagankovskoe, where Sakharov is buried, to a dreary precinct on the outskirts that few Muscovites can locate on a map. But how necessary was the precaution? The number of mourners who got to the Troekurovskoe was not large, perhaps a thousand or so, and the mood of the occasion was more sadness than anger. A middle-aged woman, bringing groceries home from the supermarket, shot at point-blank range in an elevator, Politkovskaya was killed for her courage in reporting the continuing butchery in Chechnya. An attempt to poison her had narrowly failed two years earlier. She had another article in press on the atrocities of the Kadyrov clan that now runs the country for the Kremlin, as she was eliminated. She lived and died a fighter. But of any powerful protest at her death, it is difficult to speak. She was buried with resignation, not fury or revolt.
In Ukraine, the discovery of the decapitated body of a journalist who had investigated official corruption, Georgi Gongadze, was sufficient outrage to shake the regime, which was brought down soon afterwards. Politkovskaya was a figure of another magnitude. A better historical comparison might be with the murder of Matteotti by Mussolini in 1924. In Russian circumstances, her moral stature as an opponent of arbitrary power was scarcely less than that of the Socialist deputy. But there the resemblance ends. The Matteotti Affair caused an outcry that nearly toppled Mussolini. Politkovskaya was killed with scarcely a ripple in public opinion. Her death, the official media explained, was either an unfathomable mystery, or the work of enemies of the government vainly attempting to discredit it. The president remarked she was a nobody whose death was the only news value in her life.
It is tempting, but would be a mistake, to see in that casual dismissal no more than the ordinary arrogance of power. All governments deny their crimes, and most are understanding of each other’s lies about them. Bush and Blair, with still more blood on their hands – in all probability, that of over half a million Iraqis – observe these precepts as automatically as Putin. But there is a difference that sets Putin apart from his fellow rulers in the G8, indeed from virtually any government in the world. On the evidence of comparative opinion polls, he is the most popular national leader alive today. Since he came to power six years ago, he has enjoyed the continuous support of over 70 per cent of his people, a record no other contemporary politician begins to approach. For comparison, Chirac now has an approval rating of 38 per cent, Bush of 36 per cent, Blair of 30 per cent.
Such eminence may seem perverse, but it is not unintelligible. Putin’s authority derives, in the first place, from the contrast with the ruler who made him. From a Western standpoint, Yeltsin’s regime was by no means a failure. By ramming through a more sweeping privatisation of industry than any carried out in Eastern Europe, and maintaining a façade of competitive elections, it laid the foundations of a Russian capitalism for the new century. However sodden or buffoonish Yeltsin’s personal conduct, these were solid achievements that secured him unstinting support from the United States, where Clinton, stewing in indignities of his own, was the appropriate leader for mentoring him. As Strobe Talbott characteristically put it, ‘Clinton and Yeltsin bonded. Big time.’ In the eyes of most Russians, on the other hand, Yeltsin’s administration set loose a wave of corruption and criminality; stumbled chaotically from one political crisis to another; presided over an unprecedented decline in living standards and collapse of life expectancy; humiliated the country by obeisance to foreign powers; destroyed the currency and ended in bankruptcy. By 1998, according to official statistics, GDP had fallen over a decade by some 45 per cent; the mortality rate had increased by 50 per cent; government revenues had nearly halved; the crime rate had doubled. It is no surprise that as this misrule drew to a close, Yeltsin’s support among the population was in single figures.
Against this background, any new administration would have been hard put not to do better. Putin, however, had the good luck to arrive in power just as oil prices took off. With export earnings from the energy sector suddenly soaring, economic recovery was rapid and continuous. Since 1999, GDP has grown by 6-7 per cent a year. The budget is now in surplus, with a stabilisation fund of some $80 billion set aside for any downturn in oil prices, and the rouble is convertible. Capitalisation of the stock market stands at 80 per cent of GDP. Foreign debt has been paid down. Reserves top $250 billion. In short, the country has been the largest single beneficiary of the world commodities boom of the early 21st century. For ordinary Russians, this has brought a tangible improvement in living standards. Though average real wages remain very low, less than $400 dollars a month, they have doubled under Putin (personal incomes are nearly two times higher because remuneration is often paid in non-wage form, to avoid some taxes). That increase is the most important basis of his support. To relative prosperity, Putin has added stability. Cabinet convulsions, confrontations with the legislature, lapses into presidential stupor, are things of the past. Administration may not be that much more efficient, but order – at least north of the Caucasus – has been restored. Last but not least, the country is no longer ‘under external management’, as the pointed local phrase puts it. The days when the IMF dictated budgets, and the Foreign Ministry acted as little more than an American consulate, are over. Gone are the campaign managers for re-election of the president, jetting in from California. Freed from foreign debt and diplomatic supervision, Russia is an independent state once again.
Prosperity, stability, sovereignty: the national consensus around Putin rests on his satisfaction of these primordial concerns. That there may be less in each than meets the eye matters little, politically speaking, so long as their measure is memories of the abyss under Yeltsin. By that standard the material progress, however relative, is real. But the stratospheric polls reflect something else as well – an image of the ruler. Putin cuts a somewhat colourless, frigid figure in the West. In cultures accustomed to more effusive styles of leadership, the sleek, stoat-shaped head and stone-cold eyes offer little purchase for affective projection. In Russia, however, charisma wears another face. When he came to power, Putin lacked any trace of it. But possession of the presidency has altered him. For Weber, who had the Hebrew prophets in mind, charisma was by definition extra-institutional – it was a kind of magic that could only be personal. He could not foresee postmodern conditions, in which the spectacle is a higher power, capable of dissolving the boundaries between the two.
Once installed in the presidency, Putin has cultivated two attributes that have given him an aura capable of outlasting it. The first is the image of firm, where necessary ruthless authority. Historically, the brutal imposition of order has been more often admired than feared in Russia. Rather than his portrait suffering from the shadow of the KGB, Putin has converted it into a halo of austere discipline. In what remains in many ways a macho society, toughness – prowess in judo and drops into criminal slang are part of Putin’s kit – continues to be valued, and not only by men: polls report that Putin’s most enthusiastic fans are often women. But there is another, less obvious side to his charisma. Part of his chilly magnetism is cultural. He is widely admired for his command of the language. Here, too, contrast is everything. Lenin was the last ruler of the country who could speak an educated Russian. Stalin’s Georgian accent was so thick he rarely risked speaking in public. Khrushchev’s vocabulary was crude and his grammar barbaric. Brezhnev could scarcely put two sentences together. Gorbachev spoke with a provincial southern accent. The less said of Yeltsin’s slurred diction the better. To hear a leader of the country capable once again of expressing himself with clarity, accuracy and fluency, in a more or less correct idiom, comes as music to many Russians.
In a strange way Putin’s prestige is thus also intellectual. For all his occasional crudities, at least in his mouth the national tongue is no longer obviously humiliated. This is not just a matter of cases and tenses, or pronunciation. Putin has developed into what by today’s undemanding standards is an articulate politician, who can field questions from viewers on television for hours as confidently and lucidly as he lectures journalists in interviews, or addresses partners at summit meetings, where he has excelled at sardonic repartee. The intelligence is limited and cynical, above the level of his Anglo-American counterparts, but without much greater ambition. It has been enough, however, to give Putin half of his brittle lustre in Russia. There, an apparent union of fist and mind has captured the popular imaginary.
The combination of an oil and gas bonanza with a persona of clear-headed power has been enough to demarcate Putin, in public opinion, decisively from what came before and to assure him mastery of the political scene. The actual regime over which he presides, however, although it has involved important changes, shows less of a break with Yeltsin’s time than might appear. The economy that Yeltsin left behind was in the grip of a tiny group of profiteers, who had seized the country’s major assets in a racket – so-called loans for shares – devised by one of its beneficiaries, Vladimir Potanin, and imposed by Chubais, operating as the neo-liberal Rasputin at Yeltsin’s court. The president and his extended ‘Family’ (relatives, aides, hangers-on) naturally took their own share of the loot. It is doubtful whether the upshot had any equivalent in the entire history of capitalism. The leading seven oligarchs to emerge from these years – Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Potanin, Abramovich, Fridman, Khodorkovsky, Aven – ended up controlling a vast slice of national wealth, most of the media and much of the Duma. Putin was picked by the Family to ensure these arrangements did not come under scrutiny afterwards. His first act in office was to grant Yeltsin immunity from prosecution, and he has generally looked after his immediate entourage. (Chubais got Russia’s electricity grid as a parting gift.)
