Review: Sofia Perovskaya Terrorist Princess: The Plot to Kill Tsar Alexander II and the Woman Who Led It


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Over the President’s Day weekend, I attended my first San Francisco Writer’s Conference. During a short break on the second day, I perused the area where tables were set up in which vendors offered their services and some attending authors had their published books for sale.

Imagine my delight when I came across this book by fellow attendee Robert Riggs – especially since I’d just been working on the chapter of my own book involving Alexander II. I immediately plunked down my $20 and started reading it later that night in my room and finished it within a couple of days. I later encountered the author at a session for non-fiction writers. He signed my book and we had a short but interesting discussion on historical Russia.

This is actually the first published book in a series Riggs is doing on what terrorists have in common in terms of personality and background, so the emphasis is on how Sofia Perovskaya – who masterminded the assassination of the reformist tsar – fits a profile of a long list of terrorists. Future books planned for the series will cover other perpetrators of political violence such as John Brown, John Wilkes Booth, as well as more recent individuals.

Based upon the studies of Walter Lacquer, Riggs reiterates that terrorism is not a product of poverty, injustice or any particular religion, ethnicity, etc. Furthermore, terrorists themselves do not typically come from the aggrieved groups on whose behalf they claim to be acting. From the introduction, Riggs writes:

By no means poor and oppressed beings, they are generally children of wealth and privilege who go overboard in adopting the cause of others….There is an identifiable constellation of personality traits, what we call here a profile, that is strongly associated with persons who act out as terrorists, regardless of the particular cause or value structure that the terrorist happens to be supporting….Unfortunately, we see that under certain conditions terrorists can “grow” other terrorists by exploiting, cultivating and bringing out its inherent personality attributes, especially among young people. (pp. iii – iv).

While I certainly found this thesis fascinating, I was very interested in the historical background provided by Riggs of Russia during the 1860’s and 1870’s, including the revolutionary philosophy that was influential during this time.

Riggs gives a detailed outline of the 1863 novel What is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, which captured the imagination of a segment of restless young revolutionaries. The book illustrated the ideals of a utopian future filled with socialist coops and equality between the sexes. However, it also was interpreted as having oblique references to the necessity of destruction and even suicide to achieve the utopian goal.

The novel greatly influenced other writers and revolutionary thinkers, including Mikhail Bakhunin, who in turn, influenced a segment of frustrated reformers and activists such as Perovskaya, a veteran of the largely unsuccessful “peasant movement” that was aimed at raising the consciousness of peasants toward rebellion.

Bakhunin and his fellow travelers preached the “necessity of violence for suppressing the privileged classes.” There was no more patience for gradual reforms, consciousness-raising, or non-violent forms of direct action such as strikes, blockades, etc.

Bakhunin eventually teamed up with Sergey Nechaev in Switzerland. Nechaev was known for being manipulative and stridently intolerant of those with differing viewpoints. He had fled Russia after engaging in violent activities that had earned him attention from the authorities, including the murder of an early follower who had turned against him.

Together, they wrote Catechism of a Revolutionary which outlined the requirements for revolutionaries to be successful. The requirements included: the forsaking of all other interests and attachments for the revolutionary project; the suppression of empathy and engagement in anti-social activity on behalf of opposing all established civil order, institutions, customs and morality; the only criteria for determining morality was whether something advanced the revolutionary project or not; the ends justified the means;  willingness to die and endure pain for the revolutionary project; and, in the service of expediting the revolution, it was permitted for conditions to actively be worsened for the future beneficiaries of the revolution. (pp. 95-98)

Within the original organization that Perovskaya had been active in, a split emerged between those who advocated terrorism and those who preferred other direct actions along with the continued education and propagandizing of workers and peasants.

Perovskaya and her supporters ultimately decided to focus solely on assassinating the tsar. They made several failed attempts that involved the tunneling of areas beneath routes Alexander was supposed to take in his travels around St. Petersburg.

They finally achieved their goal on March 1, 1881 with a series of assassins stationed at intervals on the tsar’s route, each armed with a homemade bomb to toss at the imperial carriage.

Ironically, word had gotten out shortly before that Alexander had decided on another round of reforms which would have laid the groundwork for a constitution. Some of Perovskaya’s colleagues had voiced misgivings at this point about continuing to pursue regicide, suggesting the possibility of giving the reforms a chance.

But Perovskaya’s mind was made up and enough of her colleagues agreed to participate in the plan.

After the assassination, police were able to get some of the revolutionaries to turn on others. This, along with surveillance and a sharp investigator, eventually led to the capture of all the perpetrators. After a sensationalist trial, they were all publicly hanged.

Although I approached this book primarily with an interest in Russian history of the period, I also found the psychological portrait of Perovskaya and her partners in crime to be compelling.

The Mongol Legacy in Russia

Fanghong [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book:

By the time the Mongols first invaded in 1223, the Kiev Russian territory had degenerated into rivalries between princes who lorded over around “a dozen or so” independent areas which resulted in disorganized rule (Szamuely 1974). 

Subsequently, the Mongols were able to burn, sack and massacre virtually all cities and towns of the territory in short order.  Around two thirds of the population perished and many survivors retreated into the forests, taking solace in their Orthodox faith (Massie 1980).  They eventually migrated further out to less vulnerable areas, closer to Moscow.  As Tibor Szamuely described in The Russian Tradition, these Russian refugees migrated to form:

…thousands of tiny, self-contained, scattered peasant communities existing largely in isolation, using their primitive implements to clear small patches of subsoil amidst the great forests, and, having exhausted them, moving on again along the banks of numerous rivers (Szamuely 1974).

