All posts by natyliesb

Review of Chris Hedges’ “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
I have read many accounts of the horrors of war, including first person narratives of the Holocaust and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  As part of my research on the war in Ukraine, I viewed footage of civilian bodies — dead and dismembered — including women and children, from artillery shells, bombs, and shrapnel; bloated and blackened bodies of fighters scattered in fields and on the sides of roads.
Yet, I never seem to become inured to it.  I still wince and feel my stomach curdle, not knowing whether to weep for or rage at humanity.
The first six chapters of this book provide a detailed account of Hedges’ experiences as a war correspondent, from the Balkans to the Middle East to Africa.  It is graphic and disturbing in that it’s a reminder of just what depths humans are capable of plumbing.  I don’t know how Hedges functions on a daily basis with the things that he has witnessed.  But he seems to recognize his role as a witness in the highest sense of the word and has not only reported his observations and experiences, but has attempted to make sense of them, not only for his own sake but to provide insight and ultimately a warning about the madness of war and the folly of unleashing its dark forces.
It is in the seventh chapter, “Eros and Thanatos,” where Hedges puts down his best reflections on the horrors of the previous six chapters worth of gratuitous death, destruction and moral-spiritual degradation.
I certainly agree with Hedges that humans seem to have a tendency toward self-destructiveness, both on a personal and collective level.  He cites Freud’s concept of thanatos, the death drive, as an approximate description of humans’ drive for self-destruction.  Hedges asserts that love is its antithesis.  Love representing an empathetic and symbiotic connection with another — typically another human, but I think it’s safe to say that it could include animals, God in some iteration or the natural world, anything that is beyond oneself.  Love is what is needed to balance out or heal the destructive drive that war brings out.
It was a bit disappointing, however, that Hedges pretty much stopped at Freud in terms of psychological thought on this.  Freud’s disaffected student, Carl Jung, went much further in this area of exploration.  Jung and those influenced by his thought have noted that these thanatos-related destructive behaviors, like addiction — whether to drugs, acquisitiveness or the intoxication of the power inherent in martial actions — are warped substitutes for humans’ spiritual drive for meaning and purpose that is often repressed in the modern world.  Jung observed after decades of listening to patients in both the US and Europe that what they all seemed to have in common was a lack of meaning in their lives for which modern western culture — with its scientific materialism and social atomization — appeared deficient in terms of providing.  Hedges touches on this deficiency and how war can consequently serve as a source of meaning and purpose that is missing in many people’s lives, but considering the title of his book, he doesn’t dive as deeply into it as would be expected.
Another area in which I have some trouble with Hedges is the assertion he makes, either implicitly or explicitly, that this destructiveness, which is most acutely reflected in war but also by drug addiction, consumerism, perverted or dehumanizing sexuality (also common in war settings), etc.  has always been part of human history.  It is a common fallacy repeated by many who write about war and the dark aspects of human nature or human habit.
However, there is solid anthropological evidence indicating that organized warfare only cropped up around 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, roughly coinciding with agricultural settlement and its attendant forms of social organization.  That is not to say there was no violence but it mostly took the form of individual homicides.
What are the implications that throughout most of human history humans did not engage in war?  It is a question that begs to be asked no less than the question that Hedges and so many others ask about why humans do engage in war.  During the long period of no war, humans lived in small, relatively egalitarian groups.  In other words, human beings did not evolve to live in large, centralized and hierarchical social structures.  I would assert that they also did not evolve to believe that existence had no meaning and the universe — however narrow or broad they may have perceived it — to be nothing more than a vast machine.  Humans during this period tended to be animists, to believe that all living things were infused with spirit or a sense of the sacred.  This does not mean there was no killing:  humans hunted animals for food and clothing and sometimes even killed other humans, but there were boundaries in place, underpinned by a sense of a connected or spiritual world view, to keep these behaviors from spiraling out of control.  Humans were also dependent upon the tribe or band for survival and the threat of being expelled from the community was usually the equivalent of a death sentence.  Therefore, there was a powerful incentive not to profoundly or repeatedly offend the social boundaries of that community.
Paradoxically, this may provide a partial explanation as to why humans find it so difficult to go against their group, even when that group has become ethically compromised and destructive.
Another psychologist-philosopher that has some insights on this is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton who has spent his career studying war crimes and those who commit them, from Communist Chinese brainwashing to Nazi doctors to Vietnam veterans.  Lifton has described how relatively decent people can become war criminals due to immersion in institutions that socialize such behavior, creating what he calls the “rotten barrel.”  He also describes the psychological phenomena of “doubling” — similar to what most would refer to as compartmentalizing but in an extreme manifestation.  This was how doctors and others who committed or enabled atrocities at concentration camps during the day could go home and be family men at night, even at times being highly cultured individuals.
Hedges describes many of the symptoms of these phenomena throughout his book and his recognition of the seductive, even addictive aspects of war is important. But he could have drawn on more schools of thought on the subject and come up with an even more comprehensive analysis.
Suggested Further Read and Viewing:
1.  Part III of PBS Special “The Wisdom of the Dream.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HvN04oaW0Y
2.  The Human Potential for Peace:  An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions About War and Violence by Douglas P. Fry
3.  Becoming Animal:  An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram.

