The U.S. has often had a complicated relationship with Russia. During our civil war, Czar Alexander II sent naval support to the Union forces and enjoyed an amiable correspondence with Abraham Lincoln. As the 19th century transitioned into the 20th, various missionary style ideologues had been projecting a combination of their own hopes and fears onto imperial Russia. This was perhaps most reflected in the writings of the first George Kennan, an explorer and journalist who initially had sympathy for the vast and mysterious nation at the outer edges of Europe, but then turned hostile and actively championed a revolutionary overthrow of the czarist government.
Then we were allies in WWI but it didn’t take long for hostility to set back in as the Bolsheviks took the reins of power, pulled out of the war and seized certain assets, threatening western political and corporate interests. Along with the British, Washington militarily supported counter-revolutionary forces and a cold war of sorts soon emerged in which Washington refused to officially recognize the Soviet government until 1933.
We were again allies, this time against the Nazi juggernaut in WWII. And again, the partnership didn’t last as Roosevelt died in office, which brought a foreign policy ignoramus with a dubious psychological profile into the White House. Truman facilitated poor decisions that paved the way for the next Cold War and a dangerous nuclear arms race.
After Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated an end to that Cold War, Bill Clinton broke the promises made to Gorbachev that in exchange for allowing a reunified Germany into NATO, the military alliance would not move “one inch east” further toward Russia’s borders.
Then the Bush II administration gave the Neocons – whose hatred of Russia is part of what defines them, in addition to conflating Israel’s interests with Washington’s – the freedom to start their nihilistic campaign of destroying whole countries in order to save them, normalizing the ideas of overt war and brutality. Obama continued to harbor just enough Neocons in the State Department to grease the wheels of the Ukraine Crisis in 2013-2014.
And we’ve all seen just what a quick and thorough job the establishment did of using Trump as a punching bag for even suggesting in polite company that we should try to have good relations with Russia.
Of course, it hasn’t just been the United States that has had a strange mix of fascination and hostility toward Russia. Europe’s imperial powers competed with each other for years, with the British Empire and the Russian Empire engaged in the Great Game for most of the 19th century.
However, despite the major advancements made by Russia in the eras of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, Russia had still lagged behind its western European counterparts in terms of industrialization and development. From the mid-nineteenth century on, Russia was catching up, enjoying impressive growth rates, industrializing quickly and building railroads, etc. It was part of an eastward pattern of advancement among European countries. The British, the French and the Germans/Prussians figured that it was just a matter of time before Russia would have its moment in the sun and be the major power. All it needed was reasonably competent leadership.
Even though Russia had lagged behind, its awesome potential was apparent to any one who cared to look. Its vast size and prodigious resources alone were formidable.
Fast forward to today. Its vast size – the largest country geographically in the world – and its prodigious resources are still there. But now, having overcome its historical issues with poor agricultural policies, it also has the ability to feed itself, a highly educated citizenry, and the industrial infrastructure to support a space program as well as a sophisticated nuclear and defense system. It has the ability to build cars, trucks, and airplanes completely within its own borders. Unlike many countries in the world, it has very little external debt and major gold reserves. It is weathering the sanctions against it better than Iran or Venezuela.
Given all of this, it is clear that with smart leadership to guide it competently over a period of time, Russia has the potential to be a real force to be reckoned with.
I imagine this has something to do with why a former diplomat said that once it became known that Putin was going to become president of Russia in 2000, “the knives were drawn” in Washington.
After last Wednesday night’s debate, there was a lot of buzz
about Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s symbolic public spanking of Senator Kamala
Harris for her disturbing record as former District Attorney of San Francisco
and Attorney General of California. Gabbard took the opportunity to challenge
Harris on this topic by hijacking the moderator’s question, which was a request
for Gabbard to expound on her pre-debate comment about Harris’s attack on Biden’s
Another pre-debate assertion that Gabbard made about Harris
that I wish the moderators had asked her to expound on was that Harris doesn’t
have the temperament to be commander in chief.
As shown in the debates, Harris has trouble keeping her emotions
in check, easily becoming hostile and angry (if we want an improvement on Trump,
this ain’t it). Moreover, she had no substantive rebuttals when challenged on
both her anemic health care plan and her problematic political record. This shows that she doesn’t think well on her
feet and doesn’t respond well when challenged by a smart and assertive
This combined with the fact that Harris is taking Wall
Street and corporate PAC money, makes it obvious that Harris will have neither
the inclination nor the backbone to stand up to the foreign policy “blob” if
she were to become president.
When Harris did comment on foreign policy it was during the first debate in which she attacked Trump’s actions from the right, mindlessly repeating establishment talking points that reflected no depth of thought. This included the criticisms that Trump wasn’t sufficiently insulting and patronizing enough during past meetings with Putin and that meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was nothing more than a “photo op” that granted legitimacy to a dictator.
In keeping with this mindset, and to compensate for her lack of a counter-argument during the debate, Harris went on the attack against Gabbard in the media afterward. She brought up Gabbard’s meeting with Assad in 2017 and used it in an attempt to smear Gabbard as being unworthy of serious consideration.
What’s most problematic is the reason why Gabbard’s actions with respect to Syria in 2017 are supposed to be automatically viewed as so beyond the pale that even mentioning them is intended to delegitimize Gabbard and shut down conversation.
Indeed within 24 hours Gabbard had to take several others to
the proverbial woodshed, particularly an MSNBC anchor who also attempted
to beat Gabbard over the head about her Assad meeting.
Gabbard’s response to the anchor is clearly a frustrated
attempt to explain the basic principles of diplomacy. It’s profoundly disturbing when many candidates
running for the highest office in the land – and the “journalists” covering
them – don’t understand what diplomacy even is.
When the very concept of diplomacy has become an anachronism
with its definition having to be explained and its benefits not self-evidently
understood, we’re in serious trouble.
If previous administrations hadn’t believed in diplomacy, we
would not have negotiated arms control treaties with the Soviet Union during
the Cold War. In fact, we wouldn’t even
have negotiated an end to the Cold War at all if diplomacy was considered
verboten. Would Americans have been better
off if our politicians had been too sanctimonious to conduct that diplomacy?
Ronald Reagan believed that refusing to talk to your
adversaries – as the Neocons believed – was a sign of weakness, not of
strength. This prompted Reagan to
negotiate with Gorbachev against the advice of Neocons in his administration. Do the Democrats really want to position
themselves to the right of Reagan?