The Mongols reigned over the land through the 13th and 14th centuries, forcing the surviving Russians into complete subjugation.  They were able to impose their centralized and absolutist rule on the scattered Russians who had lost their complex Slavic tribal bonds in the process (Szamuely 1974).  Massie describes an important aspect of this rupture of bonds among the Slavs who’d constituted Kiev Rus:

Earlier as the Slavs had expanded and absorbed the land, they had fallen into two natural divisions:  the Great Russians in the north and the Little Russians in the south.  After the Mongol invasion, the Little Russians were cut off from the Great Russians.  While the Great Russians became vassals of the Mongols, the Little Russians, who were later known as Ukrainians, were taken over by the Poles and the Lithuanians (Massie 1980).

The Mongols, for all of their viciousness, did have a socio-political ideology.  It required absolute submission to the power of the Khan, who embodied the state.  This Khan owned all of the land and had unqualified authority over his subjects.  Land might be temporarily given to others to be overseen at the pleasure of the Khan who could withdraw the privilege at any time.  The overall objective was to create an empire that, after quick and dirty wars of conquest, would be ruled over by the Khan as a “worldwide social order based on justice and equality,” living in eternal peace (Szamuely).  The price for this security and justice was perfect submission.  

The efficient rule of the Mongols, which lasted for almost 250 years, was achieved by re-establishing a form of national unity from the top, delegating responsibility at the local level for maintaining peace (with quarreling princes, no less), collecting tribute (taxes), and enforcing the law to those princes and those among their entourage who showed trustworthiness.  Faithfulness to the Khan/state was rewarded through a system of seniority among the princes (Szamuely 1974).  

The basic principles of Mongol rule – security and justice in exchange for submission to an absolute central authority – would influence Russian governance into the 20th century. 

The one city that was spared was Novgorod.  Due to a combination of fortuitously bad weather that prevented the invaders from penetrating the city and the continual payment of tribute by its ruler, Alexander, Novgorod remained intact.  Alexander also fought off a Swedish invasion instigated by an opportunistic pope who hoped to capture Novgorod and convert it to Catholicism (Massie 1980).

As Russians fled from Kiev and surrounding areas, Moscow – once considered a small and unimportant “trading post in the wilderness” (Massie 1980) – gradually developed into a prominent city that was influenced by the Mongols instead of the west and by a mystical rather than scholastic emphasis by the Orthodox Church (Billington 1970). 

The princes of Moscow collected tribute from their subjects which they, in turn, used to pay tribute to the Mongols.  In exchange, the Mongols gave the local princes liberty to administer their domain however they wished (Massie 1980).

The Moscow princes expanded the city mostly through annexation, increasing its power and wealth.  It’s location between major river routes, which enabled communication, travel and trade, contributed to its growing success (Szamuely 1974).  The leader of the Orthodox Church, called the metropolitan, moved from Vladimir to Moscow in 1326, adding to the city’s importance (Massie 1980).  Moscow developed in a series of concentric rings around the center as churches and villages sprang up on the periphery. 

The Moscow prince who founded the dynasty that would rule Russia after the Mongols and through the 16th century was Ivan I, also known as Kalita.  Ivan was ruthless when it suited him to get rid of rivals and in the service of his Mongol bosses who rewarded his subservience with increased power and prestige within his fiefdom.   In 1327, the Mongols conferred upon Ivan the title of “Great Prince” (Billington 1970).  He was granted exclusive judicial authority and right of tax collection over all the other princes after he brutally put down a rebellion initiated by another prince attempting to overthrow Mongol rule (Szamuely 1974). 

Wars were a major feature of the next three centuries, including wars of aggression and expansion as well as wars of defense and of internal conflict.  There were six wars with Sweden and twelve with Poland-Lithuania alone (Szamuely 1974).  Much of this martial conflict was driven, at least in part, by Russia’s geographic situation between Europe and Asia. 

When the Golden Horde’s dominance eventually faded, the Tartars based in the southwestern area of Crimea, terrorized Russia with constant raids on horseback that killed or captured Russians, selling the victims into slavery in surrounding territories.  This only ended when Catherine the Great annexed the area in the latter 18th century. 

Due to the Tartar aggression, Russian men were conscripted from Spring through late Autumn every year to defend against the violent incursions.  The situation also forced Russia to focus its colonization efforts on the harsher areas to its north and east. 

Szamuely asserts that, from a psychological standpoint, when it came to their long conflict with the Muslim Tartars, Russians believed that they’d invested their blood, sweat and tears not just in defending their own land and people, but in preventing Tartar expansion further into Europe, enabling the Europeans to develop more rapidly as a result of their relative period of peace and stability (Szamuely 1974).  

Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible (or “Ivan the Formidable” in Russian) finally defeated the last of the Mongol-controlled areas of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia in the 1550’s.


Massie, Suzanne.  Land of the Firebird:  The Beauty of Old Russia.  HeartTree Press.  Blue Hill, ME.  1980.

Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. Vintage Books. 1970.

Szamuely, Tibor. The Russian Tradition. Fontana Press. 1974.

Sunday, March 31st in Albany, CA – Russia and the West: What’s True, Exaggerated and False?