 

3 Western Media Myths About Russia

From flickr.com/photos/22490717@N02/4104924129/: Russia_2488 - They Defeated Napoleon
Russia_2488 – They Defeated Napoleon
(image by archer10 (Dennis) REPOSTING)
  DMCA)

Myth #1: Immigrants Don’t Go to Russia and Russians Can’t Wait to Leave

As Mark Adomanis, an expert on Russian demographics, noted in a Forbes article pointing out several basic facts that president Obama got wrong about Russia in his interview with The Economist last summer, Russia is second in the world only to the United States in immigration. Most of the immigrants are from the former Soviet republics, particularly Central Asia, and the influx has created an important political issue: “Several of the most consequential political disagreements in Russian society revolve around the question of how to deal with immigration. Anyone who thinks that Russia isn’t dealing with a significant debate over immigration simply doesn’t know anything about the country.”

Further challenging the typical western narrative that Russia is the armpit of the world and no one in their right mind could possibly want to live there, it should also be noted that a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center found only 10% of Russians thought they might enjoy living abroad while only 5%  regularly thought about leaving.

3 Western Media Myths About Vladimir Putin

From flickr.com/photos/79854445@N06/7208431152/: Vladimir Putin

(image by AK Rockefeller)   DMCA

 

Myth #1:   Putin is an imperialist who wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union.

The most common premise that the West uses to argue that Putin is an imperialist who wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union is a line plucked from a 2005 speech before the Federal Assembly regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This is an example of the West’s well established pattern of taking things Putin says out of context to make it sound like he is saying something he is not.  Below is what Putin actually said, properly translated and in context:

“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.

Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country’s integrity. Oligarchic groups – possessing absolute control over information channels – served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere.

Many thought or seemed to think at the time that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse, the prolonged agony of the Soviet system.

But they were mistaken.

That was precisely the period when the significant developments took place in Russia. Our society was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life. In those difficult years, the people of Russia had to both uphold their state sovereignty and make an unerring choice in selecting a new vector of development in the thousand years of their history. They had to accomplish the most difficult task: how to safeguard their own values, not to squander undeniable achievements, and confirm the viability of Russian democracy. We had to find our own path in order to build a democratic, free and just society and state.

When speaking of justice, I am not of course referring to the notorious “take away and divide by all” formula, but extensive and equal opportunities for everybody to develop. Success for everyone. A better life for all.”

Putin says nothing that can be construed by any sane person as a desire to rebuild an empire or take over other sovereign nations.  He is discussing the conditions in Russia during the 1990’s when a small group of well-connected bureaucrats (who would become the oligarchs) seized control of what had been the Soviet Union’s major resources and industrial sectors for a pittance, taking the billions of dollars they made out of the country while the population lost their life savings, experienced prolonged periods receiving no salaries or pensions, went hungry and suffered due to skyrocketing crime and a major mortality crisis.  He was talking about how the country was gradually getting back on its feet after the decade under Yeltsin’s rule that put Russia literally on the verge of being a failed state.

To read the rest of the article, go to:

http://www.opednews.com/articles/3-Western-Media-Myths-Abou-by-Natylie-Baldwin-Kremlin_Litvinenko_Media_Media-150416-371.html

3 Western Media Myths About the Ukraine War

Myth #1:  Russia started it.

The European Union, led by Germany, tried to pressure Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to sign an Association agreement.  Upon review of how the agreement would actually affect his country economically – already the poorest in Europe – including austerity measures,  renunciation of their significant trade with Russia and the supplanting of Ukraine’s native oligarchs, Yanukovich balked and opted to go with a Russian deal comprised of a $15 billion loan and reduced gas rates.  As it turns out, the West was not in fact offering Ukraine free trade or even visa-free travel but a self-serving deal that had little to no benefit to Ukraine.  Most people in Yanukovich’s place would have done the same.

Throughout the period of negotiating this association agreement, Russia requested three way talks to avert problems.  Of course, Russia wanted to protect its own economic and trade interests, but it also had an interest in preventing friction or instability on its border.  They were basically told by the West to drop dead.

Myth #2:  Yanukovich fled Ukraine due to a massive peaceful protest representing the majority sentiment in the country.

According to an independent investigation by Germany’s ARD TV into the events surrounding the ouster of the democratically elected president, specifically the violence on the Maidan, found that sniper shots, starting on February 20th, which resulted in almost 100 deaths came primarily from buildings controlled by the Maidan protesters.   A more in-depth forensic investigation was conducted by Ukrainian-Canadian academic Ivan Katchanovski, PhD.  His conclusions supported the ARD report.  This is all consistent with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet’s account to then European High Commissioner Catherine Ashton in an intercepted phone call posted on February 26, 2014, wherein he stated that his sources, including Dr. Olga Bolgomets – who was an ardent supporter of the original Maidan protests – reported evidence that the snipers were Maidan protesters.  Paet also reported that members of the Ukrainian parliament had been beaten and threatened during the period in question.

Prior to the sniper violence and the ouster of Yanukovich, State Department official Victoria Nuland and US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt were caught with their pants down in an intercepted phone call posted on February 6th wherein they are discussing how to “glue this thing” and who will be the best person to lead a post-Yanukovich Ukraine, declaring “Yats is the guy.” She also famously disparaged the EU’s less aggressive approach to engineering a zero-sum position for Ukraine with respect to its relations with the West and Russia.

Thus, there is overwhelming evidence, typically ignored by the western mainstream media, that Yanukovich’s ousting was actually the result of a violent and planned coup.

Myth #3:  The Donbas rebellion is a Russian contrivance with no indigenous support and no legitimate grievances.

American Russia scholar Nicolai Petro, who spent a year in Ukraine and was in country when the upheaval occurred, has cited sociological surveys of Donbas residents from March, April and May of 2014 in which the results show that majorities considered the Right Sector to be dangerous and influential and the Maidan protests to be illegal and representing “an armed overthrow of the government, organized by the opposition, with the assistance of the West.”