To Harris – and any other candidate running for the
presidency – the question needs to be asked:
if you don’t believe in talking to adversaries, then how do you propose
to avoid or deescalate tensions that could lead to war?
If one believes in diplomacy and the constitution, then Gabbard had every right to go on a fact-finding mission to Syria in 2017 and should not only not apologize for it, she should more fully explain why it was a patriotic thing to do.
First, her trip has been mis-characterized as some kind of lone rendezvous with Assad. The fact is that Gabbard met with a range of Syrians, including segments of the opposition, and did not seek a meeting with Assad but accepted one when it was offered in order to get the perspective of as many Syrians as possible. Second, she showed willingness to talk to an adversary, which demonstrated that she has the skills and mindset necessary to conduct diplomacy. Though it should be noted, she was not attempting to officially negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government during this meeting, so it would not be a violation of the Logan Act, a constitutionally dubious law under which only two people have ever been charged and no one has ever been convicted. Third, as other analysts have pointed out, Congress is a separate and co-equal branch of government that has a duty to perform a check on the executive branch, especially about an issue of such gravity as war and peace – an issue that the executive branch has a long and documented history of lying about (e.g. Gulf of Tonkin, Iraqi WMD, Qaddafi’s Viagra-fueled imminent genocide, etc.). Those lies have resulted in the deaths of millions of people, including tens of thousands of Americans, and the destabilization of entire regions. None of this has been in the interest of the majority of Americans.
As a member of Congress, Gabbard had a responsibility to
find out what was really going on in Syria – a country that the U.S. was
Although most people will vote primarily based on more immediate domestic issues, a government cannot continuously deal with the outside world with hyper-militarized violence and not expect that to bleed back into the home front. Many issues of major concern are directly connected to our martial foreign policy: lack of financial resources for domestic investment to improve American lives, the militarization of our police force, the fetishizing of guns, the debasing of our culture with desensitization to and glorification of violence, as well as destruction of the environment*.
Since presidents have wide latitude in the conduct of
foreign policy and their actions will potentially affect the lives of thousands
or even millions (in the case of nuclear weapons, billions), a presidential
candidate must demonstrate some understanding of foreign policy and how best to
protect the interests of Americans. That
means understanding diplomacy and how it works.
*The Pentagon is the biggest institutional guzzler of fossil fuels on the planet and a major emitter of GHG’s.
This kind of reminds me of Putin in 2009 paying a last-minute visit to a factory in Pikalyovo after getting a note from a local trade union leader about a plant that had been closed down due to squabbling among the owners, leaving most of town’s residents out of work and with dysfunctional infrastructure. Putin showed up and reamed the owners of the factory, including Oleg Deripaska. Putin basically told the owners to get off their duffs and get the factory re-opened so the locals could go back to work, otherwise the factory would be taken out of their control. After a sheepish Deripaska had to be persuaded to sign an agreement promising he’d do what he was supposed to do, he started to walk off with Putin’s pen. Putin exclaimed: “And give me my pen back.” A video of the whole thing went viral on YouTube.
Putin recently flew out to the Irkutsk area of Siberia in the aftermath of terrible floods that destroyed many homes, leaving people stranded with complaints that local officials were making access to any assistance difficult and confusing. This video gives you a window into why Putin is still popular among many Russians. Contrast Putin’s taking the time to personally talk to dozens of local people who gathered to ask him for help (and having his aides take down everyone’s name and number for follow-up) with Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina or Obama’s handling of the Gulf oil spill or Trump’s handling of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico. I’m also thinking of a recent incident in which a poor homeless woman encounters New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio at a gym and tries to ask him about doing more to help the homeless. He refused to address her question and gave her the brush off.
Does anyone know of any western leader who would take this kind of time and show this kind of patience in listening to scores of citizens’ problems? I wish they would, but most would likely exchange a few words with a handful for a photo op and leave.
Of course, this was video-taped with a reporter shadowing Putin to get it all down for public consumption on the news. Putin will be happy for the PR points, but if that’s all he was after, he wouldn’t have taken this much time. And, like the results of Putin’s intervention with the factory in Pikalyovo 10 years ago, I imagine he will follow up with Irkutsk in September like he promised to ensure that there have been results.
Another point to consider is that bureaucrats lower down the food chain often serve as an obstruction to getting things done, whether it’s implementing reforms or discharging their duties in a conscientious manner. Either they are complacent or they intentionally obstruct for their own reasons. This problem has existed to varying degrees since the czarist era. This is a partial reason for why Putin has to periodically go out into the field and give local officials and business owners the equivalent of a swift kick in the pants by either publicly shaming them and/or threatening to take action against the footdraggers.
Note: I’ve been including a lot of videos of Putin’s speeches, interviews and activities recently to show readers original material so they can see and hear Putin directly and judge for themselves, since most of our media and politicians spin Putin as simply a “thug” and a “brutal dictator” with no redeeming qualities.
Siberia has also been suffering from an unprecedented number of wildfires. In a telephone conversation yesterday with Putin, Trump offered U.S. assistance in fighting the fires in Siberia. Putin said he would take advantage of the offer if it became necessary. He also said that he took the gesture as a positive sign that bilateral relations could potentially be re-built between the two nations.
At a recent conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Venezuela (I must admit I didn’t know that it still existed), the Grayzone’s Anya Parampil interviewed Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov. Among other interesting things, he discussed the fact that Washington, with its abuse of financial and economic sanctions, is actually provoking many nations of the world to find a way to supplant the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. I think the phrase is cutting off one’s nose to spite their face. The remarks about the U.S. dollar are around the 15-minute point in the interview.
The arrogance and solipsism displayed by the editors of the New York Times never fails to amaze me. After spending almost 3 years doing their part to push a conspiracy theory in which Russia was the devil to blame for the fact that we have Trump, which just represented an escalated level of the vilification that has been heaped on Putin and Russia in stages since 2003, the New York Times finally decided in a July 21st oped that just maybe Washington should now try to sorta kinda saddle up to Russia just a tiny bit because…you know, China.
Allow me to provide a short explanation to the out-of-touch NYT editors about why Russia will not be trusting Washington any time soon and has decided that it will likely get better results from the continued strengthening of relations with other important and influential countries.
First, there is the matter of the western corporate media, which is the mouthpiece for the political class, pushing accusations of every incredible crime against Russia’s leader short of cannibalism, and characterizing the Russian people as being inherently dishonest and so primitive that a significant percentage of them are still going to the bathroom in the bushes.