East Bay Peace Action & Ecumenical Peace Institute present

Natylie Baldwin speaking on

Russia and the West:

What’s True, Exaggerated and False?

Natylie Baldwin is the author of Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations:  A Primer, forthcoming in Spring of 2019.  She is also co-author of Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated.  She has traveled to Russia twice, visiting 6 different cities and interviewing a cross-section of Russians on various issues, including their views of Putin, the economy, US-Russia relations, the Yeltsin era, and the Russian Revolution.  She writes for Consortium News and blogs at

“I’m not sure there’s been a better book published this year …. I’m confident there’s not been a more important one.” – Author and activist David Swanson, re Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard. . .

Sunday March 31st 2:00 – 4:00

Edith Stone Room

Albany Community Center

1249 Marin Avenue (at Masonic), Albany

For more information call (510) 524-6071

The Rule of Law in Russia Under Putin

Here is a short excerpt about democracy and the rule of law under Putin from my forthcoming book:

One very frequent criticism of Russia by the West is that the rule of law is weak, if it exists at all.  Let’s look at three important measures of the rule of law in Russia:  the rights of the accused, judicial independence, and the confidence and participation of Russian citizens in the court system.

The 1993 constitution guarantees the presumption of innocence for criminal defendants as well as the right to counsel (Henderson 2011).  During Putin’s first two terms as president, he introduced or oversaw the implementation of the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury, and increased rights to exculpatory evidence (Petro 2018).  After certain reforms made by Putin to the criminal code, acquittal rates in bench trials (only heard by a judge) doubled and acquittal rates in jury trials tripled, contributing to a 40 percent drop in the overall  incarceration rate and a 95 percent drop in the juvenile incarceration rate since 2001 (Petro 2018). 

He also introduced the role of bailiffs and Justices of the Peace (JP’s) into the system (Petro 2018).

JP’s act as judges in the lowest tier of courts and preside over approximately 75 percent of civil cases and 45 percent of criminal cases – most of the latter are resolved through plea bargaining (Hendley 2017). University of Wisconsin Professor Kathryn Hendley concluded in her years-long study of Russia’s court system, Everyday Law in Russia, that JP’s demonstrate independence – in other words, they base their decisions on the written law – in the vast majority of cases before them.  Exceptions involve the very small percentage of cases that are politically sensitive, particularly to the Kremlin.  In these instances the JP’s will often go along with power as a matter of being socialized into the system rather than being overtly told to do so. 

JP’s, who are primarily women and do not enjoy the same prestige as their counterparts in the US, are not specialized and have very heavy caseloads that must be decided within statutory deadlines.  Though they generally strive to be fair, they also tend to feel burdened by the workload and diligently seek to avoid reversals on appeal, the ramifications of which can hurt them financially and professionally, though only a small percentage of litigants ever exercise the right of appeal (Hendley 2017). 

All JP’s are required to be over the age of 25, have a law degree, and pass an exam and a strict security clearance.   They are formally appointed by either regional governors or regional legislative bodies and are often former JP law clerks or prosecutors rather than attorneys in private practice since, as someone who has already served in a public position, their professional background and propensities will be more readily ascertainable.  They are then given 3 months of formal training before they are allowed to preside over cases (Hendley 2017).

Hendley also found that overall, in civil and administrative cases, the Russian government often loses.

State agencies are frequent litigants in civil cases, both as plaintiffs and defendants.  Both in JP courts and other courts, they are more likely to lose these cases than are private actors.  Their victory in administrative cases involving private citizens, such as traffic violations and fines for noncompliance with various laws, is far from automatic.  The same is true in the business setting.  Economic actors’ challenges to their treatment by the tax and other regulatory authorities are frequently successful (Hendley 2017).

Court rulings in civil cases favoring private plaintiffs over the government occur at a rate of approximately 70 percent (Petro 2018). 

Furthermore, during Putin’s second term, courts ruled that individuals arrested without merit must be compensated and compensation limits for government negligence were struck down, making it more meaningful when the Russian government comes out on the losing end of such cases (Petro 2018). 

Foreign businesses operating in Russia have benefited from the improved state of the legal system.  Lawsuits on behalf of foreign businesses have tripled since 2014 and favorable judgments have increased from 59 percent to 83 percent (Petro 2018).  Many Russians are reluctant to take a dispute to court, citing time, inconvenience, and “the difficulty of proving one’s case.” But as incomes increase and the traditional informal methods of resolving disputes become less relevant, more Russians are utilizing the court system, increasing from one million in 1998 to over seventeen million in 2016 (Petro 2018).  Hendley found many of these Russians to be generally satisfied with their experiences, which largely take place in the JP system, regardless of whether they won or lost.  80 percent of Russians find JP’s to be “well trained and competent” with only 10 percent believing their JP was biased (Hendley 2017). 


Henderson, Jane. The Constitution of the Russian Federation:  A Contextual Analysis.  Hart Publishing.  Oxford and Portland, OR. 2011.

Hendley, Kathryn.  Everyday Law in Russia.  Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY.  2017.  Pp. 137, 142 – 146.

“Are We Reading Russia Right?” by Nicolai N. Petro.  The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.  Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 131-154.

Update on Blog Status and What I’m Working On

Monument to author of “And Quiet Flows the Don,” Moscow; photo by Natylie Baldwin, May 2017

I wanted to give readers an update to explain the slowdown over the past 6 weeks in posting to my blog.  I’m currently transitioning out of my day job and, starting in December, I will be spending the next six months writing full-time.