Independent video journalist Patrick Lancaster, who has been reporting from the Donbas since spring of 2014, stated that most of the fighters he has encountered on both sides are Ukrainian.

British Russia scholar Paul Robinson has estimated that 90% of the fighters in the Donbas are Ukrainian.  Furthermore, he states that the original rebellion constituted regular citizens who took control of local government buildings in response to the startling events coming out of post-coup Kiev where laws were introduced seeking to delegitimize the Russian language, neo-Nazis were given posts in the Interior and Education departments and many acts of violence were committed against members of the Communist Party and the Party of Regions.

When Robinson asked a Maidan protester why this political protest had led to a more violent and divisive result than the Orange Revolution in 2004, the protester admitted that this time they didn’t care what the Crimeans or the residents of the Donbas wanted.   So the divisiveness was not initiated by Russia or the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine, but by a portion of the Maidan protesters who basically believed a whole segment of their country should – to put it delicately – kiss off.

Although Russia has provided some arms and allowed Russian volunteers to cross the border freely, Robinson points out that Moscow has actually had a moderating influence on the rebels by facilitating the replacement of the original military leaders (Igor Strelkov and Alexander Borodai) that supported a quixotic quest for independence.    An independent Donbas that would be economically unviable and would provide no counterweight to a hostile and extremist government in Kiev is not in Moscow’s interests.

Review of Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

Dying Unneeded:  The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

“I saw nothing barbarous about these people.  On the contrary their forms have something elegant and gentle which one does not find anywhere else….The character of this people is that they fear neither fatigue nor physical suffering; there is both patience and activity in this nation, gaiety and melancholy.  One sees the most striking contrasts united in them and this presages great things, for ordinarily it is only superior beings who possess opposing qualities; masses are, for the most part, gray.”

-Madame de Stael on her trip to Russia in 1812 (1)

 “Even for her people, Russia refuses to submit.  This is how she charms and this is how she frustrates.  She is never completely known and always retains her ability to surprise, in both pleasant and unpleasant ways.” (Parsons, p. 7)

Though I have read several books over the past year on Russia that have been tremendously informative, ethnographer Michelle Parsons’ Dying Unneeded has achieved something special.  Special in that it provides the reader with an empathetic window into Russian triumphs and struggles post-WWII, especially during the “shock therapy” period of the 1990s.

The book is deeply sad at times, but the reader does not walk away simply feeling sorry for Russians, something this proud people likely wouldn’t want.  In addition to the sadness, one also comes away with a glimpse of what gives the Russian people their character and resilience as well as their mystique.

Geography and history in the form of a harsh climate and constant invasions from all directions have created a people with great stamina and endurance.

It’s no surprise then that Russia has been a source of great literature.  In terms of historical experience and culture, it has all the necessary ingredients for great storytelling:  tragedy, struggle, paradox and a sense of the absurd (i.e. humor).  And most Russians, as cited in the interviews and surveys used for Parsons’ book, seem to be keenly aware of this.

The sense of the absurd involves getting things done within Russia’s still cumbersome bureaucracy and the use of connections, which outsiders often perceive as “corruption” but in actuality has a more complex cultural history.  A harsh bureaucracy to maintain order along with tribute paying and exploitation of connections goes back to the state system imposed by the Mongols in the 13th century.

As one of Parson’s Russian acquaintances stated:  “It is impossible for you Westerners to understand our lives…trying to understand us rationally.  Russian reality is based on absurdisms – economic, social, even scientific.  All our life is based on absurdity, impossibility.  Russian daily life is simply absurd and preposterous. “  (Parsons, p. 7)

Space, Order & Freedom in the Soviet Union & Post-Soviet Russia

The theme of paradox – which seems to underscore most people’s observations of Russia and its people, regardless of the time period – was reflected most in this book by the author’s elaboration of the historical and cultural relationship between space and order and its implications for social connection.

“Older Muscovites were often nostalgic for Soviet order because it ordered social connections.  People’s positions vis-à-vis the Soviet state influenced what people could give to other people – the ways they could be soulful and needed.  Work was the principle means by which Soviet citizens were ordered by the state.  At work, Russians had personal connections and access to resources and services. Someone in the Soviet bureaucracy could arrange permission to build a dacha.  A friendly butcher could set aside a good cut of meat.  A test proctor could help a student pass an entrance examination.  Collectively, people often circumvented the state, but they depended on the state to do that.  Order here refers to both the order of the state and the order of social relations because they are mutually constitutive.” (Parsons, p. 12)

Furthermore, the push back required to circumvent both the material and non-material limits of the state in order to get various needs met – utilizing those essential social connections – produced a sense of freedom.

“The paradox of space and order – the unbound and bound quality of social relations in Soviet society – resolves into the even higher-order concept of freedom.  For these elderly Muscovites, freedom was not always compromised by the Soviet state.  In some cases the constraint of the Soviet state heightened a sense of freedom.  As people using their connections, collectively pushed against the limits of the state, and as those limits bent back or gave way, they experienced a sense of freedom.”  (Parsons, p. 12)

It should be noted that this phenomena of pushing back against the system in small and various ways did not work under the brutality of the Stalin regime and it refers to Soviet life generally after Stalin’s death when the system relaxed in some ways.  Parsons goes on later to explain how the breakdown of this space-order-freedom framework in the 1990s led to social alienation as people seemed to drift off onto their own.  This alienation was exacerbated by the requirements of neoliberal capitalism.