More importantly, however, there are the actual policies that Washington has implemented against Russia since Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated the end of the Cold War, after which Washington chose to take a triumphalist attitude, seeking to press its foot on a supine Russia’s chest as it flexed its muscles in the middle of the ring while the crowds lapped it up.
As readers of this blog are well aware, Secretary of State James Baker, along with other prominent members of the leadership of the western world, promised Gorbachev in early 1990 that in exchange for allowing a reunified Germany into NATO, the military alliance would not move “one inch east” further toward Russia’s borders. This promise was crucial in getting Gorbachev’s agreement as Germany had marched into Russia through the Polish-Ukrainian corridor twice in the first half of the 20th century, the second time resulting in the deaths of 27 million Soviets and the utter destruction of a third of the USSR during WWII.
In 1999, against the advice of knowledgeable diplomats and others, Bill Clinton broke that promise and welcomed Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance.
In 2002, George W. Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, one of three legs of the nuclear arms control arrangements between the two nuclear superpowers, in order to pursue a possible first strike advantage over Russia, upsetting the strategic nuclear balance.
In 2004, NATO was expanded further with the entry of seven new members, including the Baltic states right on Russia’s western border.
In 2006, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a visit to Moscow, had a heated exchange with Putin about the eventual entry of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Putin explained that Ukraine was a culturally and ethnically divided country and pushing Ukraine into NATO would likely set off a negative cascade of consequences that would ultimately be detrimental to both Ukraine and Russia. He warned Rice that such a move would amount to “playing with fire.” Two years later, in a cable back to Washington, then ambassador to Russia, William Burns, relayed a conversation with Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in which Lavrov reiterated that Ukraine in NATO was a red line for Russia, presciently citing the possibility that exploiting Ukraine’s divisions on behalf of NATO expansion could lead to a civil war and Russia would be faced with having to choose whether or not to intervene – a decision Lavrov said Russia did not want to make.
In 2013-14, the democratically elected leader of Ukraine was pushed out in an illegal coup, actively supported by Washington with neo-Nazis acting as the muscle, that brought an anti-Russian government into power. Crimea, which had historically been part of Russia since the late 18th century with a majority of its population comprised of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, also had an important naval base on its coast called Sevastopol. Crimea/Sevastopol had been administratively moved by Khrushchev in 1954 from Russia to Ukraine, with no one yet foreseeing the future breakup of the USSR. In 1991, as Ukraine gained its independence, Crimea remained with Ukraine as an autonomous region and Russia retained its naval base in Sevastopol via a leasing agreement with Kiev. As events unfolded on the Maidan in February of 2014, the Russian government feared that NATO could move in on its naval base in Sevastopol.
Earlier this year, with U.S.-Russia relations at an all-time low amidst the constant media rants of Trump being an agent of the Kremlin with Robert Mueller in the role of Mighty Mouse on his way to save the day, the Trump administration announced its unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the second leg of the nuclear arms control stool.
The New START Treaty, the third and last remaining leg of the stool, which expires in 2021, does not look like it’s long for this world either.
At this point, it’s no wonder that Russia would decide to turn toward constructive working relationships with other countries and multilateral institutions that aren’t controlled by Washington, such as China, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), SCO, the Chinese Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank, and others.
China is the world’s other major economic power and the leadership in both Russia and China have publicly described the relationship between the two countries as a “strategic partnership.” And the ties seem to be strengthening all the time. According to news recently aggregated by Russia Matters, Russia and China have stepped up joint military practices:
Russian and Chinese bombers conducted their first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific on July 23.
To reinforce the strategic importance of Russian-Chinese relations, the day after these maneuvers, the Chinese government published a “white paper” in which it promised to further increase military cooperation between the two countries. More from Russia Matters:
Releasing a new defense “white paper” on July 24, China vowed to step up military cooperation with Russia and accused the U.S. of undermining regional stability, the Wall Street Journal reported. The Sino-Russian military relationship, in contrast, plays “a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability,” the paper said.
Though it aspires to have the leadership role in the region, unlike Washington, China generally does not appear to adhere to a zero-sum mentality in its relations with other nations, opting to focus on investing in mutually beneficial economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union is working with the BRI, as is Europe, many of the central Asian countries, Iran and Pakistan. In order for this ambitious project of a modern, high-tech trade route on land and sea that parallels the old Silk Road, China and its partners need a stable Eurasia with a developed infrastructure. Therefore, peace is in all these players’ interests.
As for those who say that ties between the two countries are undermined by China’s potential future designs on Russian territory, I see no substantive evidence that China would do anything of the sort in connection with Russia – a nuclear superpower and, as Obama even begrudgingly admitted before leaving office, is the world’s second most powerful military. There is simply no reason to believe that China’s leadership is stupid or crazy enough to think such a move would be in their interests. It’s not the 1960’s with loose cannons like Khrushchev and Mao at the helm.
Moreover, what Tao Wang of Yicai Research Institute stated at the East Asia Forum three years ago about the Russian-Chinese relationship is still relevant:
….China and Russia are still complementary economies. One is rich in resources and high military technology, while the other is good at mass manufacturing and rich in cash. This complementarity is well demonstrated by their partnership in Central Asia, where China provides investment in resource-rich yet unpredictable countries while Russia ensures the stability of ruling regimes.
So the question becomes: what does Washington really have to offer Russia at this point that would be worth them seriously considering throwing themselves into the Washington camp at China’s expense?
The only truly valuable things that Washington could offer are 1) meaningful nuclear arms control negotiations, and 2) putting a freeze on NATO expansion. Unfortunately, I don’t see either of these things happening in Washington any time soon. Even if Trump decided he really wanted to pursue these things, there is no one around him that could competently conduct negotiations and the infrastructure for meaningful diplomacy – as opposed to the “everything for me and nothing for you” approach that Washington mistakes for diplomacy – is non-existent right now.
But even more than that, why in the world would Russia trust any agreement that Washington got them to sign when it repeatedly breaks agreements whenever it wants? If there’s one thing that Washington has been a smashing success at since the end of the Cold War, it would be convincing the rest of the world that its word isn’t worth 2 cents.
Too many people in the insulated political class in Washington (I’m looking right at you, NYT editors) continue to see the world as a bad facsimile of a professional wrestling show where the goodies and the baddies can switch sides from week to week with just a change of costume and a ham-handed change of narrative at their direction. In the real world, when you’ve spent years pitching diplomacy out the window and systematically destroying any modicum of trust, it works a little differently.