But if he wanted a stronger government than Yeltsin’s, he could not afford to leave the oligarchs in undisturbed possession of their powers. After warning them that they could keep their riches only if they stayed out of politics, he moved to curb them. The three most ambitious magnates – Gusinsky, Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky – were broken: two fleeing into exile, the third dispatched to a labour camp. A fourth, Abramovich, though still persona grata in the Kremlin, has opted for residence abroad. Putin has taken back under state control parts of the oil industry, and created out of the country’s gas monopoly a giant conglomerate with a current market capitalisation of $200 billion. The public sector’s share of GDP has risen only modestly, by about 5 per cent. But for the time being, the booty capitalism of the 1990s has come to a halt. In regaining control of some stretches of the commanding heights of the economy, the state has strengthened its leverage. The balance of power has shifted away from extraordinary accumulations of private plunder towards more traditional forms of bureaucratic management.
These changes are a focus of some anxiety in the Western business press, where fears are often expressed of an ominous statism that threatens the liberalisation of the 1990s. In reality, markets are in no danger. The Russian state has been strengthened as an economic agent, but not with any socialising intent, simply as a quarry of political power. In other respects, Putin has taken the same underlying programme as his predecessor several steps further. Land has finally been privatised, a threshold Yeltsin’s regime was unable to cross. Moscow boasts more billionaires than New York, yet a flat income tax of 13 per cent has been introduced, at Yegor Gaidar’s urging. A highly regressive ‘unified social tax’ falls on those who can least afford it. Welfare benefits have been monetised and slashed. Key economic ministries remain in the hands of committed marketeers. Neo-liberalism is safe enough in Russia today. The president has made this clear to all who are interested. On a visit to Germany in October, brushing aside questions about the death of Politkovskaya, he told his hosts: ‘We do not understand the nervousness of the press about Russia investing abroad. Where does this hysteria come from? It’s not the Red Army that wants to come to Germany. It’s just the same capitalists as you.’
The political system put together since Yeltsin’s departure is a similar mixture of novelty and continuity. It is now de rigueur for Western journalists – even the most ardent boosters of business opportunities in the New Russia, or the humblest spaniels of New Labour, anxious not to smudge Blair’s friendship with Putin (two roles that are not always distinct) – to deplore the muzzling of the media, the neutering of parliament and the decline of political freedoms under Putin. These realities, however, all have their origins under Yeltsin, whose illegalities were much starker. No act of Putin’s compares with the bombardment of the parliament by tanks, or the fraudulent referendum that ensued, imposing the autocratic constitution under which Russia continues to be ruled. Yet because Yeltsin was considered a pliable, even if somewhat disreputable utensil of Western policies, the first action was applauded and the second ignored by virtually every foreign correspondent of the time. Nor was there much criticism of the brazen manipulation of press and television, controlled by the oligarchs, to engineer Yeltsin’s re-election. Still less was any attention paid to what was happening within the machinery of state itself. Far from the demise of the USSR reducing the number of Russian functionaries, the bureaucracy had – few post-Communist facts are more arresting – actually doubled in size by the end of Yeltsin’s stewardship, to some 1.3 million. Not only that. At the topmost levels of the regime, the proportion of officials drawn from the security services or armed forces soared above their modest quotas under the late CPSU: composing a mere 5 per cent under Gorbachev, it has been calculated that they occupied no less than 47 per cent of the highest posts under Yeltsin.
Serviceable though much of this was for any ruler, it remained a ramshackle inheritance. Putin has tightened and centralised it into a more coherent structure of power. In possession of voter confidence, he has not needed to shell deputies or forge plebiscites. But to meet any eventuality, the instruments of coercion and intimidation have been strengthened. The budget of the FSB – the post-Communist successor to the KGB – has trebled, and the number of positions in the federal administration held by personnel brigaded from security backgrounds has continued to rise. Over half of Russia’s key power-holders now come from its repressive apparatuses. In jovial spirit, Putin allowed himself to quip to fellow veterans in the Lubyanka: ‘Comrades, our strategic mission is accomplished – we have seized power.’
Still, these developments are mainly accentuations of what was already there. Institutionally, the more striking innovation has been the integration of the economic and political pillars of Putin’s system of command. In the 1990s, people spoke of the assorted crooks who grabbed control of the country’s raw materials as syroviki, and of officials recruited from the military or secret police as siloviki. Under Putin, the two have fused. The new regime is dominated by a web of Kremlin staffers and ministers with ‘security profiles’, who also head the largest state companies quoted on the stock market. The oligarchs had mixed business and politics flamboyantly enough. But these were raids by freebooters from the first into the second domain. Putin has turned the tables on them. Under his system, a more organic symbiosis between the two has been achieved, this time under the dominance of politics. Today, two deputy prime ministers are chairmen, respectively, of Gazprom and Russian Railways; four deputy chiefs of staff in the Kremlin occupy the same positions in the second largest oil company, a nuclear fuel giant, an energy transport enterprise and Aeroflot. The minister of industry is chairman of the oil pipeline monopoly; the finance minister not only of the diamond monopoly, but of the second largest state bank in the country; the telecoms minister of the biggest mobile phone operator. A uniquely Russian form of cumul des mandats blankets the scene.
Corruption is built into any such connubium between profits and power. By general consent, it is now even more widespread than under Yeltsin, but its character has changed. The comparison with China is revealing. In the PRC, corruption is a scourge detested by the population; no other issue arouses the anger of ordinary citizens to such a degree. The central leadership of the CCP is nervously aware of the danger corruption poses to its authority, and on occasion makes a spectacular example of officials who have stolen too much, without being able to tackle the roots of the problem. In Russia, on the other hand, there appears to be little active indignation at the corruption rife at all levels of society. A common attitude is that an official who takes bribes is better than one who inflicts blows: a change to which Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’, after the end of the terror, habituated people. In this climate, Putin – so far, at least, lacking the personal greed that distracted Yeltsin – can coolly use corruption as an instrument of state policy, operating it as both a system of rewards for those who comply with him, and of blackmail for those who might resist.
The scale of the slush funds now available to the Kremlin has made it easy, in turn, to convert television stations and newspapers into mouthpieces of the regime. The fate of NTV and Izvestiya, the one created by Gusinsky, the other controlled by Potanin, is emblematic. Both are now dependencies of Gazprom. ORT, once Berezovsky’s TV channel, is currently run by a factotum from the FSB. With such changes, Putin’s control of the media is becoming more and more comprehensive. What is left over, that ownership does not ensure, self-censorship increasingly neuters. The Gleichschaltung of parliament and political parties is, if anything, even more impressive. The presidential party, United Russia, and its assorted allies, with no more specific programme than unconditional support for Putin, command some 70 per cent of the seats in the Duma, enough to rewrite the constitution if that were required. But a one-party state is not in the offing. On the contrary, mindful of the rules of any self-respecting democracy, the Kremlin’s political technicians are now putting together an opposition party designed to clear the bedraggled remnants of Communism – liberalism has already been expunged – from the political scene, and provide a decorative pendant to the governing party in the next parliament.
In sum, the methodical construction of a personalised authoritarian regime with a strong domestic base is well under way. Part of its appeal has come from its recovery of external sovereignty. But here the gap between image and reality is wider than it is on the domestic front. Putin came to power on the crest of a colonial war. In March 1999, the West launched its attack on Yugoslavia. Planning for the reconquest of Chechnya began that same month, under Yeltsin. In early August, Putin – then head of the FSB – was made prime minister. In the last week of September, invoking hostile incursions into Dagestan, Russia launched an aerial blitz on Chechnya explicitly modelled on Nato’s six-week bombardment of Yugoslavia. Up to a quarter of the population was driven out of the country, before an invasion had even begun. After enormous destruction from the air, the Russian army advanced on Grozny, which was besieged in early December. For nearly two months Chechen resistance held out against a hail of fuel-air explosives and tactical missiles that left the city a more completely burnt-out ruin than Stalingrad had ever been. At the height of the fighting, on New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin handed over his office to Putin. New presidential elections were set for late March. By the end of February, the Russian high command felt able to announce that ‘the counter-terrorism operation is over.’ Putin flew down to celebrate victory. Clinton hailed the ‘liberation of Grozny’. Blair sped to St Petersburg to embrace the liberator. Two weeks later, Putin was elected by a landslide.