“The people we talked with were eloquent storytellers when asked about their lives and how things had changed in the early 1990s.  They were intent on answering the question, ‘What makes life worth living?’  And what made life worth living was a sense of being needed.” (p. 9)

Some Westerners eschew the idea that Russians have a distinct outlook that is more interested in a sense of meaning and other non-material pursuits – a soulfulness – as alluded to in an earlier quote about social connections and being needed.  Contrary to these naysayers, there does seem to be some merit to this cultural difference, but as with any group of humans it is hardly simple.  As evidenced by surveys Parsons cites, there is a deep cultural interest in a meaningful life and what that means in terms of their social relationships and the consequences of having those relationships torn asunder via the various upheavals of the 20th century, particularly the dissolution of Soviet society in the 1990s.  That dissolution produced a trauma that translated into millions of premature deaths, especially among Russian men who died from accelerated alcoholism, heart attacks, suicides and homicides.  Women were also affected by the mortality crisis but on a smaller scale as well as in a qualitatively different way.

“Men’s sense of neededness centered on being able to adequately provide – a possibility that narrowed substantially in the early 1990s.  Women’s sense of neededness was more diffuse and included, importantly, being able to hold their families together in times of hardship.  In this sense, the early 1990s meant that women were sometimes quite desperately needed.  They were undoubtedly burdened by this responsibility, but they may have also been preserved by it.”  (p. 11)

This is reminiscent of Viktor Frankl’s observation in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that his experience in Nazi concentration camps showed him that those who were able to survive in the horrendous physical and psychological conditions were not necessarily the most physically hardy or stubborn, but those who were able to provide something to their fellow prisoners – comfort, an extra piece of bread or just a dark sense of humor – and who were able to find some larger meaning in suffering, both their own and those around them.

Recent research in social psychology reveals the difference between a meaningful life and a happy one – the difference, in large part, being that meaning derives from what you are able to give and happiness from what you are able to receive.   (2)

It can be argued that without struggle, there is no opportunity for meaning.   This is not to celebrate or be tolerant of systems of gratuitous suffering, but to recognize that the complementary relationship between a sense of meaning and happiness requires both some degree of struggle as well as interdependence among people.

This is also not to suggest that Russians’ strong interest in a meaningful life, as reflected in their impressive tradition in the arts, philosophy and literature, means they are austere, ascetic or masochistic.   As Suzanne Massie, an academic expert on Russian history and culture, once noted with respect to the French conclusion that Russians “love to suffer”:

“Russians do not “love” to suffer, but through their history they have often had to suffer and to endure.  Their experience has bred in them a serene knowledge that there is a limit to what human beings can understand or change, and an acceptance of everything that life has to offer of both joy and tragedy.”   (1)

Among people they know and trust, Russians reportedly tend to be warm and effusive.  They also know how to enjoy the finer things when they have access to them as was demonstrated during the Czarist period when lavish dress and architecture abounded.  Even peasant attire and everyday items had elaborate and decorative designs as pre-Soviet Russian artisans and craftspeople were numerous and renowned.

Russian Social Connections and Social Morality

Along with the importance of a sense of meaning in life there is an interest in the separate but related issue of morality.  From the time of Kiev Rus in the 10th century, when Prince Vladimir chose the Orthodox religion, which has seen a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia, the Russians have put their own unique stamp on Christianity.  As Massie described in her 1980 book on Pre-Soviet Russia, Land of the Firebird:

“[A] calm acceptance of fate and the sympathy for human suffering are perhaps the greatest strengths of the Russian people and the most basic expression of Russian Christianity.”  (1)

Though the church was repressed during the Soviet era, morality as reflected in the value of social connections remained.   As Parsons writes:

“Social connections in Russia remain a way of living a moral life amid circumstances widely regarded as immoral…Russian social connections allow individuals to access a moral space beyond the self and beyond the mundane.  When middle-aged Muscovites lament a loss of sociality [from the Soviet period], they are commenting on a perceived loss of morality.” (Parsons, p. 18)

Parsons describes why one older Russian friend had refused to go into a trendy café in modern day capitalist Moscow, feeling out of place:

“Instead of a space where people’s interactions were framed by the political economy of socialism, the space’s interactions were framed by the political economy of capitalism.  In this way social inequality was written into a space in a way that clearly read social exclusion to older Muscovites, many of whom had never seen such lavish cafes with their trendy clientele and expensive coffee during most of their lifetimes.  These spaces were ‘no longer for everyone but for a certain type of people.’” (Parsons, p. 30)

One interviewee from Moscow, a music teacher, lamented the difference between Soviet times and the current times:  “We had no illusions.  But the human aspect of that time….Everything is sold now.  Before we would have been ashamed.”  (Parsons, p. 39)

Indeed, Moscow is wealthier, more bustling and diverse and also suffers from more inequality than any other part of Russia.  As epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in their pioneering work on inequality, The Spirit Level, the more social inequality (as reflected in income) there is within a society, the more social problems will flourish, including increased crime, health problems, mental illness, substance abuse and distrust.  Post-Soviet Russia has been no exception.

It is interesting to note throughout the book that none of the interviewees mention political democracy as a factor either way in discussing the good or bad of Soviet life versus post-Soviet life.  It is social security in the form of access to essential goods and the quality of social relationships (or lack thereof) that are most often mentioned.

Similarly, these are the factors that have a strong significant impact on mortality as Wilkinson and Pickett show with their metadata in The Spirit Level.    According to a November 2014 poll conducted by the Levada Center, 61% of Russians favored living in a society that strove for social equality rather than a society that strove for higher individual success.  (3)

This is not to say that political democracy has no appeal at all or that democracies can’t incorporate various mechanisms to decrease the inequalities inherent in capitalist market systems, such as the Scandinavian social democracies, but perhaps our assumptions about the prioritization of political democracy over social equality are confused.  Given the fact that humans are the most social creatures on the planet, it is logical that they are extremely sensitive to perceived social inequities.