The resolution acknowledged the profound dangers of the recent abrogation of the INF Treaty and called on all candidates to pledge to get back into the agreement, officially renounce a first strike policy, abide by the NPT obligation of nuclear powers to work toward disarmament, and reverse Washington’s opposition to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – a treaty supported by virtually all countries of the world except for the current nuclear powers.
United for Peace and Justice described the USCM as:
[T]he nonpartisan association of 1,408 American cities with populations over 30,000, has unanimously adopted Mayors for Peace resolutions for 14 consecutive years. Resolutions adopted at annual meetings become USCM official policy.
As noted in this year’s resolution, “Mayors for Peace is working for a world without nuclear weapons and safe and resilient cities as essential measures for the achievement of lasting world peace, and has grown to 7,756 cities in 163 countries and regions, with 215 U.S. members.”
In a recent post, I expressed skepticism about a Levada Center poll reported on by western media claiming that 10 percent of Russians had been tortured by Russian law enforcement authorities. This post was forwarded by my mentor, Sharon Tennison, to her large network of followers, which includes both Russian and American professionals, including members of academia, law, journalism, retired diplomatic personnel and others who are interested in her three decades of work fostering good will, understanding and citizen-to-citizen ties between the U.S. and Russia. Last week, Sharon posted some important feedback on my post from a Russian-American lawyer, Igor Brusil, who was able to review the original report by the Levada Center. He was also able to speak to the authors of the Levada Center report for clarification on the methodology used. Here is what he reported back:
Yesterday and today I received three emails from the individuals involved in the Levada Center’s survey on torture. These emails clarified what was meant as “torture” in the context of that survey. However, it became clear to me that the key question – “what exactly happened to you that you consider to have been torture” – was not answered by the survey. In fact, such a question was not even posed to the responders.
First, according to Levada Center, it approached the survey from the standpoint of “torture” as this term is defined in the UN Convention Against Torture, which may be found at https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cat.aspx. In that document “torture” is defined in Article 1 as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”
Second, it appears that another, more expansive, understanding of “torture” was at play, as described on page 44 of the Levada report. According to page 44, “torture” includes verbal abuse, threats of extortion and other non-physical acts, as well as threats directed at third persons.
Third – and more important – is that those respondents (all 356 of them), who said they had been “tortured” relied on their own understanding of torture. Even more interesting is that Levada did NOT ask those 356 individuals what exactly happened to them that the respondents regarded as “torture.”
I find it curious that those 356 individuals could not even agree on what acts constitute torture. For example, as shown in Table 32 on page 56 of the report, of those “tortured” respondents only 54% regard the use of electrical shock, wet towels and cellophane bags as torture; 73% regard acts like “rape and physical violence that leads to trauma” as torture; and 41% regard verbal abuse as “torture.”
Considering that there may have been up to three understandings of torture at play (one – UN Convention, two – explanation on page 44, three – whatever the respondents thought), the study would have been stronger, in my view, if Levada had asked its respondents to list specific acts of their alleged torture and then applied the same definition of torture to those acts. However, as the survey stands now, it suggests that about 10% of those who had “a conflict” with law enforcement subjectively regard at least some of the acts of law enforcement as torture, but we do NOT know what those acts are.
You may print my initial comment on this survey and follow it up with this summary of the responses I have received from Levada. I think that any intelligent analysis of a survey requires that we know the survey’s methodology and assess its validity in light of the limitations of the methods used.
In a glimmer of hope, a Brussels-based think tank that is funded by the Soros Foundation along with Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Canada and Australia (among others), has issued a report on the Ukraine conflict that acknowledges what some of us have been saying for a long time: the Donbass rebels are not Russian puppets, but mostly Ukrainian citizens who executed an uprising due to legitimate grievances in the aftermath of the 2014 coup in Kiev.
The International Crisis Group recently publishedRebels Without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine. According to academic Russia expert Paul Robinson – who brought this report to my attention in a recent blog post:
“The ICG’s report is based on interview[s] with ‘rebels, Russian fighters, former and current Russian officials, and de facto republic officials, as well as analysis of public statements and other open sources.’ It is very clear about the origins of the war in Donbass, telling readers that:”
The conflict in eastern Ukraine started as a grassroots movement. … demonstrations were led by local citizens claiming to represent the region’s Russian-speaking majority. They were concerned both about the political and economic ramifications of the new Kyiv government and about moves, later aborted, by that government to curtail the official use of Russian language throughout the country.
The fact that a western organization is acknowledging this represents a significant change in the narrative, which up to now has insisted that the Donbas rebels were mostly Russians who had spilled over the border (or Ukrainians who were controlled by Moscow) to cause trouble for the new “democracy revolution” government in Kiev.
I’d like to think that this may portend a willingness on the part of some of the political class in the west to work toward the resolution of this conflict in particular and a lowering of tensions with Russia in general. The conflict in the Donbass or with Russia more generally is not in the interests of the people of the west, much less the people of Ukraine or Russia.
With that thought in mind, I’m pleased to report that the latest behind-the-scenes negotiations have resulted in the successful brokering of a ceasefire on the contact line in the Donbas, with both sides having pulled back. According to the OSCE report of July 18th:
BRATISLAVA, 18 July 2019 – OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and Slovak Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Miroslav Lajčák welcomed the new recommitment to an unlimited ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, starting from 21 July at 00 hrs. 01 min. (Kyiv time), as agreed at the meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group held in Minsk on 17 July.
Chairperson Lajčák stressed that this development constitutes an urgently needed and significant step, particularly considering the rising number of civilian casualties along the contact line reported by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM). Noting the importance of ensuring the sustainability of the ceasefire in order to avoid the failures of previous recommitments, the Chairperson-in-Office underlined that maintaining the ceasefire is as crucial as the recommitment itself. “A meaningful ceasefire needs to be permanent and irreversible. I urge all sides to live up to their commitments, and finally establish a comprehensive, sustainable and unlimited ceasefire, which can open the door for the peaceful resolution of the conflict,” Lajčák said.
Lajčák noted that this recommitment builds on the positive developments in the recent process of disengagement of forces and hardware from Stanytsia Luhanska, which has been facilitated and monitored by the SMM, as well as in concrete plans to finally repair the bridge –a crucial daily crossing point for thousands of people in the Luhansk region and badly damaged by the conflict. “I particularly welcome the common understanding reached by the sides yesterday in Minsk regarding the need to start repair work on the bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska. These repairs are urgent; they need to happen without delay. The people on the ground have suffered for too long already. And, we need to use this momentum to take even more positive steps forward,” he stressed.