In addition to a couple of other projects, I will be working full-time on a new book on Russia and U.S.-Russia relations that I hope to have out in late winter or early spring.   I will also be working on articles and will be able to post to the blog more regularly.

Thank you for your patience and I hope everyone enjoys the upcoming holidays.



Sunday, Oct. 14th in Lafayette, CA – Russia and the West: What’s True, Exaggerated and False?

Rossmoor Friends of Mt Diablo Peace & Justice Center are proud to present


Natylie Baldwin speaking on

Russia and the West:

What’s True, Exaggerated and False?



Natylie Baldwin will speak about her travels and research in Russia and Crimea.  She is co-author of the 2016 book “Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West was Checkmated”.


“I’m not sure there’s been a better book published this year …. I’m confident there’s not been a more important one.” – Author and activist David Swanson


Sunday October 14 at 2 pm

Vista Room at Hillside Clubhouse

3400 Golden Rain Road, Walnut Creek (Rossmoor)


For more information contact Rick at 925-324-3358

Russian Plane Shot Down Over Syria, Killing 15, Russian Defense Ministry Blames Israel, What Role Did France Play?; Offensive in Idlib Cancelled Due to Agreement Between Russia and Turkey; North and South Korea Reportedly Working on Declaration Officially Ending War; Code Pink Kicks Off Campaign to Divest from MIC with Publication of Report on War Profiteering


Il-20 /; Image

Earlier today, a Russian Il-20 was shot down during a missile attack in Latakia province in Syria, killing all 15 Russian service members on board.   The Russian Ministry of Defense officially blamed Israel whom it claims attacked Syria and did not warn Russia until “one minute before” the assault began, using the Russian plane as “cover” to avoid the Syrian defense system shooting its planes down.  Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also declared that he had spoken to his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, and informed him that Russia “won’t leave Israeli actions unanswered.”  NBC News reported:

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the Israeli F-16 jets carrying out the airstrikes used the Russian plane as a cover to allow them to approach their targets on the ground without being hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.

Moscow said said Israel did not warn Russia of its operation in the area until one minute before the strike.

However, according to’s news gathering on the incident, there is some question as to whether the Russian plane could have been shot down by France’s missiles:

There are conflicting stories on whether this was the latest Israeli attack on Syria, or if it was the French military firing the missiles.

US officials reported they had knowledge of the incident, but they tried to blame it on Syrian anti-aircraft fire, which was fired at the incoming missiles. This seems to try to avoid the possibility of a US ally having shot down a Russian plane.

It doesn’t, however, make sense. Syrian anti-aircraft forces are all Russian-made, and carefully integrated with the Russian forces operating in the area. Between that and the Russian plane operating 35 km off the coast, it doesn’t seem plausible that a stray Syrian shot would’ve brought the plane down.

….Syrian state media conceded that they had no way of confirming who was attacking, though an early statement from the Syrian Army said it was an Israeli attack that came from inside Lebanese airspace. They claimed two soldiers were killed in the attack.

The Russian Defense Ministry, however, issued an alternate statement saying they’d detected the missile fire as coming from he FS Auvergne, a French naval frigate deployed off the Syrian coast.

RT reported that Putin’s first public comments on the incident, during a press conference in Moscow, indicate that he is, for the time being, assuming it was accidental:

When people are dying – especially under such circumstances – it is always a tragedy,” President Putin said during a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Moscow on Tuesday.

Responding to a reporter’s question as to whether the incident in Latakia could be compared to the downing of the Russian Su-24 by Turkey in 2015, Putin said the two situations were “different.”

Ankara “deliberately downed” the Russian jet, he explained, while the Il-20 incident “looks like a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli plane didn’t shoot down our jet.”

….Russia will investigate the incident, Putin said, adding that Moscow will boost security of Russian troops in Syria following the incident. He said that these will be “the steps that everyone will notice.”

In more positive news from Syria, Russia and Turkey have reportedly reached a deal wherein a buffer zone will be created in Idlib, pushing the terrorist “rebels” further toward the Turkish border, making the planned offensive in the town unnecessary for the moment. reported:

The deal will see a 15-25 km wide buffer zone established between government and rebel territory, inside Idlib Province. The rebels are to leave this area, which will be jointly patrolled by Turkey and Russia, and are to withdraw all heavy weapons from the area.

….In the meantime, this will both mean an end to the Syrian and Russian airstrikes against the province and put rebel artillery farther away from the rest of the country, limiting civilian casualties. Whether a deal results afterwards is anyone’s guess, but there still appears to be little interest in direct talks on either side.


Reports from Democracy Now! and other media say that the leaders of North Korea and South Korea, who are currently meeting for their third summit, are hoping to issue a joint declaration that officially ends the Korean war.   Washington, of course, is opposed to this move, wanting to use the official ending of the war as a potential carrot to entice North Korea to make numerous concessions first.

Within the past week, a liaison office was opened in the city of Kaesong, north of the DMZ, to facilitate further diplomatic relations between North and South as a permanent channel of communication.