Such was the baptism of the present regime, at which holy water was sprinkled by the West. Bush added his unction the following year, after looking into the Russian president’s soul. In return for this goodwill Putin was under some obligation, which persisted. The occupation of the country did not end national resistance: Chechnya became the corner of hell it has remained to this day. But no matter how atrocious the actions of Russian troops and their local collaborators, Western chancelleries have tactfully looked away. After 9/11, Chechnya was declared another front in the war on terror, and in the common cause Putin opened Russian airspace for B52s to bomb Afghanistan, accepted American bases in Central Asia, and primed the Northern Alliance for Kabul. So eager was Moscow to please Washington that in the emotion of the moment, it even abandoned its listening post in Cuba, of scant relevance to Enduring Freedom in West Asia. But it soon became clear there would be little reward for such gestures. In December 2001, the Bush administration scrapped the ABM Treaty. Russian friends were sidelined in the puppet government installed in Afghanistan. Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions were not repealed.
In this climate, it was asking too much for Russia to underwrite the war on Iraq. Still, the US was not to be antagonised. Left to his own devices, Putin would have preferred to say the bare minimum about it. But once France and Germany came out against the impending invasion, it was not easy for him to sidle quietly off-stage. On a visit to Paris, Chirac cornered him into a joint communiqué opposing the war – though the French alone threatened a veto in the Security Council. Once back home, Putin took care to phone Bush with expressions of sympathy for his difficult decision, and made no fuss about the occupation. Yet by the end of his first term in office, the terms of Russia’s relationship with the West had changed. A fortnight after Putin was re-elected in mid-March 2004, Nato expanded to Russia’s doorstep, with the accession of the Baltic states. But even if Washington had given Moscow little or nothing, Russia was no longer a supplicant. Oil prices, little more than $18 a barrel when Putin came to power, were now over $40, and rising rapidly towards their current level at $60 plus – netting Russia a windfall of $37 billion in extra revenues in 2005 alone. More autonomy was now affordable. The upshot so far has remained quite limited: clumsy attempts to check further Western entrenchment along Russia’s southern marches, by browbeating Ukraine and Georgia; refusal to derogate control of pipelines to Europe; revision of offshore concessions in Sakhalin. But Russia’s shadow as an energy giant is lengthening. It is now the world’s largest producer of gas and, after Saudi Arabia, the second largest exporter of oil. As Europe becomes more dependent on its energy, the country’s leverage is bound to grow. No diplomatic revolution is in prospect. But Russia has ceased to be a ward of the West.
How has the change been received there? Reactions to Putin’s regime vary, but they form a certain pattern, falling within a given range. At one end of the spectrum, there is virtually unconditional endorsement of the Russia that is now emerging. The leading exponent of this view, the economist Andrei Shleifer, helped – not coincidentally – to lay the foundations of the new order, working in Moscow as one of the drafters of Yeltsin’s privatisations, and beneficiaries of the proceeds. Project director of the Harvard Institute for International Development, financed by the US government to promote ‘economic reform in support of open markets’ in the former USSR, he was prosecuted by the Justice Department on his return to the US for criminal conduct – cashing in on his insider position for investment purposes. Harvard had to pay $26.5 million, and Shleifer and his wife $3.5 million to settle the charges against him. This was the scandal that led to the downfall of his patron Larry Summers, who as Clinton’s deputy secretary of the Treasury set up the Harvard project, and was then implicated in the pay-out, as president of the university. Shleifer’s central contention, set out in an article written with Daniel Treisman in Foreign Affairs in 2004, is that Russia has become a ‘normal middle-income country’: that is, a society with much the same growing prosperity, degrees of political and economic freedom, levels of corruption and inequality, restrictions on the media and controls on the judiciary, consumer choice and contested elections, as can be found in Mexico or Turkey or the Philippines, or anywhere else with a statistical per capita income of some $8000 a year.
Shleifer concedes that, like most such places, which fall ‘somewhere between textbook democracy and a full-fledged authoritarianism’, Russia may not be a particularly secure or just society. But – and this is what matters – it is par for the course within its global bracket, which given the debris left by Communism is a remarkable achievement. For many Russians, to be congratulated on rising to the company of Turks or Mexicans might leave mixed feelings. But by lowering the standard of relevant comparison, an unequivocally affirmative conclusion can be reached. Russia is a perfectly normal country for its level of development. It is exceptional only in the historical handicaps it has had to overcome to get there, and so unusually admirable.
Few verdicts are quite as upbeat as this. More common is the approach to be found in writers for the Financial Times – another investor in the new Russia, with a joint venture in the media – which has devoted a great deal of attention to the country, consistently talking up its prospects, while expressing dutiful regrets at the shadows or side effects of progress. Inside Putin’s Russia by Andrew Jack, the paper’s Moscow correspondent, illustrates the genre. Decent space is accorded the failings of the regime, and proper anxiety voiced about the future of liberties under it, without dwelling unnecessarily on these – ‘criticising without animosity and making the right allowances for peculiarities of history and culture’, as the FT put it. Chechnya, inevitably, figures prominently among the allowances. Jack explains that it is wrong to blame Putin, himself a ‘prisoner of the Caucasus’, excessively for a situation ‘where Chechnya and Russia have been at war of one sort or another ever since the two cultures first collided three centuries ago’: euphemisms to rank in some universal treasury of colonial apologetics. The results of the conflict may be unfortunate, but it is a sideshow. What matters is the balance sheet of Putin’s ‘liberal authoritarianism’. Here, the touchstone is thoroughly reassuring. In building a society ‘infinitely better for its citizens and foreign partners than the USSR’, Putin has achieved the essential: he has ‘cemented the transition from Communism to capitalism in a way that neither of his predecessors was able to achieve’.
Of course, since property rights remain insecure and justice is arbitrary, there continue to be grounds for concern. Delicately, Jack ventures the thought that, despite his achievements, ‘Putin’s commitment to democracy and market reform is questionable.’ A robuster brand of optimism was expressed by the late Martin Malia. Author of The Soviet Tragedy – a passionate requisitory of Bolshevism from the liberal right, ideologically parallel to François Furet’s Past of an Illusion (the two were close friends), but intellectually everything it is not, a work of brilliant historical imagination – Malia, after championing Yeltsin, did not balk at his successor. There was no chance, he explained, that Putin could revert to a traditional authoritarianism in today’s Russia, since the path to modernisation no longer lay through military-bureaucratic power of a Petrine, let alone Stalinist stamp. It required instead high levels of education and foreign investment, if Russia was to compete in the relevant contemporary arena, not battlefields but globalised markets. There was little cause to be exercised by Putin’s style of political manipulation, which was much like that of Bismarck or Giolitti in their time. Fears of renewed repression were misplaced. The international community no longer tolerated gross violation of human rights, as Bosnia and Kosovo had shown. The conflict in Chechnya was an exception, for there the ‘national honour’ rather than Russia’s ‘territorial integrity’ was at stake. But now that the deed was done, there would be no need to repeat it. ‘As the Chechnya war recedes into the past, the pressure on Russia to observe the new higher norms of international and civic morality will prevent Putin from doing anything extreme.’
Malia offered this absolution in April 2000. Seven years of torture and killing later, the norms – after Grozny, Baghdad – have staled, and the past has not passed. It would be wrong to say that no authorised opinion in the West did better than this. Among journalists, the Washington Post correspondents Peter Baker and Susan Glasser have produced a hard-hitting survey of the new Russia, Kremlin Rising, that puts the palliators of the Financial Times to shame. Among historians, Richard Pipes, at one with Malia in hostility to Communism, but in temperament and outlook the all but complete opposite, has struck a characteristically dissonant note. Whereas Malia believed it was essentially the First World War that blew Russia off course from a normal Western development, which it could now rejoin, Pipes has always held that the roots of Soviet tyranny lay in age-old autocratic traditions of Russian political culture, a view he has recently reiterated in an elegant monograph, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics.