  1. Massie, Suzanne. Land of the Firebird:  The Beauty of Old Russia.  Hearttree Press.
  2. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/happy_life_different_from_meaningful_life
  3. http://www.levada.ru/eng/68-russian-citizens-consider-russia-superpower

 

Review of “Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft” by Allen Lynch

Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft

This book is a great antidote to the Karen Dawisha/Frontline hysteria that’s been making the rounds.

If you want to know more of my thoughts on the Dawisha and Frontline issues, please see:

http://www.opednews.com/articles/Frontline-Slings-Mud-at-Pu-by-Natylie-Baldwin-International_Other_Propaganda_Putin-150205-114.html

I use Lynch’s book, among other sources, to buttress some of my critique of Dawisha and the Frontline program, “Putin’s Way,” which violated several of Frontline’s own stated journalistic guidelines.

Lynch’s political biography of Putin is a sober and scholarly analysis of Putin the man, the current political conditions of the Russian Federation and the relationship between the two.

Lynch’s assessment of Putin is that, in addition to having conservative views on honor and loyalty, he is extremely intelligent and recognizes (and is even open to) many aspects of western democracy on an intellectual level; but Putin also has certain psychological facets to his personality that make him lean toward control, particularly in times of crisis.

I think this is a reasonable assessment. Putin is indeed preoccupied with stability. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and subsequent chaos that enveloped Russia during the 1990’s made an indelible impression on Putin, as it did on most Russians.

I also think it would be fair to say that most leaders would have some of those same tendencies if faced with the challenges that Russia has had in the past two decades, including a lone superpower overrun by neo-Wilsonian and neoconservative thinking that continues to move a hostile military alliance right up to Russia’s borders, funnels money to opposition figures that want to topple the Russian government – even going so far as having an ambassador (Michael McFaul) that actively supported the opposition in violation of diplomatic protocol, and an oligarchy inherited from the previous leadership – some of whom bristled at having any constraints placed on their behavior and continued to collude with hostile powers to cause trouble (Khodorkovsky and the late Berezovsky).

What also has to be kept in mind is that Russia is trying to find its way in the midst of many challenges with no historical experience with democratic institutions prior to Gorbachev’s brief rule.

Contrary to Dawisha’s mishmash of unverified sources and discredited theories, Lynch describes Putin’s relative honesty when he was working as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 90’s:

“For much of this time, given (mayor Anatoliy) Sobchak’s frequent and protracted absences and his preoccupation with national affairs, Putin assumed the functions of acting mayor. He supervised the drafting and implementation of countless international business deals and policy reforms. These transactions did not always go according to plan, and no doubt many profited handsomely from Putin’s admitted inexperience in these matters. During his attempt to establish municipal oversight over a series of casinos, for example, the city was cheated. In another case, the city was fleeced for $120 million for two shipments of cooking oil. Although during this period his mother bought a choice apartment at an exceptionally low price at a city auction, Putin didn’t seem to enrich himself personally. In the one specific public charge of corruption that was brought against him, Putin sued in court for slander and won….”

This assessment is confirmed by other sources as noted in my article on Dawisha and Frontline.

Lynch also details Putin’s career in the KGB and how his actual job, throughout most of it, was as a low-level analyst in Dresden. Disenchanted with the agency, Putin voluntarily quit the KGB in the early 1990’s, not long after passing up a potential promotion to “the headquarters of the KGB’s foreign intelligence operations,” opting to keep his family in St. Petersburg where they had secure housing, which would have been difficult to obtain in Moscow.

In the latter chapters, Lynch sums up that, contrary to the hysterical and propagandistic statements thrown around by many western politicians and pundits, Russia is not presently a dictatorship or an autocracy, but that the governance in that vast country is far more nuanced and complex:

“For all the impressive aura of authority surrounding his presidency, Putin was no dictator. Nor was his affinity for authoritarian rule similar to the unbridled totalitarianism of Soviet days. Substantial sectors of the economy remained in private hands, including scores of billions of dollars in liquid capital in private banks abroad. A considerable public forum existed for debate on public issues, though much more so in the press than on television. Furthermore, Russians had the right to travel abroad pretty much as they pleased; availability of funds, not political considerations, was their main constraint. Religious adherents of Russia’s historical religions of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism were free to practice their faith more or less as they pleased. Putin’s Russia, measured by any Cold War standard, represented impressive progress from the Soviet period. (p. 88)

….In foreign affairs, Russia has no ideologically based conflicts with the outside world and has pursued a mainly pragmatic diplomacy, not always successful, aimed at maximizing Russian revenues and minimizing Russia’s enemies.” (p. 133)

In terms of the legal system, Lynch confirms what I’ve heard from other credible sources – that there is a dual track in some limited circumstances:

“In the overwhelming majority of the millions of legal cases that are handled in Russia each year, the outcomes are decided on the basis of codified law as interpreted by judges and without political pressure.  This situation changes, however, when the political and economic interests of the Kremlin are involved. ” (p. 84)

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book which prevented me from giving it 5 starts. The first is that it would have been useful for Lynch to have provided some analysis and discussion of two historical Russian figures that are known to be influential to Putin’s political thinking: Ivan Ilyn (1) and Pyotr Stolypin (2). Both were anti-Revolutionary reformers and/or political philosophers who were interested in advancing Russia toward a developed nation based on the rule of law via gradual and thoughtful reform.

I suspect the reason that this was not done was due to the tendency to view and judge both Putin and Russia through a Western lens with the implicit assumption that the way the West does things represents the supreme way of doing things, best summed up by Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “There is no alternative (TINA).”