The following day, Ukrainian president Zelensky announced the details of a possible prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia. The AP reported:
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president on Friday outlined the details of an impending prisoner swap with Russia, saying that Kiev is willing to release a jailed Russian journalist in exchange for a Ukrainian film director.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s statement comes at the end of the week of shuttle diplomacy, with the Russian and Ukrainian human rights ombudswomen holding talks both in Moscow and in Kiev. The flurry of activity around imprisoned Russians and Ukrainians follows last week’s first telephone call between Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin….
….Zelenskiy said in televised comments Friday that Ukraine could release journalist Kirill Vyshinskiy, who has been in jail for a year on treason charges, if Russia releases film director Oleg Sentsov from a Russian prison colony. Sentsov is serving 20 years in a Russian prison for allegedly plotting acts of terrorism.
I will keep an eye on this development and post any updates if the exchange actually takes place.
Zelensky’s Servant of the People party appears to have won yesterday’s snap parliamentary elections, according to exit polls, but did not win an outright majority. Andriy Purbiy, an avowed neo-Nazi who has served as the speaker for the past several years, will now be out of office. [Update: Zelensky’s Servant of the People party did, in fact, win a majority in the Rada, which gives Zelensky much more room to implement whatever program he wants – NB]
And now for a splash of cold water…
In a recent article, Russia expert Nicolai Petro discussed an incident that doesn’t bode well for the idea of Zelensky resisting the inevitable pressure he’s going to get from the ultra-nationalist elements in Ukraine who won’t stand for any agreement with Russia or reconciliation with the Donbas. A major Russian TV station and a Ukrainian TV station had planned to hold direct people-to-people talks between the two countries but were forced to cancel it due to threats of violence:
On July 7 the Russian television channel Russia-24 and the Ukrainian television channel “NewsOne” announced that they would hold a two-hour live studio discussion called “We Need to Talk” on July 12. NewsOne explained its initiative as a response to the fact that “today in Ukraine roughly 70 percent of people expect direct political discussions with Russia.” It also recalled that during the late 1980s space bridges between Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner had “laid the beginnings for contacts between peoples who, thanks to their politicians, found themselves in a Cold War.” Within 24 hours, however, the show was cancelled. Organizers cited “direct physical threats to journalists and their families,” as the reason they had been forced to abandon their attempt to “organize a space for the discussion of nonpolitical questions through the efforts of ordinary people who had never questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine, without politicians and odious propagandists.”
Needless to say, if this program had been allowed to proceed it could have potentially laid the groundwork for reconciliation between the two neighbors. Perhaps the fact that extremists sabotaged such an effort is not a surprise, but the reaction by various government representatives – including Zelensky – is disturbing. Petro goes on:
The mere idea of engaging in a dialogue with Russians was attacked by nearly every political party. The prime minister said it “played into the hands of the enemy.” The speaker of parliament demanded that the Ukrainian Security services respond immediately to this “brutal violation of Ukrainian law.” The National Council for Television and Radio said it would meet in extraordinary session to consider revoking NewsOne’s broadcasting license. The prosecutor general stated that there was ample legal reason for doing so, and for his part initiated a criminal investigation of NewsOnes owners for support of terrorism and treason. With a bit of Orwellian flair, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine issued a statement that, while affirming the rights of Ukrainian journalists, declared its “outrage” at the idea of any interaction with “a Russian propaganda channel.”
Such a reaction was more or less expected from the Old Guard that had just been thrashed electorally, but how did the new president respond? He recorded a video and posted it on the Internet, calling the attempt at dialogue “cheap and risky PR-hype on the eve of the elections.” Instead of a televised discussion among average people, Zelensky challenged Putin to sit down with him and four other world leaders—Trump, May, Macron and Merkel—to talk about “who Crimea belongs to and who is ‘not there’ in Donbass.”
It seems to me that Zelensky had an opportunity here to show some leadership, but failed. By agreeing with the suggestion that merely talking to average Russians – whom most Ukrainians have familial ties with – was “cheap” and “risky PR” he is reinforcing the idea that Russians are inherently not to be trusted and an enemy. Instead of allowing a space to be opened up for Ukrainians and Russians to see and talk to each other as regular human beings, he dismissed it out of hand.
As stated in a previous post, if Zelensky is to have any prayer of achieving a positive resolution of the Donbas conflict and a modus vivendi with Ukraine’s next door neighbor – as he promised to do and earned him the election victory, he’s going to have to take on some heavy opposition. The only way he can hope to work around that opposition is by motivating average Ukrainians to have his back. The people-to-people talks could have been a tool on behalf of that if he’d had the savvy to recognize it.
On June 19th, Oliver Stone conducted an interview with Putin at the Kremlin. Topics included a heavy focus on Ukraine, as well as touching on U.S. politics and U.S. tensions with Iran.
I’d like to include below a direct quote from Putin in this interview about nationalism. I’ve heard many American pundits and politicians call Putin a nationalist, which I’ve always found to be a disingenuous characterization of him. Putin is what I would call a sovereigntist. He believes unequivocally in national sovereignty and in Russia’s right to be an independent nation that freely makes its own decisions in its perceived interests – engaging in multilateralism when appropriate, but as a respected equal. This is not nationalism in the commonly understood meaning of the word, which denotes a form of national chauvinism – the idea that a country (or ethnic group) is superior to others and has the right to do what it wants at anyone else’s expense. I have never heard Putin say anything that suggests this kind of ideology – unless he’s being quoted out of context, which happens frequently in the west. Moreover, there are real nationalist politicians in Russia, namely Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the LDPR Party. Putin has had public disagreements with Zhirinovsky and those like him. Here is the quote – emphasis is mine:
Vladimir Putin: In general nationalism is a sign of narrow-mindedness but I do not want to offend Mr Medvedchuk [Ukrainian politician and negotiator].
Another excerpt of this interview that I’d like to include involves Iran. I’ve heard several analysts – typically those who do not have a very deep understanding of Russia – claim that Russia would benefit from a U.S. war or continued tensions with Iran. This is nonsense. Whatever short-term benefits Russia might get in the form of fossil fuel economics or other items mentioned, it would pale in comparison to the the larger problems that a conflict in the area would cause: further destabilization of the Middle East – which is much closer to Russia’s backyard than the U.S., and intensified sectarian conflict and increased risk for terrorism that Russia does not want to infect it’s Muslim region in the Caucasus. Here is what Putin had to say about this, preceded by Stone’s question:
Oliver Stone: Continuing that theme of strategy of tension, how is Russia affected by the US-Iranian confrontation?