Over the past several years, I’d often wondered why peace groups didn’t push a campaign to divest from the military-industrial complex and companies that profit off of war and death, similar to campaigns to divest from fossil fuels or Israeli companies that profit from the Palestinian occupation.   Well, peace group Code Pink is finally pushing for such a campaign and to get the ball rolling, they’ve published a report called War Profiteers: the U.S. War Machine and the Arming of Repressive Regimes.   Code Pink co-founder and co-author of the report, Medea Benjamin, was interviewed by the Real News Network about the issue:

BEN NORTON:  You also point out that support for the arms industry in the U.S. is bipartisan. This is not just a Republican issue. And you mentioned in the report that a major beneficiary of President Obama’s record military spending was the company General Dynamics. The CEO of General Dynamics, Lester Crown, and his Chicago family, you write, played a critical role as career-long patrons and fundraisers for Obama’s rise to power. So can you talk a bit more specifically about this kind of revolving door between Washington and these lobby groups and the arms industry? And then also these arms industry fund many politicians from both parties.

MEDEA BENJAMIN:That’s right. It’s really the military-industrial-congressional complex that Eisenhower talked about back in 61, but gone wild. And when you look at the fact that every single congressional district in this country has some kind of piece of a weapon being manufactured there, both as a way to push the Congressional official to say, well, this is about jobs, but also as a way to bribe those officials. About 55 percent of the lobby money coming from the weapons industry is going to Republicans; 45 percent is going to Democrats. So it is certainly bipartisan. And given the examples that you gave, we could give a lot more to show the revolving door where there are high-level people from these companies that are actually not only supporting the wars, but cheerleaders for the wars, helped manufacture the excuses to go to war, as they did in the case of Iraq.

And unfortunately, I think down the road we’ll find out examples of how they are creating the animosity with Iran right now that might take us down that road. When the CEO of Boeing was asked about how he felt with the new sanctions that the Trump administration imposed nixing a $20 billion deal that he was negotiating with Iran, he basically said, we’ll make more money from the conflict. And when you look at the stocks of these companies you see every time there is an uptick in the war there is an uptick in their profits.

Watch the full interview here

Review of “Return to Moscow” by Tony Kevin

Order here

Review of Return to Moscow by Tony Kevin

Return to Moscow is Tony Kevin’s memoir of his two times spent in Russia, first as Australia’s ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1969-71 and a one-month trip to contemporary Russia in 2015 – covering Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod.

In chapter one, Kevin touches on his reasons for returning to Russia: to see things he knew were off limits to him during his Cold War posting, exploration of important cultural icons – namely, renowned Russian writers – and the hope of balancing out all the misinformation about Russia that is largely rooted in Washington’s Cold War triumphalism.

“Of course it [Russia] is a nation that still faces huge challenges.  But is it really our place to tell Russians how to run their country, to ‘mark their report card’?  Maybe we in the West have fallen into the habit of thinking of Russia in condescending, derogatory ways?  Even serious Western discussion of policy towards Russia is now too often framed in disparaging language.  I expressed the hope that my trip and the planned book to come out of it might make a little dent in this hard shell of prejudice.”

Kevin moves on in Chapter 2 to discussing his time as ambassador during his mid-twenties in Soviet-era Moscow, where he lived in a small “closely guarded” flat in an “enclosed diplomatic compound” with his first wife.

Kevin described their home in Moscow, a glaring contrast to what he was used to as a middle-class Westerner:

“The West already seemed far away.  Our new home at apartment 32 was a small, cockroach-ridden third floor flat.  Two bedrooms, a semi-partitioned living/dining area, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a windowless storeroom.  We had old and tired flatpack Scandinavian furniture inherited from my predecessors, on drab and worn-out carpet. Our building faced onto an identical building across a narrow bare courtyard of dead grass and muddy dirt, supposedly a children’s play area but filled with old dog droppings.  The entire compound was surrounded by a high chain wire fence.  Stony-faced policemen on 24-hour guard duty at the single gate noted all comings and goings and interrogated anyone who might dare to visit us.  Our Russian-language teacher, Lydia Melnikova, and our maid, Lydia Zvyagintseva, were sanctioned regular visitors with security passes, but it would have been a brave Russian who tried to visit us without one – they would have been halted, refused admittance to the compound and interrogated.  It was, we were told, all for our own security.”

Kevin, by default, joined the small community of western diplomats and their wives to create some semblance of a social life outside of work, mostly American and British counterparts with whom he shared language and who also enjoyed larger and nicer homes.  Other than dinner parties, small get-togethers and picnics (when weather permitted) at a couple of parks, and ski trips in the winter, their choices for excursions were limited indeed during the closed-off Communist era.  Consequently, the embassies created their own choirs and reading and crafts groups to provide social activities.

He describes the murky professional expectations he and his colleagues attempted to navigate in the Cold War and how they were laughably (in retrospect) impossible to accomplish within the fear-based confines they lived within:

“We diplomats – on both sides – had a peculiarly ambiguous mandate. We were not soldiers or spies, but we were not merely official post-boxes and visit facilitators either.  Our task was to try to understand the adversary world, to connect with it professionally as diplomats, to learn as best we could how it worked and where we thought it might be going, to engage with it in mutually advantageous political and trade dialogues as policy allowed, but not to succumb to its attractions whatever they might be.  We had to become close, but not too close.  We could not do our jobs by skulking fearfully in our embassies:  we had to try to get out and engage with the rival world.  The art was in finding safe and productive modes of engagement.  It was a delicate balance.  I am not sure in retrospect that my embassy did it very well – I think we suffered from an excess of caution – but that was the Cold War game we Australian diplomats tried to play.”