In this vision, Putin’s regime occupies a natural place. Russians, the argument goes, lacking social or national cohesion, an understanding of property or wish for responsibility, cynical about democracy, wary of one another and fearful of outsiders, continue to value order over freedom. For them anarchy is the worst evil, authoritarian rule the condition of a peaceable life. Putin is popular, Pipes has explained in Foreign Affairs, ‘precisely because he has reinstated Russia’s traditional model of government: an autocratic state in which citizens are relieved of their responsibilities for politics and in which imaginary foreign enemies are invoked to forge an artificial unity’. Such bleak thoughts, at the other end of the spectrum from Shleifer’s good cheer, are less well received in Western chancelleries. There, constructive relations with Moscow, intact throughout the wars in Chechnya, are proof against minor embarrassments like the assassination of a critic or a defector. A billionaire property developer is worth a UN tribunal; who cares about a stray journalist or émigré? Noting with relief that in the Litvinenko investigation, witnesses are inaccessible and extradition unthinkable, the Economist has confided to its readers that ‘such frustrations may not be all bad,’ since ‘British diplomats’ biggest worry is not that Scotland Yard will be flummoxed, but that it might succeed.’
Too much has been invested in the triumph over Communism for any deeper doubts about the destiny of Russia. Either blemishes are normal and superable at this stage of development. Or they are the regrettable but unavoidable costs of capitalist progress. Or they are indurated vices of the longue durée. That the West itself might be implicated in whatever is amiss can be excluded. The US ambassador to Moscow in the late 1980s, Jack Matlock, has explained why: ‘Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, in effect, co-operated on a scenario, a plan of reforming the economy, which was defined initially by the United States. The plan was devised by the United States, but with the idea that it should not be contrary to the national interests of a peaceful Soviet Union.’ Gorbachev ‘adopted the US agenda, which had been defined in Washington, without attribution, of course, as his own plan’. Adult supervision – the term once employed by another US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad of Kabul and Baghdad, to describe his country’s relations with the world at large – was even closer under Yeltsin. By these lights, if anything goes wrong, the progenitors are certainly not to blame. See Iraq today.
At Politkovskaya’s funeral, the three principal forces behind Yeltsin’s regime were all on hand. Two of them, hypocrisies obliging: the West, in the persons of the American, British and German ambassadors; and the oligarchs par personne interposée, in the figure of Chubais, to most Russians more odious, as their procurer, than the oligarchs themselves. The third, in authentic grief, waiting outside: the tattered conscience of the liberal intelligentsia. In 1991, of all domestic groups it was mainly this stratum that helped Yeltsin to power, confident that in doing so it was at last bringing political liberty to Russia. Clustered around the presidency in the early 1990s, when it occupied many policy-making positions, it supplied the crucial democratic legitimation of Yeltsin’s rule to the end. Not since 1917 had intellectuals played such a central role in the government of the country.
Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia? Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’être.
With the arrival of neo-liberalism, this universe abruptly collapsed. By 1997, budgets for higher education had been slashed to one-twelfth of their late Soviet level. The number of scientists fell by nearly two-thirds. Russia currently spends just 3.7 per cent of GDP on education – less than Paraguay. University salaries became derisory. Just five years ago, university professors got $100 a month, forcing them to moonlight to make ends meet. Schoolteachers fared still worse: even today, average wages in education are only two-thirds of the national rate. According to the Ministry of Education itself, only 10 to 20 per cent of Russian institutions of higher learning have preserved Soviet standards of quality. The state now provides less than a third of their funding. Bribes to pass examinations are commonplace. In the press and publishing worlds, which had seen an explosion of growth in the years of perestroika, circulation and sales shrank remorselessly after 1991, as paper costs soared and readers lost interest in public affairs. Argumenty i Fakty, under Gorbachev the country’s largest mass-circulation weekly, sold 32 million copies in 1989. It is now down to around three million.
For a time, even with shrinking sales, the better newspapers provided a lively variety of reportage and commentary, in which many good journalists won their spurs. But as factional struggles broke out in Yeltsin’s court, and the grip of different oligarchs on the media tightened, corruption of every kind spread through the press, from back-handers and kompromat to abject propaganda for the regime. In this atmosphere, a race to the bottom followed, in which the crudest tabloids, devoted to sensations and celebrities, predictably won out. Meanwhile, the print media as a whole were losing importance to television. Initially a dynamic force in awakening and mobilising public opinion – it played a key role in the overthrow of the old order in August 1991 – Russian TV started with a high level of professional skills and public ambitions. But it too sank rapidly under the tide of commercialisation, its most-watched programmes descending to levels of crassness and inanity rivalling deepest America. Among the educated, so despised has the medium become that Russia must be the only country in the world today where one can be regularly told, with a look of contempt at the question, as if it went without saying, that the speaker has no television set in the house.
All this was demoralising enough for an intelligentsia that, whatever its internal disputes, had always taken its role as Kulturträger for granted. But with the starving of the universities, the decline of the press and the infantilisation of television, came a further alteration. For the first time in its history, money became the general arbiter of intellectual worth. To be needy was now to be a failure, evidence of an inability to adapt creatively to the demands of competition. Pushed by economic hardship, pulled by temptations of success, many who were formed as scholars or artists went into business ventures of one kind or another, often of dubious legality. Some of the oligarchs started out like this. The spectacle of this migration into a universe of shady banking and trading, ‘political technology’ (campaign-running and election-fixing) and public asset-stripping, in turn affected those left behind. Others, who had specialist scientific skills, got better jobs abroad. In these conditions, as the common values that once held it together corroded, the sense of collective identity that distinguished the traditional intelligentsia has been steadily weakened.
The result is a cultural scene more fragmented, and disconnected, than at any time within memory. The collapse of the centralised book and periodical distribution system that existed in Soviet times has created difficulties for independent publishers, leaving the field outside Moscow and St Petersburg to four or five big commercial houses which own their own outlets in the provinces, publishing mostly trash while angling for textbook contracts from the government. The most significant literary enterprise is Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, started in 1992 and now Russia’s leading literary journal, whose small book publishing arm produces about 75 titles a year, concentrated in the humanities. Founded and managed by Irina Prokhorova, sister of the magnate who is Potanin’s partner in Norilsk Nickel, it also runs a cultural-political journal, Neprikosnovenny Zapas (‘Emergency Supplies’), that offers a forum for intellectual debate, and has just launched – a sign of the times – a lavish journal of fashion theory. The most coherent attempt to create something like the equivalent of the Silver Age milieu at the turn of the last century, the NLO project can be regarded as a modest oasis of reflection in an increasingly philistine scene. But by the same token it remains an enclave, liberal in temperament, but detached from politics proper. To its left, a scattering of tiny, no doubt mostly transient publishing houses has sprung up, and twigs of a radical counter-culture can be seen. In the very centre of New Russian ostentation in Moscow, hidden upstairs in a side street just behind the gross parade of luxury stores on the Tverskaya, the shabby Phalanster bookshop lives up to its Fourierist overtones: posters of Chávez, translations of Che, biographies of Bakunin, at last – just out – the Russian edition of Deutscher’s masterpiece, his Trotsky trilogy, all this amid every other kind of serious literature.
Outside, the Tverskaya with its boutiques and chain stores sets the tone. The culture of capitalist restoration looks back, logically enough, to the object-universe of late tsarism, whose garish emblems are everywhere. Moscow retains its autumnal beauty, even if as elsewhere – Weimar or Prague – too much new paint tends to coarsen older buildings rather than reviving them. But now it is enveloped in a smog of kitsch, like ancient regalia buried within a greasy wrapper. The city has become a world capital of bad taste, in which even the postmodern can seem a caricature of itself. All this physical trumpery reflects the dominant landscape of the imaginary. Within a few years, Russia has spawned a mass culture fixated on postiche versions of the dynastic past. The country’s most successful author, Boris Akunin, writes detective novels set in the last third of the 19th century. Among other stirring deeds, his upright hero Erast Fandorin thwarts a plot to hold the coronation of Nicholas II to ransom.