This attitude was even more prominent in Angus Roxburgh’s The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, in which Roxburgh’s Western bias at times bordered on the patronizing. However, he was more even-handed than many others and provided much valuable behind-the-scenes insight of Russia’s relations with the West from 2000 to 2012. I recommend that book, along with this one, for those interested in serious political biographies of Putin.

The other quibble with Lynch’s book was the occasional use of non-credible sources like Freedom House which gets 80% of its funding from the US government via the National Endowment for Democracy and, as I have written elsewhere, has a tendency to assess a country’s level of freedom, not based on consistent and objective criteria, but based on whether the country is an ally of the US and/or receptive to US corporate interests.

1)Ivan Ilyn:

https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/against-russia/#more-434

2) Pyotr Stolypin:

http:/russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/politics-and-society/pyotr-stolypin/

 

Frontline Slings Mud at Putin

From flickr.com/photos/121483302@N02/14601882594/: Vladimir Putin

(image by theglobalpanorama)   DMCA

 

Karen Dawisha is not the most credible source on Russia or its president. Making a documentary program with no other academic or journalistic experts on Russia, government officials or business people is short sighted. Not performing due diligence as to the dubious claims she and the handful of others on Frontline make smacks of propaganda.

For full article, go to:

http://www.opednews.com/articles/Frontline-Slings-Mud-at-Pu-by-Natylie-Baldwin-International_Other_Propaganda_Putin-150205-114.html

Note:  I have emailed a copy of the full article to Frontline.   Will update with any response I receive.

Should I Waste My Time Reading Karen Dawisha’s “Putin’s Kleptocracy”?

I have admittedly not yet read Karen Dawisha’s new book, Putin’s Kleptocracy; however, a few things about the author, including her own words written recently in attempts to plug the book, raise some red flags and make me wonder if it would be worth my time – or anyone’s – to read it.

On December 4th, Dawisha wrote a piece for the International edition of the New York Times called “Bad Mannered Russians in the West.” It essentially argues, as does her book presumably, that Russia is a hopelessly brutal and corrupt nation and that it really got this way under Putin’s leadership. It also accuses Putin himself of being very corrupt.

 

The first red flag I noticed was during a basic background search on Ms. Dawisha. A previous work of hers was touted by pathological Russia-hater Zbigniew Brzezinski in a review published at Foreign Affairs. If Zbig thinks Dawisha’s work, which focuses on Eastern European studies, is good, then this tells you something about Dawisha’s tone and attitude in her writing. Not one positive word will be uttered about any Russian government that attempts to be independent of Washington or Zbig’s Grand Imperial Strategy as outlined in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard.   And certainly, nothing remotely positive will be contemplated about Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the warped Brzezinski/Neocon/Mainstream Media world, if Putin were to pull an old lady who was about to get hit by a bus to safety, it would be spun as attempted murder by that sinister ex-KGB agent with the steely blue eyes. Any observation to the contrary would be met with “who are you going to be believe, us or your eyes?” And if one were to have the audacity to believe their own eyes, then they would simply be accused of being paid by the Kremlin or of being one of Putin’s many bedmates when he isn’t rolling in the hay with that famous Olympic gymnast during his numerous hours of free time. After all, it doesn’t take much time and energy to run that vast nation that bridges Europe and Asia.

 

But I digress…

 

There were indeed a few other causes for concern related to Ms. Dawisha’s overall credibility when I read her NYT piece. For example, in the fourth paragraph she states:

 

The market increasingly recognizes the risk of dealing with Russian companies, the largest of which is Gazprom. Despite having the world’s largest net profits, Gazprom was trading at one-third the stock market valuation of Exxon Mobil, due to what is widely regarded as rampant and Kremlin-directed corruption.

 

This allegation is particularly interesting when one considers that Transparency International’s most recent report states that Russian companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, scored higher than Exxon Mobil as well as Apple and Google, which are notorious for having poor scores. Furthermore, the report recognized a consistent upward trend in transparency and good corporate governance for the two Russian state-run fossil fuel companies.   Is Transparency International a tool of the Kremlin now, Ms. Dawisha?

 

In the seventh paragraph, the author says:

 

Mr. Putin has said he wants an end to corruption and bureaucratic bullying. If he is serious, this would be good news for Russia, as it might show that he is actually willing to lay down laws that everyone will have to abide by. But thus far he has only increased the power of the state at home, while treating the West like an a la carte menu – with public goods of his own choosing to be freely consumed. What he doesn’t understand, however, is that “the West” is a prix fixe menu: Its values and obligations must be consumed along with its pleasures.

 

It’s hard to know where to even begin with this one.   First of all, being treated like an a la carte menu – with public goods of one’s own choosing to be freely consumed — sounds like an awful good description of how the West, particularly the US, viewed Russia’s resources during the 1990’s when Jeffrey Sachs and his cabal of neo-liberal carpetbaggers from the Harvard School of Economics colluded with a few Russian predators to plunder Russia’s assets, the proceeds of which were funneled out of Russia and into foreign banks by the new crop of oligarchs, while the Russian people were left with an inflation rate of 2500% at its height, loss of life savings, food deprivation and mass poverty. Millions of Russians simply did not survive the decade as alcoholism and violent crime skyrocketed.

 

While Russia is not yet Utopia, under Putin’s governance, the oligarchs were brought to heel, made to pay taxes and actually contribute something to Russia, there are budget surpluses, no IMF debt, low unemployment, massive investments in infrastructure, a poverty rate cut in half and wages that have quintupled. Is it any wonder that he is so popular among the Russian people?

