Day: January 11, 2014

The Russia Watchers


When I started this blog almost ten years ago, I had no earlier experience of blogging: in those days not that many people did. My original plan was to present a kind of informal diary, a conversational, subjective and honest appraisal of current affairs in Britain, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. I’m embarrassed to read some of my early posts – among other things, they show how hard it was for me to establish a political compass-bearing in the post-9/11 debate about terror, Islamism, U.S.-Russia relations and European security. Yet some of the conflicts I discussed  – the clash, for example, between the views of the anti-jihadist historians Spencer and Pipes and those of Western onlookers concerned about Russia’s abuse of human rights in Chechnya  – are still actual today, and have if anything increased their topicality.

Ten years ago my blog was a collection of the thoughts of a 59-year-old observer of current affairs with an academic training in Russian language, history and literature who also worked in the field of literary translation from Russian and the Nordic languages, including Finnish. My experience of travel in Russia and Eastern Europe, my visits to Estonia during the 1990s and my contacts with members of Estonia’s Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit), as well as with literary figures there, gave me  – I thought –  a way into the discussion about the future of Europe. In particular, I was concerned with the question of Russia’s role vis-à-vis Europe , of whether Russia would finally make the transition to  formal de-Sovietization  and European-style democracy that many hoped for, or whether it would remain tied to its Soviet past –  superficially modern, but inwardly hidebound and backward-looking.  

I soon discovered that airing views on Russia-related topics, even on a tiny, low-traffic blog, was not without its hazards – the presence of a large and seemingly well-organized pro-Kremlin lobby  was conspicuous on the Web even back in 2004. The voicing of any criticism of Russia’s foreign policy, however mild, tended to attract hostile comments in the boxes, and at times these became intolerably shrill. From my earlier participation on several Internet forums, I was familiar with these attacks , which were nearly always destructive and ad hominem. A particular animus seemed to exist among Russian-speaking posters with a commitment to the new version of Balkan – especially Serbian – nationalism. But I soldiered on, tending to post less and less of my own personal thoughts, and more and more of news items and op-ed commentaries gathered from both Western and Russian-language media. To guard against hacker attacks, I backed up the original Blogger blog with a facsimile version on WordPress. I covered the Beslan school hostage crisis of September 2004 as well as the Ukraine crisis and Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, and later followed this up with translations of related Russian-language documentary material and interviews. However, in late 2005 I began to translate articles for the Prague Watchdog website, which monitored the human rights situation in Chechnya, and in 2007 I started to work with PW more or less full time, as an editor and translator in the site’s English-language section. This meant I had less time to devote to the blog, and in fact it’s only recently that I’ve been able to give it some proper attention again.

What I’ve discovered, looking round at the English-language Russia-watching blogosphere in 2014, is that in many respects the spectrum of opinion and analysis has hardened to an extent that was probably not the case even five years ago. The more reflective, wide-ranging blogs, like Siberian LightScraps of Moscow  and Neeka’s Backlog, seem to have changed their character,  becoming either more personal or less frequently updated, while  polemical blogs, like La Russophobe (Dying Russia) and Da Russophile, have become more strident and prominent. There are some more recent blogs like Catherine Fitzpatrick’s Minding Russia, which break away from the polarized Russia debate and strike out into new territory, looking beyond the surface of Russian life. Above all, however,  there appears to have been a huge increase in the amount of academic blogging, with numerous U.S. college professors and Russian studies “experts” – a relatively new phenomenon, this –  dominating the landscape. While some of these academic blogs are long-established – Sean’s Russia Blog is an example, providing useful, if somewhat cautious background to the  news – others have materialized only in the last few years. The global affairs analyst Mark Galeotti writes a blog called In Moscow’s Shadows about crime and security in Russia. In addition to several titles mainly  concerned with crime, security and the Russian military, Galeotti  has also written a book about  the Chechen wars of 1994-2009 – yet in his posts on North Caucasus-related events like the recent Volgograd bombings he tends to take an almost ahistorical view, concentrating on issues of tactics and security, as well as on the Kremlin’s ongoing narrative, rather than on the roots of the crisis. 

Among the academic bloggers there’s a tendency to take that Kremlin narrative at face value as the expression of policies that  don’t differ essentially from those of other governments in the world. The peculiar and unique nature of Russian governance – its connection with irrational, spontaneous forces that lie just under the surface of an apparently normal exterior – does not feature in their analyses. Although they perceive the networks of corruption and manipulation that drive the political process, they do not stop to unravel them in the context of the Russian past. For a group blog like Global Voices Online, Russia is just one more region of the world to be considered like any other – and in fact it is treated more or less in isolation from the rest of the world, in a periodic collection of posts about “RuNet” – the Russian Internet which, again following the Kremlin narrative, is assumed to exist separately from the Internet that functions in the rest of the globe. Whether this inclination to follow, if not the bias, then the structure of Russian official thinking is caused by a reluctance to offend the authorities and a desire to retain visiting rights to the Russian Federation, one can only speculate.

What is lacking in the blogosphere’s coverage of Russia is an all-round picture that includes not only the issues of government, society, security,  business and crime, but also the historical and cultural background, a knowledge of which instantly renders the country and its leaders less opaque. While there are some excellent blogs on Russian literature – Sarah J. Young’s is an example – there appear to be very few that link that literature to an understanding of current events in Russia.  Though not a blog, Radio Liberty’s Russian-language site is the only one I know of that fulfills this function, including along with its output of news and analysis, features like its series on the work of the great Russian philosopher, historian and cultural anthropologist Alexander Pyatigorsky, including his taped lectures. Something of this kind is badly needed in English.