More than 15 million copies of the Fandorin series have been sold since 1998, and box-office hits have duly followed. The Councillor of State, in which Fandorin rescues the throne, stars Russia’s favourite actor/film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov, an ardent monarchist who plays Alexander III in his own patriotic blockbuster, The Barber of Siberia. Mikhalkov is a middlebrow figure, but higher up the scale, Alexander Sokurov, the country’s leading art-film director, reproduces much the same sensibility in his film Russian Ark, in which a prancing, gibbering Marquis de Custine leads a motley company of historical figures, in a 360° continuous camera movement round the Hermitage, that concludes with a final maudlin tableau of the Romanov court on the tragic eve of its fall, worthy of the Sissi series. (In The Sun, yet more striking camerawork, and even sicklier schmaltz, give us the quiet dignity and humanity of Hirohito, as he converses with an understanding MacArthur.)
This dominant vein of Russian poshlost today covers the gamut from pulp to middle-market to aestheticising forms, but it is the first of these that is most revealing of mutations in the culture at large. For, characteristically, a phenomenon like the Fandorin series is not the product of a Russian Grisham or King. Boris Akunin is the pseudonym of a trained philologist and translator of classical Japanese, Grigory Chkartashvili, inspired – he avows – by Griboedov, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky; his hero combines traits of Chatsky, Pechorin, Andrei Bolkonski and Prince Myshkin, with a touch of James Bond for good measure. Coquetting in the manner of a latter-day Propp, he has set out to illustrate the 16 possible sub-genres of crime fiction, and 16 character types to be found in it. Hugely successful pulp, marketed as serious fiction and produced by writers from an elite background, would be an anomaly in the West, if we except a single bestseller, never repeated, from Umberto Eco, though there is a close parallel in the astronomic sales and standing of China’s leading practitioner of martial arts fiction, Jin Yong, holder of various honorary positions at universities in the PRC. In Russia, it is a pattern: high-end intellectuals hitting the jackpot in low-end literature – Akunin is not alone – are one of the kinks of the encounter between the intelligentsia and the market.
The poverty of all this retro-tsarist culture reflects the impossibility of any meaningful repossession of the world of the Romanovs. The old order incubated a rough-hewn capitalism, but itself remained patrimonial to the end, dominated not by merchants or industrialists, but nobles and landowners. No living memory connects with this past: it is too different, and too remote, from the present to serve as more than vicarious pap. The Soviet past, on the other hand, remains all too immediate, and so in another way unmanageable. With few exceptions, the intelligentsia repudiates it en bloc. The population, on the other hand, is deeply divided: between those who regret the fall of the USSR, those who welcomed it, and those – perhaps the majority – whose feelings are mixed or ambivalent. The Soviet Union was not the Third Reich, and there is little sign of any Vergangenheitsbewältigung along German lines. In the culture at large, the tensions in social memory have produced a patchy amnesia.
Such tensions have certainly not silenced the arts. Fiction aiming at more than entertainment has never avoided the Soviet experience. Since the 1990s, however, representations of it have tended to become volatilised in the blender of de-realisations that typifies much current literature. Russian fiction has always had strong strains of the fantastic, the grotesque, the supernatural and the utopian, in a line that includes not only Gogol and Bulgakov – presently the two most fashionable masters – but such diverse figures as Chernyshevsky, Leskov, Bely, Zamiatin, Nabokov, Platonov and others. What is new in the current versions of this tradition is their cocktail of heterogeneous genres and tropes of an alternative reality, which seeks to maximise provocation and dépaysement. But such formal ingenuity, however startling, tends to leave its objects curiously untouched. The same techniques can dispose of Communist and post-Communist realities alike, as a single continuum. In Viktor Pelevin’s most lyrical work, The Clay Machine-Gun, the Cheka of the Civil War, the bombardment of the White House and the contemporary Russian mafia dance and merge in the same phantasmagoria. At its best, such literature is splendidly acrobatic. But, satirical and playful, most of it is too lightweight to impinge on deeper structures of feeling about the past.
Scholarship is another story. There, the tensions in public feeling often seem to have had the effect of sealing off the Soviet experience as a radioactive area for serious reflection or research. In the universities, scholars prefer to concentrate on epochs prior to the Revolution. The situation of Russia’s leading authority on the Stalinist period, Oleg Khlevniuk, is expressive. A young party historian reduced to penury with the collapse of the USSR, he was rescued almost accidentally from having to try his luck in business by a research contract from the Birmingham Centre for Russian and East European Studies. Fifteen years later, he still depends essentially on Western grants. The History of the Gulag was published by Yale, and has been translated into several other Western languages. Incredibly, there is no Russian edition of it.
From the opposite background, Nikita Petrov was a youthful dissident and early organiser of Memorial, the glasnost-era civic organisation. Later, picked as a radical democrat for the commission set up by Yeltsin to supply evidence for the outlawing of the CPSU as a criminal organisation, he was given access to secret police archives, of which he made good scholarly use. His latest book is a biography of Khrushchev’s KGB chief, Ivan Serov. Today, Memorial is a shadow of its former self: no longer a political movement, but a residual institution funded from the West, amid general indifference to its work among the Russian population. As for research, since the mid-1990s sensitive archives have been essentially closed – only about twenty pages a day are available from Stalin’s personal files, for the thirty years of his power, a fraction of what any modern ruler generates – and mid-level bureaucrats obstruct any inquiries likely to affront the new nationalism. But in fact, Petrov remarks, there is now little interest in critical study of the Soviet past – revelations of its crimes no longer have any impact. His major work on Yezhov, written with the Dutch scholar Marc Jansen – an astonishing portrait of the man and his time – has never found a publisher in Russia. Can translation costs be the only reason? In his view, the popular mood is now one of incurious nostalgia for Stalinism. In 1991 Petrov could not have imagined such a political reversal would be possible.
Economically, culturally, psychologically, the Russian intelligentsia has been pulled apart by the changes of the last fifteen years. The term itself is now repudiated by those for whom it smacks too much of a common identity and a revolutionary past: contemporary intellectuals should shun the suspect traditional term intelligent in favour of the neologism intellektual, of healthier American origin, to denote the new independent-minded individual, distinct from the collective herd of old. Such dissociations themselves have a long history, going back at least to the denunciations of the radical intelligentsia by Vekhi, the famous symposium of writers on the rebound from the 1905 Revolution, who might now be called neo-conservative, but were then nearly all liberals. Today, vigorous questioning of the self-images of the contemporary intelligentsia can be found across the spectrum, but attacks on its historical role again occur mainly in liberal journals – the debate in the autumn in Neprikosnovenny Zapas is an example. But their context has altered. The events of 1991, not those of 1905-7, constituted the first revolution liberals could call their own. Politically, how then does Russian liberalism stand today?
Hostility – often, in private, verbally extreme hostility – to Putin’s regime is widespread. But of public opposition there is little. The reason is not only fear, though that exists. It is also the knowledge, which can only be half-repressed, that the liberal intelligentsia is compromised by its own part in bringing to being what it now so dislikes. By clinging to Yeltsin long after the illegality and corruption of his rule was plain, in the name of defence against a toothless Communism, it destroyed its credibility in the eyes of much of the population, only to find that Yeltsin had landed it with Putin. Now, with a mixture of bad conscience and bad faith, it struggles to form a coherent story of the change.
Why, people in these circles often complain, do the Western media portray the 1990s as a time of chaos, crime and corruption – negative stereotypes of every kind – when in fact it was the freest and best period in the history of the country, yet treat Russia today as a democracy, when ‘we live under fascism’? True, certain intellectuals have also taken to denigrating the 1990s, but that is out of resentment at having lost the privileged living they enjoyed under the Soviet system, when they got comfortable salaries and flats and had to do nothing, whereas now they have to find some genuine work in the market. What then of the personal and institutional continuities between the Yeltsin and Putin regimes? Oh, those. Our mistake was to have been naive about the kind of human society the Soviet system had created, which quickly reasserted itself and produced Putin – who, in any case, ‘is not the worst’ it could have thrown up. In other words, whatever has gone wrong in Russia, it was not Yeltsin’s fault, or their own.