 

One of the things Putin did in order to facilitate this set of reforms and improvements to the lives of many Russians was taking the fire sale sign down from Russia. The elites of the West, especially the US and Britain, have never forgiven him for this. No longer able to penetrate Russia at will, the western elites have bided their time, waiting to exact revenge and have their way once again with that beautiful resource-rich nation.

 

But in Dawisha’s NYT narrative, the horrible conditions of the 1990’s are not mentioned. I guess she’d like everyone to implicitly believe that the decade of Yeltsin’s rule represented a paragon of democracy with all Russians dancing and singing along to REM’s “Shiny Happy People.” And then Vladimir “Satan” Putin came along and installed the oligarch system himself, personally stole everything in sight and made all Russians cower in a dark corner, deprived of the profound political and cultural insights of Pussy Riot.

 

As for the assertion that Putin has done little to nothing about corruption, the author clearly doesn’t keep up with current Russian politics or is intentionally withholding pertinent facts. In the past year, an official portal or registry of all government inspections has been implemented where the public can look up all relevant details with respect to inspections on businesses.   If one is informed about the nature of corruption in Russia, they will know that 90% of corruption occurs at the local level and has a history all the way back to the Czarist era when local officials were paid tribute in exchange for getting things done. Time will tell how this policy works out.

 

As for Putin’s personal integrity, I admittedly don’t have access to his personal bank accounts, but a credible source has told me that, during a meeting with the then unknown bureaucrat named Vladimir Putin from whom she needed approval for a business development proposal in the early 1990’s, Putin made a lasting impression due to the fact that he was one of the few Russian bureaucrats that she’d encountered who did not ask for a bribe or any other kind of favor during the interaction. This fact was confirmed by many other people she came to know in St. Petersburg who had to register a business during his time there. If Putin wasn’t on the take while he was relatively poor and living in a small apartment with his wife, two daughters and mother, why would he be on the take now when he has a much higher salary?

 

The point here is that, just from the bits and pieces I’m getting about Dawisha’s work, I’m deeply skeptical of her claims. Much of what is offered as her strongest points are highly questionable. In a predictably glowing review of Dawisha’s book by none other than paid hack and Russophobe Anne Applebaum in the New York Review of Books, it is conceded in the 8th paragraph:

 

To tell this story, Dawisha uses many sources, including the evidence presented in several major court cases, a number of which fizzled out for political reasons; material collected by Russian and European investigative reporters, some of which has now vanished from the Web; and Russian legal journals, many of which are now out of print.

 

Well, gee, isn’t it convenient that this information is not available to be verified? Continuing on:

 

As noted, some of what she digs up has already been described elsewhere, not only in Masha Gessen’s emotive account of Putin’s rise to power, The Man Without a Face (2012), but also in Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2013) and Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s Kremlin Rising (2005).

 

Masha Gessen writes for the Moscow Times, and for any other outlet that will publish her drivel. Her stock in trade is her passionate hatred of Putin and anything that is not represented by the Liberals who don’t have much traction among the Russian population. I have written elsewhere about Peter Baker’s attitude toward Russia and Putin. So Dawisha’s work ultimately sounds like a lot of innuendo along with rehashed chaff that’s already been published.

 

It should also be noted that Dawisha’s book was ultimately dropped by its original British publisher due to concerns over libel laws. Considering the fact that Britain isn’t exactly fond of Putin and his government and has repeated – like a good little doggie – the worst of Washington’s unsubstantiated and reckless claims about the Ukraine crisis, why wouldn’t they just go ahead and publish it? Unless, of course, there were real concerns about the credibility of the claims?

*Update:  In late 2015, John Batchelor interviewed Ms. Dawisha on his radio program.  While airing her claims, Dawisha used so many qualifiers and weasel words as to render what she was saying completely meaningless.

Here are a few of my thoughts on the interview:

*Dawisha’s claim (approx. 5 minutes, 15 seconds):  Putin came to the attention of higher up KGB officials due to his performance.  This is contradicted by Allen Lynch’s political biography where he states that officials higher up in the KGB did not seem to be aware of Putin and characterized his time in E. Germany as being a mid-level analyst.  Dawisha: “I think he probably was involved in…” Probably?

*(approximately 7 minutes):  In the introduction of a photo from the book that supposedly shows Putin with a bunch of other intelligence and military people, it is noted to be 1989 — stating the anniversary of the establishment of the checka and the Soviet Union would fall that year.  The Soviet Union fell in 1991, not 1989 

*Dawisha claim (approx. 7 minutes, 40 seconds):   Putin recruited a high-ranking member of the Stasi to the KGB in the dying days of the East German government — Dawisha: “of course, we don’t have any proof of this…”  Enough said.
*(approx. 11 minutes):  What basis is there that Sobchak knew that hiring someone from the KGB was just the way that things were?  There is no evidence provided for her assertion that that is why Putn was hired by Sobchak.  Again, a very different story is told by Allen Lynch in his biography — I went into more detail about this in my critique of the Frontline program based on Dawisha‘s narrative.
*(approx 13 minutes):  Dawisha talks as though Putin was still in the KGB while he was working for Sobchak.  According to the Lynch book, Putin had voluntarily quit the KGB by this time and even gone public in a news segment about his KGB past so that no one would be able to use it as fodder for blackmail down the road.
*Dawisha claim (approx 24 minutes):  Putin’s wife never worked because she had to — in other words, they didn’t need money because Putin was getting wealthy off of his corruption; this is not the way they lived during that time as Putin’s wife stated that he was hardly ever home, they had hardly a stick of furniture or any extra money.  Dawisha never says where she is getting any of this information.
*(approx 25 minutes):  Dawisha cites the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky when discussing that Putin had played a “double game” and that he had in mind to take money away from the 90’s oligarchs and give it to his own — a British judge presiding over the lawsuit between Berezovsky and fellow Russian oligarch Abramovich, stated on the record that Berezovsky was a non-credible witness, that his testimony contradicted his written statements, that he was basically a liar and had an ax to grind.
*(approx 26-27 minutes):  Dawisha is still talking about the Moscow apartment bombings as a false flag with the FSB and implicitly Putin behind it to win a war and use the popularity to become president meme.  This was debunked long ago.  The Chechens had already invaded Dagestan and Putin did not need any sort of false flag operation to justify military action.  If memory serves me correctly, this allegation originated with Berezovsky and when pressed for evidence, he could provide none.  Again, I discussed this in more detail in my article critiquing the Frontline program.  I’m not sure why John Batchelor was being so gullible and not questioning any of this
For those interested in scholarly political biographies of Putin, I recommend:
1) Putin: Russia’s Choice by Richard Sakwa
and