Vladimir Putin: This worries us because this is happening near our borders. This may destabilize the situation around Iran, affect some countries with which we have very close relations, causing additional refugee flows on a large scale plus substantially damage the world economy as well as the global energy sector. All this is extremely disturbing. Therefore we would welcome any improvement when it comes to relations between the US and Iran. A simple escalation of tension will not be advantageous for anyone. It seems to me that this is also the case with the US. One might think that there are only benefits here, but there will be setbacks as well. The positive and negative factors have to be calculated.
It was reported on July 11th, that Putin had his first direct conversation via telephone with new Ukrainian president Zelensky. According to RT, the call was initiated by Zelensky and focused on possible future negotiations on the Donbas conflict. However, it seems that Putin was irritated by Zelensky’s suggestion that the Normandy format be modified to include the U.S. and outgoing UK Prime Minister Theresa May who would likely be out of office by the time of any such talks:
The two presidents also touched upon the idea of continuing the talks in the ‘Normandy format’, which includes French and German leaders alongside those of Russia and Ukraine. Earlier, Zelensky urged Putin to talk in person in a video address he released on Monday. Yet, he also said that he expects the leaders of the US, the UK, Germany and France to chaperone him during such a meeting.
Zelensky’s decision to invite the outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May prompted Putin to chide the Ukrainian leader. Putin particularly asked in what capacity she would be present at the talks, which are unlikely to take place before she leaves her post.
It doesn’t seem like Zelensky – an actor and complete political novice – is doing a good job of earning Putin’s respect so far, acting like he needs to be babysat if he’s going to talk to the Russian president. Granted, Trump was also an entertainer with no political experience, but he at least tried to give the impression that he was going to be his own man. Zelensky doesn’t come across as very confident in holding the office that he voluntarily pursued.
The Kremlin put out a very short summary of the phone call:
At the initiative of the Ukrainian side, Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky .
They discussed issues of settlement in the south-east of Ukraine and joint work on the return of persons held on both sides. An agreement was reached to continue this work at the expert level.
The possibility of continuing contacts in the “Norman format” was also discussed.
We’ve all heard the claims from the MSM and self-serving politicians and pundits that Putin is rehabilitating his “favorite” Soviet/Russian leader, Josef Stalin. But genuine unbiased experts on Russia know that this isn’t true.
Putin has publicly condemned Stalin’s crimes numerous times, most notably in 2007 when he visited Butovo, a mass grave outside of Moscow that holds the bodies of over 20,000 who were shot dead during the height of Stalin’s purges from 1936 – 1938. Putin’s comments, as reported by Reuters, after the visit:
“We know very well that 1937 was the peak of the purges but this year was well prepared by years of cruelty,” Putin said beside a mass grave after laying flowers at a memorial.
Putin said such tragedies “happen when ostensibly attractive but empty ideas are put above fundamental values, values of human life, of rights and freedom.”
“Hundreds of thousands, millions of people were killed and sent to camps, shot and tortured,” he said. “These were people with their own ideas which they were unafraid of speaking out about. They were the cream of the nation.”
Moreover, in October of 2017, Putin attended the opening of the Wall of Grief Monument to the Victims of Repression in Moscow – a monument specifically dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s repressions and a project that he helped get approved. An excerpt of his comments follows:
“Millions of people were branded as enemies of the people, were executed or crippled, underwent torture in prisons and forced deportations,” he said. “This terrible past cannot be erased from the national memory. And certainly cannot be justified by whatever imaginary greater good of the people…
…. “The persecution campaign was a tragedy for our people, our society, a ruthless blow to our culture, roots and identity. We can feel the consequences now and our duty is not to allow it to be forgotten.”
Recently, the Washington Post and The Guardian both ran articles pushing the claim yet again that Putin – in his admiration for Stalin – is seeking to rehabilitate his image in Russia and whitewash his crimes. British Russia expert Paul Robinson, with some research assistance from Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald, refutes these accusations:
The more important questions are whether the Post and the Guardian are right that a) Stalin is being rehabilitated in Russia, b) this is the fault of the Russian state, and of Vladimir Putin more personally, and c) allowing the possibility of any ‘heroic’ achievements by the Soviet state – most notably victory in the Second World War – inevitably leads to a whitewashing of Soviet repression. Fortunately, in his Twitter thread Bryan points us to a document which provides an answer, namely a statement issued yesterday by the Permanent Commission on Historical Memory of the Council of the President of the Russian Federation. It’s worth translating this in full [note: I have copied in bold only the first few paragraphs which I think are the most relevant – Natylie]:
We have heard that monuments to I.V. Stalin are being constructed in towns in Russia.
Those of our fellow citizens and those political forces, who are prepared to forget and even justify the death and deprivation of freedom of millions of our compatriots, incite both bitterness and sympathy. Those who were victims of political repression, the deportation of peoples, collectivization, and the Holodomor, were often the best in the country. These repression are firmly connected to the name of I.V. Stalin.
And those who erect monuments voluntarily or involuntarily justify these repressions. These fellow citizens of ours are also victims of that regime: they’ve lost their sense of sympathy for our deeply suffering country.
We do not call for the establishment of monuments to I.V. Stalin on private plots of land to be banned. But civil servants of all levels must know that it is impermissible to allow state or municipal land or buildings to be used for this purpose. Such acts not only contradict morality and respect for our deceased, innocently suffering predecessors, but also contradict official state policy.
In answer to our questions above, what this makes clear is that a) yes indeed, there are moves afoot to rehabilitate Stalin, but b) the Russian state isn’t too fond of these and is pushing back against them, and c) it’s perfectly possible to take pride in the Soviet victory in the Second World War while condemning Stalinist repressions – the idea that celebration of wartime victory inevitably morphs into rehabilitation of Stalin simply isn’t true.
Russians in general have a complicated view of Stalin’s legacy, with his popularity waxing and waning over the years. According to a 2017 Levada poll, 46 percent of Russians had a positive view of Stalin and 43 percent had a negative or indifferent view of him. The majority of respondents in a 2016 poll characterized Stalin as a tyrant and acknowledged that his repressions led to “millions of casualties among innocent Soviet citizens.”