Kevin also describes his very limited interactions with the Soviet people as the diplomats are quickly schooled in all the “no go” areas, which prevents them from taking the metro or driving freely:

“I soon reconnoitered a quite pleasant four-kilometer walking route from our flat in Kutuovsky Prospekt to the chancery compound in Kropotkinsky Pereulok.  I tried to stay fit through walking it regularly to and from work, summer and winter. It passed close by the Kievsky Voskal railway station, a major station for west-bound trains, then crossed the Moscow River over a road bridge, and then through a chilly pedestrian underpass under the major Sadovaya ring road that encircles the city, and out into the historic and prestigious Kropotkinskaya district.  Near the Kievsky station, I would pass a sleazy vodka bar where I avoided the occasional groups of drinking men standing or sitting in the street; and a basic café where one could occasionally drop in for a warming snack of boiled or fried pelmeny (spicy Siberian pork dumplings).  There was a florist shop on Sadovaya not for from the Residence, to buy the occasional bunch of flowers for Valerie.” (pp. 44-45)

He does provide a few examples of some rubbing of elbows with the natives – some awkward and some more productive – at concerts, symphonies, ballets or poetry readings.  Classical music was considered safe and diplomats were provided “regular privileged tickets” at cheap rates due to the strong subsidization of “high culture” by the state.

“Orchestral concerts in Moscow concert halls were easy to get into, and always excellent.  Concertgoer behavior was strange:  in the intervals, people seemed disinclined to mingle and chat.  They formed up into serried ranks of purposeful walkers, who promenaded briskly around the huge lobbies for the duration of intervals in linked-arm groups, always on the move.  If people recognized one another, they gave little sign of it.  There was hardly any chitchat.  I realized, years later, that this was a vestige of prudent practice from the Stalinist terror years.  People had learned not to risk casual conversation with acquaintances or strangers in public places, for fear they might be compromising themselves by being seen to be friendly with someone who might already be under security police surveillance.

Thankfully, Bolshoi Theater audiences were more cosmopolitan and relaxed.  One could sip a glass of Soviet wine or cognac or beer and eat an open sandwich during intervals in one of the theater bars, and usually find people to greet – fellow diplomats, and sometimes Russians from the Foreign or Trade Ministries who were more used to Western-style socialization.”  (pp. 47-48)

He also notes the parochial and disdainful attitude that he and his colleagues displayed toward Soviet era culture:

“We were fundamentally incurious about Soviet or Russian – the terms were synonymous – culture and life.  Some of us would allow ourselves to respect the imagined Russia that might have been, had it not been knocked off balance by the communist takeover in 1917.  We felt sure that there was no possibility whatsoever of turning the clock back to that more refined, Orthodoxy-based, philosophically reflective pre-communist Russia, the Russia of Tolstoy and Turgenev and Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, that we had learned about in our pre-posting study of Russian history and culture.  We could allow ourselves to love this imagined Russia, while despising the Russia where we got up and went to work in our embassies each day.” (pp. 47-48)

With respect to his visit to Nizhny Novgorod, Kevin spends several pages discussing his admiration for Soviet nuclear physicist, “father” of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and reluctant dissident Andrei Sakharov, who was a public face of the gradual relaxation of repression in the Post-Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.

Kevin explains Sakharov’s evolution as an unapologetic key player in developing a weapon that he viewed as a necessary deterrent to Washington ever being able to wipe out the Soviet Union or blackmail it with a first-strike capability.  As Kevin notes, Sakharov did not assume that Washington had eternal, if any, “good will” that could be depended upon to protect his people.  However, over time, Sakharov recognized that peaceful coexistence was necessary and more safety measures needed to be put in place to assure that nuclear war would not initiate due to error or misunderstanding.  He helped to create some of those safety measures that were eventually implemented, such as a hotline between the U.S. president and the Soviet premier, early warning systems of accidental launches, and mutual agreement not to use “tactical” nuclear weapons that could quickly escalate into full-scale nuclear war.

By the late 1960’s, he was attempting to use his influence to urge the Soviet leadership to enter into bilateral agreements with Washington to ban the development of anti-ballistic missile systems, fearing the consequences of such a development on the balance of nuclear power.  When an article he wrote explaining his reasoning behind supporting such a ban was prohibited from publication in the Soviet Union, Sakharov developed the article into a more comprehensive piece on world political and environmental challenges that needed to be addressed.  This was initially published via samizdat – the secret and informal dissemination of political writings in the Soviet Union – and then was smuggled out and published in the West.

This angered the Soviet leadership which quickly punished Sakharov by prohibiting him from any future military research, while employing social and professional isolation and official media attacks against him as a traitor.  In 1980, after publicly protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he was sent into “internal exile” in Gorky, which was a closed city.  He could not leave, meet with or correspond with foreigners (including professional colleagues and members of his own family who lived abroad), and was subjected to constant surveillance and harassment.

In 1986, Gorbachev relaxed some of the surveillance and communication prohibitions on Sakharov and eventually released him from internal exile.  However, Sakharov did not stop protesting government policies he disagreed with until his death in 1989.