It was clear from the very beginning of the August overturn that a test of the new Russian liberalism would be its handling of the nationalities question, where the old – Vekhi and its sequels – had conspicuously failed. During the first Chechen War, it acquitted itself honourably, opposing Russia’s invasion and welcoming its acceptance of defeat. But the second Chechen War broke its moral spine. A few protests continued, but by and large the liberal intelligentsia persuaded itself that Islamic terrorism threatened the motherland itself, and had to be crushed, no matter what the cost in lives. A year later, America’s own war on terror allowed a gratifying solidarity with the West. Today, few express much enthusiasm for the Kadyrov clan in Grozny: most prefer to avoid mention of Chechnya. Leading courtiers of Yeltsin, still flanking or advising Putin, are more outspoken. Gaidar has explained that it is difficult for outsiders to understand ‘what the aggression against Dagestan in 1999 meant for Russia. Dagestan is part of our life, part of our country, part of our reality’ (sic – Russians make up 9 per cent of the population). Thus ‘the issue was no longer the Chechen people’s right to self-determination. It was the question of whether Russian citizens should be protected by their own government.’ Chubais has been blunter: Russia’s goal in the new century, he recently declared, should be a ‘liberal empire’.
Such views are naturally welcome enough in the Kremlin, though these particular voices are something of a liability. Around the regime, however, are more credible forces, recruited from the democrats of 1991, who provide it with critical support from a distinctive position within the liberal tradition. Grouped around the successful weekly Ekspert – a business-oriented cross between Time and the Economist – and in the back-rooms of United Russia, their outlook could be compared to Max Weber’s in the Second Reich. The fall of the USSR was, they believe, the work of a joint revolt by liberal and national (not just Baltic, Ukrainian or Georgian, but also Russian) forces. But under Yeltsin, these two split apart, as more and more Russians with a sense of national pride felt that Yeltsin had become a creature of the Americans, while liberals remained bound to him. Putin’s genius, in this version, has been to reconcile national and liberal opinion once again, and so create the first government in Russian history to enjoy a broad political consensus. The market-fundamentalism and retro-Communism of the 1990s, each now a spent force, are no longer alternatives. In bringing calm and order to the country, Putin has achieved ‘hegemonic stability’.
By their own lights, the intellectuals who articulate this vision – typically from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like many novelists – are clear-eyed about the limitations and risks of the regime, which they discuss without euphemism. Putin’s style is to give concessions to all groups, from oligarchs to the common people, while keeping power in his own hands. He is ‘statist’ in every instinct, despising and distrusting businessmen; though he does not persecute them, he affords no help to small or medium enterprises, so that in practice only the huge raw materials and banking monopolies thrive. Politically, he is a ‘presidential legitimist’, in a Congress of Vienna sense, and so will respect the constitution and step down in 2008 – after choosing his successor. Who might that be? Here, they show some nervousness. For even if Putin does not decide on a third term, he will still be very much at large – only 55, and having amassed huge power, informal as well as formal, in his hands. How would a hand-picked successor cope with him? To this, they have no real answer, beyond joking that Russians don’t bother talking of a third term, but rather of a fourth or a fifth. Their concern focuses on the successor himself. In favour of strong government but not a dictatorship, patriots rather than nationalists, they are fearful of what the future might bring, should a tougher rather than milder heir be chosen, or another major outrage like the seizure of the Moscow theatre or the school in Beslan allow the ‘special services’ to impose an emergency regime in Russia.
Those who have cast their lot with hegemonic stability risk repeating the trajectory of the original liberal intelligentsia under Yeltsin, who kept thinking that their advice and assistance could steer him in the right direction, only to find that he gave them Putin, under whom they tremble. Unable to come to terms with their own responsibilities in backing the attack on the White House and the fake referendum on the constitution, with all that followed, they are now reduced to complaining that a ruinously Sovietised Russian people have proved incapable of accepting the gift of democracy ‘we were striving to bring them’. Today’s national-liberals are more lucid than the democrats of the 1990s, but it is not clear that they have much more real influence at court than their predecessors. If one of the candidates they most fear – the defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, or even the pallid premier, Mikhail Fradkov, for example – were to be put into the Kremlin, they could find themselves in much the same situation as the limpets of Yeltsin. They hope it will be someone more amenable, like Putin’s other favourite, the first deputy premier Dmitri Medvedev, whose task is to give a socially caring face to the regime. But they will have no more say in the choice than other citizens.
Historically, Russian liberalism came in a variety of shades, and it would be wrong to reduce them all today to the pupils of Hayek or Weber. Amid the different adaptations to power of the period, one mind of complete independence stands out. Tall but stooped, almost hunched, with the archetypal bookish look of a scholar, in a square, squinting face lit up with frequent ironic smiles, the historian Dmitry Furman is of White and Red descent. His grandmother, who brought him up and to whom he was always closest, was an aristocrat, his grandfather – the couple were separated – a high Stalinist functionary, who even as a deputy minister lived quite poorly, devoted to his cause and work. Furman explains that he grew up without any Marxist formation, yet no hatred of Communism, regarding it as a new kind of religion, of which there had always been many sorts. After graduating, he did his research on religious conflicts in the Late Roman Empire, and then became a specialist in the history of religions in the Academy of Sciences. He never wrote anything about contemporary events, or had anything to do with them, until perestroika.
When the USSR collapsed, however, he was virtually alone among Russian liberals in regarding the overthrow of Gorbachev as a disaster. For a year afterwards, he worked for the Gorbachev Foundation, and then returned to the Academy of Sciences, where he has since been a researcher at the Institute of Europe, and a prolific essayist on the whole zone covered by the former USSR. He has perhaps the most worked out, systematic view of post-Communist developments of any thinker in Russia today. It goes like this. The country is a ‘managed democracy’: that is, one where elections are held, but the results are known in advance; courts hear cases, but give decisions that coincide with the interests of the authorities; the press is plural, yet with few exceptions dependent on the government. This is, in effect, a system of ‘uncontested power’, increasingly similar to the Soviet state, but without any ideological foundation, which is evolving through a set of stages that parallel those of Russian Communism. The first phase sees the heroic destruction of the old order, a time of Sturm und Drang – Lenin and Yeltsin. The second is a time of consolidation, with the construction of a new, more stable order – Stalin and Putin. The leader of the second phase always enjoys much broader popular support than the leader of the first, because he unites the survivors of the original revolution, still attached to its values, and the anti-revolutionaries, who detested the anarchic atmosphere and the radical changes it brought. Thus Putin today continues Yeltsin’s privatisations and market reforms, but creates order rather than chaos. The successor to Putin in the third stage – comparable to Khrushchev – is unlikely to be as popular as Putin, because the regime, like its predecessors, is already becoming more isolated from the masses. Putin’s high ratings in the polls are entirely a function of his occupancy of the presidency: the rulers of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan – Nazarbaev or Aliev – can match them, because their systems are so similar.
But the regime in Russia will face a serious problem in 2008, and considerable tension is already being generated. Will Putin step down and hand over the presidency to a successor, or will he change the constitution and stay on? Either course is full of risks. He could easily change the constitution to let him stay in the Kremlin indefinitely, as Nazarbaev has done in Kazakhstan – the parliament will do what he wants, and the West would not complain too much. But this would install something closer to a traditional dictatorship than to a managed democracy, requiring an ideology of some kind, which Putin entirely lacks. So although he is now studying the interwar writings of the theorist Ivan Ilin, then a semi-Fascist émigré in Germany, the best guess is that he will not want to perpetuate himself in power, since this would require too great an ideological upheaval.
Might not nationalism provide such a basis, if it is not already doing so? Furman dismisses the possibility. Russian nationalism is too low-powered to take the place of democracy as a legitimation of Putin’s rule. It is not a fanatical force like the nationalism that sustained Hitler’s regime, rather an impotent resentment that Russia can no longer bully its neighbours as it once did. The current campaign against Georgians is an instance: an expression of the frustration of a former master-people, that has now to treat those who were once its inferiors as equals. The result is a pattern of sudden rages over minor issues, explosions that are then as quickly forgotten – disputes with Ukraine over this or that dam, clamours over Serbia, and so on. These are neurotic, not psychotic symptoms. Such petty rancours are not enough to found a new dictatorship. That is why legitimation by the West remains important to the regime, and is in some degree a restraint on it. Since it has no ideology of its own, and cannot rely on a broken-backed nationalism, it must present itself as a specific kind of democracy that is accepted by the G7 – Russia as a ‘normal country’ that has rejoined Western civilisation.