 

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/opinion/bad-mannered-russians-in-the-west.html?_r=0

 

  1. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/18/how-he-and-his-cronies-stole-russia/

 

  1. http://rbth.com/business/2014/11/11/rosneft_and_gazprom_overtake_google_and_apple_in_corporate_transpare_41307.html

 

 

 

 

The Strange Logic of Chelsea Handler

In the past month, comedienne Chelsea Handler – a supporter and friend of Hillary Clinton – engaged in a cheap publicity stunt by posting a photo of herself topless astride a horse in a spoof of Vladimir Putin.

Citing the “sexism” of Putin, Handler is admittedly pimping for her friend Hillary, whom Putin referred to as “weak” in an interview with French journalists earlier this year. Putin’s insult was downright mild compared to Hillary’s earlier comparisons of Putin to Hitler – a ludicrous and pernicious comment due to the fact that over 25 million Russians perished, including Putin’s older brother who fell ill and died during the siege of Leningrad, in beating back the real Hitler’s fighters in WWII.

But in supporting Clinton, Handler is also giving her support to all the death and destruction that Clinton’s policies have contributed to in Iraq (Hillary still defends her vote for this illegal war based on lies), Libya (Hillary was caught on camera gloating at the news of Qaddafi’s torture and murder by rebel forces – another war that was based on lies according to the Belfer Center) among other unapologetically militarist policies.

Furthermore, when it comes to hurling accusations of sexism, perhaps it would do Ms. Handler well to actually inform herself of the country that the leader she is criticizing presides over and the conditions for women in that country.  As two examples, women hold more management positions in Russia than in any other nation — far more than any western nation;  they also receive 78 weeks of paid family leave.  Meanwhile, in the US, women get zip.

At the end of the day in Ms. Handler’s bizarre and ill-informed world, Putin riding shirtless on a horse and casting aspersions upon her hawkish chum is more offensive than the death, torture, maiming, terror and destabilization that Hillary Clinton’s policies have actually wrought on hundreds of thousands of mostly innocent people.

I think this tells us all we need to know about Ms. Handler.

1)  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2841754/Chelsea-Handler-compares-chest-Vladimir-Putin-s-tells-Today-host-Karl-Stefanovic-bigger-perkier.html

2)  http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/23387/lessons_from_libya.html

3)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fgcd1ghag5Y

4)  http://mic.com/articles/84601/the-countries-with-the-highest-number-of-female-executives-are-not-the-ones-you-d-expect

5)  http://www.buzzfeed.com/laraparker/this-is-what-paid-maternity-leave-looks-like-around-the-worl

 

The Words of an “Imperialist”?

For years, the western corporate media has engaged in a propaganda campaign to poison people’s minds about who Vladimir Putin is, what he says and what he does.   For example, the often trotted out quote about the fall of the Soviet Union representing the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century is a deliberate misquote.   If one reads the English transcript of his “state of the union” speech in 2005 (available at http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2005/04/25/2031_type70029type82912_87086.shtml), one can see for oneself that what he actually said and what Western media and politicians claim he said are night and day.

While conducting research on a book about the Ukraine crisis, I have read countless speeches and interview transcripts of Putin in their entirety and can honestly say that the level of distortion and misinformation leveled against him in the West is breathtaking.

When I began this research, I did not have a solid opinion either way about Putin, other than heightened curiosity after his diplomatic judo in helping to prevent the illegal “shock and awe” of another sovereign nation, this time against Syria, by the American juggernaut.

My conclusion about Putin’s thinking after reviewing and analyzing his words and actions, included in my manuscript, was the following:

For any intellectually honest and independent analyst who has studied Putin’s words and actions over the course of years, it is apparent that he is attempting to gradually and methodically raise the standard of living for the Russian people. It is also apparent that he views stability, both within Russia and in the outside world that Russia must co-exist in, as crucial and that the most reliable way to achieve and maintain stability is through a multi-polar world, international law with a strengthened UN as the arbiter, and more equitable development.

Putin’s most recent speech at the annual Valdai gathering in Sochi, hailed by many independent analysts and commentators (by independent I mean those without an axe to grind and not being paid to tow some party line), including Mikhail Gorbachev, as his best speech ever, has only confirmed my own analysis.

Here is a link to the transcript of his speech followed by the Q&A afterward, which was also quite good, provided by The Vineyard of the Saker blog — a very informative independent blog that I recommend taking a cruise around:

http://vineyardsaker.blogspot.com/2014/10/putins-speech-at-valdai-club-full.html

-Natylie