The descriptions of the Soviet era all contrast sharply with Kevin’s 2015 visit.  In modern-day Moscow he finds a vibrant, developed, open and culturally-rich city.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, October 2015

He provides several vignettes of his open conversations with Russians and convivial social interactions – facilitated all the more, he admitted, due to his attempts to speak to Russians in their own language, which were received well regardless of the rustiness of his skills:

“The old Moscow of the 1960’s seemed a distant bad memory.  This was a bright, elegant European city now, and it was all accessible.  Having some Russian helped me enormously to overcome initial feelings of strangeness as I moved around the city, and opened all doors for me. …The dourness and unfriendliness that Western visitors so often speak of encountering in Russia melts away, if one can succeed in communicating in Russian even a little.  Initially guarded faces relax and light up in smiles.”  (pp. 90-91)

Kevin later travels to the city of Yekaterinburg, the fourth largest in the country, located in the Ural Mountain area, and the site of Czar Nicholas II and his family’s final exile and massacre.

“From my mid-town hotel, the Tsentralnaya, I walked up a main street where the deposed former Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed by volunteer firing squad on 16 July 1918 at the height of the Civil War.  White forces were advancing on Yekaterinburg.  Moscow feared that if it the Whites rescued the Tsar, he might become a rallying point of invigorated resistance.  Unwilling to risk moving the royal family again, Moscow ordered all of them killed in their house of imprisonment.  They were secretly shot overnight by volunteer firing squad in a cellar, their bodies smuggled out in carts and hidden in unmarked country pits.

And yes, I wept at the immediacy of the dreadful memory of this atrocity inflicted on innocent people.  I wept for Tsar Nicholas and his young family.  In no way did they deserve this cruelty.” (pp. 145-146)

I must acknowledge that I understood Kevin’s reaction there even though I’ve studied the horrible conditions in which many Russians lived prior to the 1917 revolution and can understand their resentment of Nicholas II’s governance and wanting him removed.  In studying Nicholas II, his character and his rule, it was tragic to realize that if he’d perhaps found himself living as a simple merchant or farmer, he may have been recognized as a decent enough man – he was mild-mannered and genuinely seemed devoted to his family and loved animals.  But he was horribly ill-equipped to deal with the historical role that had been thrust on him and it greatly magnified his character flaws – indecisiveness, gullibility in allowing himself to be influenced by the wrong people, willfully insulated, etc. – and led to terrible consequences for many.

Museum in Moscow with exhibit of Russian Revolution; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, May 2017

I recall on my visit to the exhibit of the Russian Revolution Centennial at the Russian History Museum in Moscow last May, coming across a case full of artifacts that included one of the handguns used in the massacre of the Czar’s family as well as a letter written by one of the participants.  I asked our museum guide if any of the participants in the execution of the Czar’s family ever expressed any remorse for the murders, particularly of the Czar’s kids.  He replied without hesitation, “No.”  He explained that the participants believed that they were doing the right thing in the bigger picture, much as Kevin explains their rationale above.

Yekaterinburg is also the city where the recently-unveiled museum honoring Boris Yeltsin is located.   According to Kevin, the museum is not as much of a white-wash as one might expect.  Among the most interesting tidbits included the history of Yeltsin’s feud with Gorbachev that reflected, not only the huge differences in their political attitudes but in their basic temperaments and personalities as well:

“Gorbachev and Yeltsin had hated each other since their first clashes in 1987.  They were like chalk and cheese – Gorbachev the crafty, risk-averse, cold and at times arrogant contingency planner, versus Yeltsin the romantic, impetuous, charismatic force of nature.  Their personal feud was now being played out on an epic national battlefield of two competing visions:  the old communist hierarchy-driven Soviet Union, versus Yeltsin’s dream of a new democratic, populist Russia.  Gorbachev had aroused public hopes and expectations for change, but had failed to deliver.  Now Yeltsin was openly challenging him – though ironically, they shared many similar political values and long-term goals.” (p. 150)

Of course, we all know that Yeltsin’s vision won out.  We also know that Yeltsin’s populist values turned out to be largely for show as he ended up personally corrupt and led post-Soviet Russia into a form of gangster capitalism while working hand-in-glove with western “advisers” to accomplish it.   And, as Kevin importantly points out, Yeltsin is ultimately responsible for Russia’s current constitution that invests the Russian presidency with so much power with a weak legislative branch.  This came about after Yeltsin ordered the parliamentary building destroyed when the legislative body legally challenged his abuses in 1993.  Putin inherited this constitutional arrangement and no doubt benefits from it, but he did not create it.

After Yekaterinburg, Kevin visits several more sites.  The choice of locations was often inspired by a renowned Russian writer having lived there.  During his description of these visits, he provides interesting and informative expositions on novelists Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak and poet Alexander Pushkin.

At one point, Kevin provides a history of the Slavs and the formation of Kiev Rus and how it evolved into modern Russia.  He also gives the best summation I’ve read of the long-running historical debate between Slavophiles and westernizers for the future of Russia, explaining that there are two branches of Slavophiles.  I think his discussion of Slavophilism is worth quoting extensively:

“Slavophiles affirm that Russia has a unique culture, fundamentally defined by its core Slav ethnicity, Cyrillic language, Orthodox Christianity and Tsarist imperial history.  All these things, they say, set Russia firmly apart from the mainstream Western European identity, based on the Roman Empire, Romanic alphabet, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and the Enlightenment.  Russia did not experience these things at first hand.  Its destiny, they say, is inevitably different.

Slavophilia can be narrowly chauvinistic, centered on race-based doctrines of Slav exceptionalism.  This ethnically based version of Slavophilia has historically been linked with a sense of cultural identity and political ‘duty of care’ for the related smaller Slav nations in the Balkans:  Bulgarians, Serbians, Macedonians and so on.  Russia’s sense of guardianship over the welfare of these Slav peoples under Turkish or Austro-Hungarian imperial rule was a major factor in pre-1914 European imperial tensions building up to World War I.