A new poll conducted by Pew in May and released last week, shows that a majority of U.S. war veterans, along with a majority of Americans in general, don’t believe that the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria have been worth fighting. A graphic representing the results is here:
Bryan MacDonald relayed the results of a recent survey of Russians from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The survey asked Russians their view of democracy and Russia’s relations with the west. According to the results: 48 percent of Russians want a change in their country’s governance and 62 percent believe that some form of democracy is necessary, but western-style liberal democracy was not looked upon as desirable for Russia as 45 percent thought it would bring “chaos and destruction” to their country. As for overall relations with the west, only 24 percent thought they could ever be friendly as opposed to distrustful.
This leads me to believe that my long-standing view of Washington’s foreign policy being counter-productive and in need of a change is as true as ever. Rather than throwing our weight around and bullying the rest of the world to accept our definition of democracy at the end of a gun barrel, we should get our own house in order and provide a more inspiring example to everyone.
The people actually living in a country know better than we do what kind of government and economic system will work best for them, according to their culture and history.
We’ve all known that certain someone in our families or neighborhoods, etc. who constantly dominates, meddles and thinks they know what’s best for everyone else. They also tend to pontificate constantly and never shut up long enough to learn from anyone else.
We should strive not to be that person in the form of a country.
On July 12th, a rocket propelled grenade attack was launched at a TV station in Kiev that was scheduled to air an award-winning documentary by Oliver Stone called Revealing Ukraine. The documentary attempts to follow Ukraine’s path from independence in 1991 to today. It included information from Dr. Ivan Katchanovski, a Canadian-Ukrainian academic who has done the most thorough analysis of the Maidan sniper attacks in February of 2014. As readers of this blog may recall, Katchanovski’s work discredits the Maidan government and Washington’s account – which the MSM has accepted without question – that the scores of people, both protesters and police, killed on the Maidan on March 21st, were murdered by the forces of the Yanukovich government. Katchanovski’s work shows that the deadly shots came from buildings that were controlled by the Maidan forces.
Katchanovski said the following regarding the attack:
#Ukraine TV cancels US documentary broadcast after #Terrorist attack & threats by far right to attack it, by Prosecutor General to launch state treason & terrorism financing investigation & by National Television & Radio Broadcasting Council to sanction it
Popular #Ukrainian TV channel is shelled from grenade launcher in order to prevent its broadcast today of US #Documentary by @TheOliverStone. It would reveal involvement of #Maidan snipers in Maidan massacre. Would there be any reaction from US government?
Apparently there were threats of stopping the broadcast of the documentary prior to the attack:
The National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of #Ukraine states that it would monitor this US #documentary and threatens sanctions against a popular Ukrainian news TV channel for showing it
Footage of the attack is below. There are no reported casualties.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, immediately condemned the attack:
“I condemn the attack on channel 112 Ukraine premises today in Kyiv. Hopefully nobody was wounded but such violence and threats against media cannot be tolerated. This is an unacceptable act of intimidation which could have had dramatic consequences,” Désir said, welcoming the swift response of law enforcement officials in the case.
“I call on the Ukrainian authorities to thoroughly investigate this attack, and to bring those responsible for this crime to justice,” Désir said.
Apparently, a lot of potential Democratic party voters have stated in a recent poll that their most important concern is nominating a candidate for president who can defeat Trump because they think he’s particularly dangerous. Political analyst, Kim Iversen, explains in this video that the most dangerous behavior that a president can exhibit is killing. Given that a president has the most power in his/her role as Commander in Chief, his/her decision of whether to unleash the U.S. military on human beings anywhere in the world who are perceived as enemies or to talk to them is a critical criteria for determining how dangerous they are. Based on that criteria, Trump has actually been less dangerous than other presidents who had a more pleasant and less volatile demeanor. She encourages potential Democratic voters to think more deeply about the Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination and whether they are potentially much more dangerous than Trump.
I totally agree with Iversen. But I fear that most people will not use her criteria in making voting decisions. The death and destruction that our president may rain down on other human beings via our military typically happens on the other side of the world and – thanks to a craven media – we hardly ever see the image of the results. Also, only a small percentage of the population is affected by these wars due to the volunteer military force. Therefore, the death and destruction becomes an abstraction that does not resonate and does not factor into voting decisions the way that immediate issues like health care and jobs do. I sincerely hope I’m wrong about this and would like as many people as possible to hear Iversen’s well-articulated argument.
As we all know by now, the Mueller Report found no evidence to support the allegation that Trump colluded with Russia to win election as president. However, it continued to claim that the Russian government interfered in our election, which is being repeated everywhere as flat fact. However, veteran Russiagate journalist, Aaron Mate – who systematically debunked a lot of the collusion nonsense in real time – takes a deep dive into this claim as well. A summary of points from his lengthy article for Real Clear Investigations includes:
The [Mueller] report uses qualified and vague language to describe key events, indicating that Mueller and his investigators do not actually know for certain whether Russian intelligence officers stole Democratic Party emails, or how those emails were transferred to WikiLeaks.
The report’s timeline of events appears to defy logic. According to its narrative, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange announced the publication of Democratic Party emails not only before he received the documents but before he even communicated with the source that provided them.
There is strong reason to doubt Mueller’s suggestion that an alleged Russian cutout called Guccifer 2.0 supplied the stolen emails to Assange.
Mueller’s decision not to interview Assange – a central figure who claims Russia was not behind the hack – suggests an unwillingness to explore avenues of evidence on fundamental questions.
U.S. intelligence officials cannot make definitive conclusions about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer servers because they did not analyze those servers themselves. Instead, they relied on the forensics of CrowdStrike, a private contractor for the DNC that was not a neutral party, much as “Russian dossier” compiler Christopher Steele, also a DNC contractor, was not a neutral party. This puts two Democrat-hired contractors squarely behind underlying allegations in the affair – a key circumstance that Mueller ignores.
Further, the government allowed CrowdStrike and the Democratic Party’s legal counsel to submit redacted records, meaning CrowdStrike and not the government decided what could be revealed or not regarding evidence of hacking.
Mueller’s report conspicuously does not allege that the Russian government carried out the social media campaign. Instead it blames, as Mueller said in his closing remarks, “a private Russian entity” known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
Mueller also falls far short of proving that the Russian social campaign was sophisticated, or even more than minimally related to the 2016 election. As with the collusion and Russian hacking allegations, Democratic officials had a central and overlooked hand in generating the alarm about Russian social media activity.
John Brennan, then director of the CIA, played a seminal and overlooked role in all facets of what became Mueller’s investigation: the suspicions that triggered the initial collusion probe; the allegations of Russian interference; and the intelligence assessment that purported to validate the interference allegations that Brennan himself helped generate. Yet Brennan has since revealed himself to be, like CrowdStrike and Steele, hardly a neutral party — in fact a partisan with a deep animus toward Trump.