On the other hand, if Putin doesn’t change the constitution, and steps down from the presidency in 2008, there will also be a big problem for the system, since for the first time in Russian history there would then be two centres of power in the country – the new and the old president. This is a formula for political instability, as the bureaucracy would waver between two masters, not knowing which one to obey. Putin may think he will select a pliable successor, but historically this has never worked: such figures always want to exercise full power themselves. Stalin was picked as the least outstanding figure by the Party after the death of Lenin, for fear of the stronger personality of Trotsky, and he became an all-powerful despot. Khrushchev was selected as a compromise first secretary after Stalin, rather than the more powerful Beria or Malenkov – and promptly ousted them and seized power for himself. So it was too with the mediocre personality of Brezhnev, chosen as least dangerous by his colleagues. The pattern would be likely to recur after 2008.
Asked his view of Pipes’s diagnosis of Russia’s deep political culture – no popular understanding of democracy, or rule of law; tyranny always preferable to anarchy – Furman answers matter-of-factly: yes, it is more or less accurate, but Pipes is wrong to think this is uniquely Russian. It is a very widespread political culture, which you can see throughout the Middle East, in Burma, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We should not whitewash or embellish Russian political culture, but we should also not think of it as exceptional. Nor is it correct to imagine that there has been any significant revival of religion in post-Communist Russia. The Orthodox Church has been absorbed as an element of national identity, and officiates at baptisms and funerals. But not weddings – sexual life is completely secular – and rates of regular attendance at church are among the lowest in Europe.
If the second phase in the cycle of managed democracy is now coming to an end in Russia, what of the third and fourth phases, comparable to the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods under Communism? The whole cycle, Furman replies, will be much shorter – not seventy, but about thirty years. We are probably at midpoint right now. As for the future: the Russian intelligentsia was briefly in power in 1991, but its ideology was primitive and its outlook naive. So when the democracy it wanted was discarded by Yeltsin, the defeat of democracy was the defeat of this intelligentsia too. Only when Russian intellectuals have produced a self-critical assessment of this experience will it be able to develop new and sounder ideals for the future.
This is an impressively level-headed diagnosis of the country’s condition. Its limitation lies in the unargued premise of the argument. Managed democracy à la russe is tacitly viewed as a transition that, with all its warts, leads towards genuine democracy. Within the very sobriety of the scheme, a hopeful teleology is at work. Only one terminus is possible: the liberty of the moderns embodied in the Western Rechtsstaat. Realist in its judgments about Russia, the model is idealist in its assumptions about the West. Certainly, the two remain very different. But can the differences, and their direction, be captured by Furman’s implied dichotomy? For who imagines the political systems of the West to be ‘unmanaged’ democracies? Their own regressions are not factored into the evolutionary scheme. The idealising side of Furman’s construction exposes itself to the tu quoque retorts with which Putin and his aides now relish silencing criticism by the West.
All of these debates revolve around the nature of the state. Society is less discussed. In the West, the historians of the USSR who challenged the Cold War paradigms of Pipes and Malia – Sheila Fitzpatrick has described their rebellion in these pages – famously focused on the activities and textures of daily life in the Soviet Union, as popular realities often at variance with official myths, though not necessarily undermining them: the outcome from below, rather than the intention from above. Post-Communism offers a vast field for research of this kind, looking at the ways in which ordinary people are surviving in the new institutional wilderness. Two Russian sociologists, both living abroad, have given us striking ethnographic descriptions of some of them. In How Russia Really Works, Alena Ledeneva, who teaches in London, takes us through the dense thicket of ‘informal’ practices – some entirely new, like kompromat, others a mutation of traditional forms, like krugovaya poruka – that have sprung up in politics, professions, business and the media, all of them breaking or circumventing official rules.
For Ledeneva, they are essentially inventive kinds of illegality, developed in response to the increasing role of formal law in a society where legality itself remains perpetually discretionary and manipulated. As such, they at once support and subvert the advance of a more developed rule of law in Russia. Critical though her account of this paradox is, it comes with a wry affection and upbeat conclusion: all these ingenious ways of fixing or bending the rules contribute in their own fashion to an ongoing, positive process of modernisation. The underlying message is: the Russians are coping. Here it is Western modernity rather than democracy that is taken for granted, as the unspoken telos. A darker verdict can be found in Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics, a blistering study of the ‘political technology’ of blackmail and bribery, intimidation and fraud, in the electoral scene.
Ledeneva’s study explores the world of those who are doing well out of Russian capitalism. At the very end of her book, she lets drop that informal practices which were ‘often beneficial to ordinary people in allowing them to satisfy their personal needs and to organise their own lives’ in times past – ‘before the reforms’, as she puts it – have now become a system of venality that ‘benefits the official-business classes and harms the majority of the population’. The admission is not allowed to ruffle her sanguine conclusions, or uncritical notions of reform. Georgi Derluguian, working in the United States, is more trenchant. Few sociologists alive today, in any language, have the same ability to move from vivid phenomenological analysis of the smallest transactions of everyday existence to systematic theoretical explanation of the grandest mutations of macro-history.
‘The collapse of the USSR,’ Derluguian argues, ‘marks more than the failure of the Bolshevik experiment. It signalled the end of a thousand years of Russian history during which the state had remained the central engine of social development.’ Three times – under Ivan IV, under Peter I and Catherine, and under Stalin – a military-bureaucratic empire was constructed on the vast, vulnerable plains, to emulate foreign advances and resist external invasions, powering its own expansionism. Each time, it was initially successful, and ultimately shattered, as superior force from abroad – Swedish in the Baltic wars, German in the Great War, American in the Cold War – overwhelmed it. But the last of these defeats has buried this form, since it was inflicted not on the battlefield, but in the marketplace. The USSR fell because the traditional ‘Russian state-building assets’, in Derluguian’s phrase, were abruptly ‘devalued’ by transformation of the world economy. ‘Capitalism in the globalisation mode is antithetical to the mercantilist bureaucratic empires that specialised in maximising military might and geopolitical throw-weight – the very pursuits in which Russian and Soviet rulers were enmeshed for centuries.’
In the ensuing disintegration – an implosion under pressure of the new environment – middle-levels of the nomenklatura seized what booty they could, morphing into private asset-strippers or brokers, or reinstalling themselves at different levels, with different titles, in the reconfigured post-Communist bureaucracy. Derluguian has much to say, both picturesque and painful, about this process as it worked itself out in the centre and on the periphery, where he comes from (with an intimate knowledge of the Caucasus). But he never forgets the losers below, ‘the silent majority of Russians’, who are ‘mostly atomised, middle-aged individuals, beaten-down, unheroic philistines trying to make ends meet as decently as they can’, after twenty years of betrayed expectations.
In such conditions, the distance between the frayed, precarious fabric of private lives – of a people now ‘profoundly tired and resistant to any public mobilising’ – and the global canvas on which the destiny of the state is written, seems enormous. Yet there is one traumatic knot that ties them together. In just five years, from 1990 to 1994, the mortality rate among Russian men soared – in peacetime – by 32 per cent, and their average life-expectancy plummeted to under 58 years, below that of Pakistan. By 2003, the population had fallen by more than five million in a decade, and is currently losing 750,000 lives a year. When Yeltsin took power, the total population of Russia was just under 150 million. By 2050, according to official projections, it will be just over 100 million. So many were not undone by Stalin himself.