There is also a more expansive, more ethnically pluralistic version of Slavophilia, a more culturally based Russophilia as I call it, that draws strength from Russia’s history of successful absorption into the Tsarist ‘Empire of all the Russias’ of so many non-Slav peoples…Under this more inclusive ‘imperial’ interpretation of Slavophilia, Russian civilization has been an inspiration and a boon to surrounding peoples who have through the Tsarist Empire come under its beneficent political and cultural influence.  This is not a dissimilar view to the nineteenth-century British Empire view of its benign global mission – ‘the white man’s burden’ – or the French Empire’s self-proclaimed ‘mission civilisatrice.’

With one important difference:  Russia’s growing colonial empire was always advancing into contiguous places and nations, often with pre-existing advanced cultures like the Georgians and Armenians, Central Asian Islamic states, or the Tatars.  So there was always a degree of respect for Russia’s imperially absorbed former neighbors…Russians as imperialists did not usually display the blatant racism of the old British Empire.  They were developing a Russian form of multiculturalism over centuries of expansion, and their literature, music and art clearly shows this.”  (pp. 121-22)

Kevin sums up his views of contemporary Russia and why he finds it a fascinating country with much to offer the world, rooted in its unique culture and historical experience:

“More than any other nation, Russians have to ask themselves big existential questions about their recent history, not only about the two revolutions in 1917 that their great-grandparents lived through, and the Stalinist horrors their grandparents experienced, but now also about their parents’ and their own struggles, privations and disappointments during late communism and the 1985-2000 de-communisation smutnoye vremya as well….I admire Russia’s seriousness of purpose.  This is a country ready to confront big questions.  It is not a trivial or superficial or small-minded country.  The Russian language itself is a wonderful instrument, a most beautiful and subtle language with the finest gradations of meaning, in expressing verbs of emotion especially. And the music, the art, the literature – how could one not love this country, the more one comes to know it?” (pp. 20, 35)

In terms of the future of U.S.-Russia relations, he laments the disdain, derision and personal hostility openly expressed among participants in what are supposed to be serious policy discussions at western conferences.  This was on full display at one such conference that took place in Riga, Latvia in 2015.  Kevin described the panel as unbalanced in its negative depictions of the country and the overall tone as objectifying Russia rather than seeking to understand it.

He also sees the ignorance and ideological blinders of many western politicians and media voices – many of whom consider themselves liberal – as a dead end in dealing constructively with Russia:

Western liberal hawks and their media voices are used to ignoring contradictions in their case.  On the one hand, they allege that Putin wants to return to a revived Soviet Union, with communist-style authoritarian government and state control of the economy; on the other hand, that he and his inner circle are united by nothing but corruption and naked greed.  Both things cannot be true, and probably neither is true…..No one needs to orchestrate such sustained Western media contempt for “Putin’s Russia.”  It now almost writes itself, it is universal, and Russians are well aware of it.  I am struck by the sheer volume and repetitiveness of this information warfare across so many dimensions of media, an echo-chamber effect that overpowers the senses, numbing people in the West who know better into a sort of dull acceptance, on lines of Orwell’s Animal Farm:  “Oh well, yes, two legs good four legs bad, if you say so.” (pp. 244, 247)

Overall, Kevin has provided a refreshingly fair-minded assessment of Russia, with an appreciation for its cultural gifts and a healthy respect for its difficult history, without over-romanticizing the country or ignoring its challenges.  I highly recommend it for laypeople who are new to seeking insight into contemporary Russia.

*Upcoming Appearance: 

I will be giving a presentation on post-Soviet Russia and U.S.-Russia relations at the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center in Lafayette, California on Sunday October 14, 2018 at 2:00 pm.  More details to come.



Aleksander Zakharchenko, Leader of Donetsk People’s Republic, Killed in Bomb Blast

Photo:   Valentin Sprinchak/TASS

This past Friday, Aleksander Zakharchenko, the charismatic leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, was killed in a bomb blast at a café in Donetsk City.   The Moscow Times reported the following:

Zakharchenko, who led the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic since 2014, “received injuries incompatible with life as a result of an explosion in the center of Donetsk,” the separatist administration said in a statement.

….Russia accused Ukraine of assassinating the separatist leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, to try to unleash a renewed war in eastern Ukraine, but Kiev said it had nothing to do with the blast and blamed separatist infighting.

Here is the OSCE report, dated August 31st, on the assassination:

At 17:27 on 31 August in Donetsk city, the SMM heard an undetermined explosion less than 200m north-north-east from the Mission’s residence on Pushkina Boulevard. The explosion occurred in Separ restaurant located in a park next to 13 Pushkina Boulevard. The Mission saw that the area around the restaurant had been fenced off. A senior member of the armed formations told the SMM that in the explosion Alexandr Zakharchenko had suffered fatal injuries, another member of the armed formations had been severely wounded and nine other people had sustained injuries. SMM staff was not harmed.

According to analyst Anatoly Karlin, the interim replacement for Zakharchenko is no one to get excited over:

Vice Premier Dmitry Trapeznikov has been appointed Acting Head of the DNR. He has close ties with Alexander Khodakovsky, whose enthusiasm for the Novorossiya cause has never been particularly high, and both men are connected to the Donbass oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.


Analysis & Book Reviews on U.S. Foreign Policy and Russia

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