None of this means that the Mueller report’s core finding of “sweeping and systematic” Russian government election interference is necessarily false. But his report does not present sufficient evidence to substantiate it.
On July 9th, Mate tweeted out the following details on a ruling just made by a federal judge in DC regarding whether Mueller adequately made the case of the IRA – a St. Petersburg-based troll farm that put out click-bait on various social media platforms in 2016 – being connected to the Russian government:
Federal judge has issued a significant rebuke of a core Mueller claim. Mueller claims that the IRA — a Russian troll farm — was the 2nd of “two principal interference operations” by Russian gov’t. But as judge notes, Mueller’s implied link between IRA & Russian gov’t was false:
This is a major blow not just to Mueller but to the entire “Russian Active Measures” talking point. As the judge acknowledges, the IRA (which, btw, put out juvenile clickbait mostly unrelated to the election) is a private entity & Mueller never establishes a Kremlin connection.
This inconsistency, confirmed by a DC judge, raises new Qs about the validity of Mueller’s claim of a “sweeping and systematic” Russian gov’t interference campaign. If Mueller was disingenuous in falsely trying to link it to Russian gov’t, what else was he disingenuous about?
And Russia-based journalist Bryan MacDonald tweeted on July 8th that Russian news agency Tass is reporting that Ukrainian president Zelensky is requesting multi-lateral talks with Russia, US, UK, Germany and France regarding the Donbas conflict:
New Ukrainian President Zelensky has proposed settlement talks with Putin on Crimea & Donbas. He wants the summit held in Minsk with Trump, Merkel, Macron & the next UK PM present. The Kremlin says it will consider the offer.
Meanwhile, a defense magazine is reporting that the U.S. is retrofitting Ukrainian naval ports to accommodate U.S. and NATO warships just miles away from Crimea:
Centered at the Ochakiv Naval Base and the military facility at Mykolaiv — 40 miles east of Odessa and less than 100 northwest of Crimea — the American-funded effort includes reinforcing and upgrading existing piers and adding a new floating dock, security fencing around the bases, ship repair facilities, and a pair of brand-new Maritime Operations Centers from which Ukrainian and NATO forces can direct exercises and coordinate activities….
…While Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, it does receive training from NATO forces and is currently hosting the annual Sea Breeze exercise that includes US and allied warships and several hundred Marines….
…Romania, which sits just 150 miles across the water from Crimea, is buying the Patriot air defense system from the US, and Romanian and American forces recently held a series of air defense drills in the Black Sea that simulated shooting down drones.
During the Cold War and after, estimates of the number of deaths that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was responsible for had numbered 20 million and even as high as 60 million. The following is an excerpt from “Chapter 3: The Stalin Era and WWII” of my forthcoming book. This excerpt discusses updated estimates based on more recently available material, including from the Soviet/Russian archives, as well as where the original inflated estimates originated. The famines of 1930 – 1933, including in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, are discussed in more detail in a later part of the chapter. – Natylie
Stalin’s Terror and the Gulags
The Soviet labor camps were first established in 1919 and housed aristocrats and former members of the Provisional Government (Gulag Museum 2017). But the gulags, in which prisoners toiled in extreme weather conditions with insufficient provisions, were greatly expanded under Stalin’s rule, swelling during the Great Purge of 1936 – 1938 when 1.5 million were arrested. Approximately 750,000 were executed during this same period (Gulag Museum 2017).
A very high proportion of the arrestees were party officials, including military officers, party secretaries and factory managers (Harris 2016). By January of 1938, it was already being acknowledged within the Central Committee that the scale of the arrests was becoming counter-productive as the fear they elicited among party officials was undermining job performance (Harris 2016).
It is recognized that Stalin’s head of
the NKVD (political police and pre-cursor to the KGB), Nikolai Yezhov, was
largely responsible for carrying out the Great Terror of 1936 – 1938 as well as
shaping Stalin’s understanding of the alleged conspiracies to undermine the
Soviet government. As James Harris
explains in The Great Fear: Stalin’s
Terror of the 1930’s:
His commitment to break the conspiracies against the regime and root out enemies was doomed to fail because the conspiracies and enemies were largely chimaeric products of a misguided reading of flawed intelligence. Accelerating the patterns of arrests, interrogations, execution and exile deepened the appearance of conspiracy and enemy activity. Because the NKVD acted overwhelmingly on the content of denunciations or “confessions” obtained under torture, and not on physical evidence of counterrevolutionary conduct, they could never get to the “bottom” of conspiracy (Harris 2016).
Yehzov was eventually hoisted on his own
petard when a backlog of appeals against NKVD convictions mounted and
compromising materials against him surfaced.
This was compounded when an NKVD colleague stationed in Japan defected,
which led to suspicions that Yehzov was going after innocent citizens while
protecting real enemies in his midst.
Stalin fired Yehzov in November of 1938, replacing him with Lavrenti
Beria, and used him as a scapegoat for the recent excesses, although Stalin
himself had personally overseen and approved lists of citizens to be arrested
and executed. By 1939, the number of
arrests had tapered off (Harris 2016).
It should be noted that the number of
deaths that Stalin was purportedly responsible for during his long reign was greatly
inflated during the Cold War era when Robert Conquest’s 1968 book The Great Terror first estimated approximately
20 million deaths (NYT 2015). Conquest,
a former British intelligence officer, admitted that he was an unapologetic
Cold Warrior who thought that the Soviet Union and Stalin could best be
understood as a science fiction story world and character (Fitzpatrick 2019). Cold War propagandizing and caricaturized
thinking likely played a role in this characterization of Stalin as Conquest
generalized out from various sources, including claims by Soviet defectors
Even popular historian Timothy Snyder, who shows little sympathy for Russia, estimates that Stalin is likely responsible for closer to 6 – 8 million deaths (Snyder 2011), based on research for his 2010 book Bloodlands. According to Snyder, with the exception of the war period from 1941 – 1945, the vast majority of prisoners left the gulags alive. The total number of Soviet citizens who died in the gulags for the entire Stalinist period is between 2 and 3 million, which is still an astounding number (Snyder 2011).
Snyder’s overall figure includes estimates for the famines of 1930 – 1933 of which the famine that specifically took place in Ukraine, often referred to as The Holodomor, is estimated at 3.3 million out of the total of 5 million (Snyder 2011).
My visit to the Gulag Museum in Moscow, May/2017;
Harris, James. The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930’s. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK. 2016;