Official demographers hasten to point out that high mortality rates were already a feature of the Brezhnev period, while low fertility rates are after all a sign of social advance, in syntony with Western Europe. The combination of a mortmain from the past and an upgrade from the future has been unfortunate, but why blame capitalism? Against these apologetics, Eric Hobsbawm’s judgment that the fall of the USSR led to a ‘human catastrophe’ stands. The starkness of the break in the early 1990s is not to be gainsaid. In the new Russia, as Aids, TB and sky-rocketed rates of suicide are added to the list of traditional killers – alcohol, nicotine and the like – public healthcare has wasted away, on a share of the budget that is no more than 5 per cent: half that of Lebanon. A sense of the sheer desolation of the demographic scene is given by the plight of women – more protected from the catastrophe than men – in contemporary Russia. Virtually half of them are single. In the latest survey, out of every 1000 Russian women, 175 have never been married, 180 are widows and 110 are divorcees, living on their own. Such is the solitude of those who, relatively speaking, are the survivors. There are now 15 per cent more women alive in this society than men.
In power-political terms, a relentless attrition of Russia’s human stock has obvious consequences for its role in the world, the subject of urgent addresses to the nation by Putin. What will remain of the greatness of the past? In the 1970s, foreign diplomats were fond of describing the USSR as ‘Upper Volta with rockets’. From one angle, Russia today looks more like Saudi Arabia with rockets, although against the waxing of its oil revenues must be set the ageing of its missiles. That the country, even if it has now regained a certain independence, has so come down in the world haunts not only its governing class, but many of its writers. The possible spaces of empire – past or future, native or alien – have become one of the leitmotifs not only of its political discussion, but of its literary imagination.
In the leading example of the ‘imperial novel’, now an accepted form, Pavel Krusanov constructs a counterfactual history of the 20th century. His bestseller Ukus Angela (‘Bite of the Angel’ – 200,000 copies) recounts a Russia that has never known a revolution, and instead of contracting in size, expands to absorb the whole of China and the Balkans, under the superhuman command of Ivan Nekitaev (‘Not-Chinese’), a tyrant of Olympian freedom from all morality. Vladimir Sorokin inverts the schema in his latest novel, Den’ Oprichnika (‘The Day of the Oprichnik’). By the year 2027 the monarchy has been restored in a self-enclosed Russia, surrounded by a Great Wall, and run by a reincarnation of Ivan IV’s corps of terrorists, under the thumb of China, whose goods and settlers dominate economic life, and whose language is the preferred idiom of the tsar’s children themselves.
These are fictions. The polyglot intelligence specialist Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics draws on Carl Schmitt and Halford Mackinder to counterpose powers of the sea (the Atlantic world centred on the US) to powers of the land, stretching from the Maghreb to China, but centred on Russia, as their natural adversary. Originally, Moscow-Berlin, Moscow-Tokyo and Moscow-Tehran featured as the three main axes in the front against America. Later, a Slavo-Turkish alliance has been conjured up. Borrowing the title of Armin Mohler’s work of 1949, Dugin terms the eventual victory of the powers of the land over those of the sea the ‘conservative revolution’ to come. His colleague Aleksandr Prokhanov, ‘the nightingale of the general staff’, doubles as bestselling novelist, with Gospodin Geksogen, a conspiracy tale of Putin’s ascent to power, and theorist of a new Eurasian imperium, celebrated in his Symphony of the Fifth Empire, just out. These are writers who have dabbled in the murky waters of the far right, but today enjoy a wider political and intellectual entrée. Dugin’s Geopolitics carries an introduction from the head of the strategy department of the general staff. Prokhanov’s Symphony, covered on national television, was launched under the patronage of Nikita Mikhalkov, in the presence of representatives of the ruling United Russia and the neo-liberal Union of Right Forces, Gaidar’s party.
The extravagance of these dreamlands of imperial recovery is an indication not of any feasible ambition, but of a psychology of compensation. The reality is that Russia’s rank in the world has been irreversibly transformed. It was a great power continuously for three centuries: longer – this is often forgotten – than any single country in the West. In square miles, it is still the largest state on earth. But it no longer has a major industrial base. Its economy has revived as an export platform for raw materials, with all the risks of over-reliance on volatile world prices familiar in First and Third World countries alike – over-valuation, inflation, import addiction, sudden implosion. Although it still possesses the only nuclear stockpile anywhere near the American arsenal, its defence industry and armed services are a shadow of the Soviet past. In territory, it has shrunk behind its borders at the end of the 17th century. Its population is smaller than that of Bangladesh. Its gross national income is less than that of Mexico.
More fundamental in the long run for the country’s identity than any of these changes, some of them temporary, may be the drastic alteration in its geopolitical setting. Russia is now wedged between a still expanding European Union, with eight times its GDP and three times its population, and a vastly empowered China, with five times its GDP and ten times its population. Historically speaking, this is a sudden and total change in the relative magnitudes flanking it on either side. Few Russians have yet quite registered the scale of the ridimensionamento of their country. To the west, just when the Russian elites felt they could at last rejoin Europe, where the country properly belonged, after the long Soviet isolation, they suddenly find themselves confronted with a scene in which they cannot be one European power among others (and the largest), as in the 18th or 19th century, but face a vast, quasi-unified EU continental bloc, from which they are formally – and, to all appearances, permanently – excluded. To the east, there is the rising giant of China, overshadowing the recovery of Russia, but still utterly remote to the minds of most Russians. Against all this, Moscow has only the energy card – no small matter, but scarcely a commensurate counter-balance.
These new circumstances are liable to deal a double blow to Russia’s traditional sense of itself. On the one hand, racist assumptions of the superiority of white to yellow peoples remain deeply ingrained in popular attitudes. Long accustomed to regarding themselves as – relatively speaking – civilised and the Chinese as backward, if not barbaric, Russians inevitably find it difficult to adjust to the spectacular reversal of roles today, when China has become an industrial powerhouse towering above its neighbour, and its great urban centres are exemplars of a modernity that makes their Russian counterparts look small and shabby by comparison. The social and economic dynamism of the PRC, brimming with conflict and vitality of every kind, offers a particularly painful contrast, for those willing to look, with the numbed apathy of Russia – and this, liberals might gloomily reflect, without even the deliverance of a true post-Communism. The wound to national pride is potentially acute.
Worse lies to the west. The Asian expanse of Russia, covering three-quarters of its territory, contains only a fifth of its population, falling fast. Eighty out of a hundred Russians live in the quarter of the land that forms part of Europe. Catherine the Great’s famous declaration that ‘Russia is a European country’ was not so obvious at the time, and has often been doubted since, by foreigners and natives alike. But its spirit is deeply rooted in the Russian elites, who have always – despite the urgings of Eurasian enthusiasts – mentally faced west, not east. In many practical ways, post-Communism has restored Russia to the ‘common European home’ that Gorbachev liked to invoke. Travel, sport, crime, emigration, dual residence are letting better-off Russians back into a world they once shared in the Belle Epoque. But at state level, with all its consequences for the national psyche, Russia – in being what cannot be included in the Union – is now formally defined as what is not Europe, in the new, hardening sense of the term. The injustice of this is obvious. Inconvenient though it may be for the ideologues of enlargement to acknowledge, Russia’s contribution to European culture has historically been greater than that of all the new member-states of the EU combined. In the years to come, it would be surprising if the relationship between Brussels and Moscow did not rub.
Few peoples have had to undergo the variety of successive shocks – liberation, depression, expropriation, attrition, demotion – that Russians have endured in the last decade and a half. Even if these, historically considered, are so far only a brief aftermath of the much vaster turbulences of the 20th century, it is no surprise that the masses are ‘profoundly tired and resistant to any public mobilising’. What they will eventually make of the new experiences remains to be seen. For the moment, the people are silent: Pushkin’s closing line applies – ‘narod bezmolvstvuet.’
 Russian terms and phrases. Syroviki: those in control of syryo, or raw materials; siloviki: those in command of sila, or force; kompromat: compromising information; krugovaya poruka: literally, ‘circular pledge’, or mutual complicity; poshlost: (roughly) pretentious banality.
 Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., £20, September 2005, 978 0 7432 6431 0.
 Yale, 256 pp., £17.95, December 2005, 978 0 300 11288 7.
 Cornell, 288 pp., £12.95, October 2006, 978 0 8014 7325 4.
 Yale, 336 pp., £20, April 2005, 978 0 300 09545 6.
Posted by Blair Sheridan at 2:52 p.m.
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