Putin and the Past


As some observers have recently pointed out, the Putin government’s new strategy concerning Europe, the U.S. and the West in general bears some similarities to the tactics that were employed by the fledgling Bolshevik government in the decade that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. While the parallels are still very approximate, I think they do help us to understand where Russia is going at present, and what the future may hold.

When in the initial years of the new regime the hopes of a pan-European revolution failed to materialize, and the attempt to spread Communism by force of arms fairly quickly lost impetus, Soviet Russia fell back on a policy of “peaceful coexistence” with Western capitalism. This did not mean that the Bolsheviks abandoned their goal of world revolution – on the contrary, their aim now was to play off the capitalist nations of the West against one another: to unite with Germany against Poland, to support Britain against France, to befriend nationalist Turkey and to oppose and overcome the growing anti-Bolshevism of the United States.

By the summer of 1920 it was clear that the period of coexistence was likely to be prolonged: this was underlined in particular by the Soviet defeat in the Battle of Warsaw, which crippled the Red Army; by the failure of Western left-wing movements to follow the Bolshevik example, and by the parlous state of the Soviet economy. This situation led to an appraisal of future strategy which had three basic strands: 1) an acknowledgement of the Soviet Union’s weakness, which required an extended period of social and military calm, in which the Soviet government would need to advocate international peace and establish friendly relations with capitalist states; 2) an exploitation of the greed of Western capitalists, and an effort to promote and aggravate rivalry between capitalist groups and nations; and 3) a prolonged and far-reaching campaign of propaganda and subversion aimed at encouraging and inspiring revolutionary activity everywhere, both in the developed West and in the colonial and semi-colonial countries of the world. As Lenin put it: “We do not for a moment believe in lasting trade relations with the imperialist powers; what we shall obtain will be simply a breathing space [peredyshka].”

Some of the early effects of the new Soviet policy could be seen in movements like the Britain’s “Hand Off Russia” movement, which questioned the wisdom of conducting what left-wing circles portrayed as an undeclared war on Russia. As early as February 1920 Britain’s Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, gave a speech to Parliament in which he asserted that the best way to restore order in Russia was by means of trade, not military force, and that the key to Western success was “to fight anarchy with abundance”.

Today, there are differences – for example, instead of the context of a European war, there are the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But’s not hard to detect echoes of the 1920s. There are the same attitudes taken by Western governments – their wait-and-see policies that put the interests of trade and commerce before any confrontation, even of a diplomatic kind, over issues of human rights and political repression. In place of the Western leftist revolutionary movements there are the campaigns by left-wing and libertarian groups conducting information-based attacks that are designed to cause maximum damage to Western military, security and economic interests, and the undisguised links of such campaigns with Russia itself, viz. the defection to Moscow of the spy Edward Snowden. And there are the activities of Western business interests and multinational corporations, which see in Russia a market of almost unlimited potential, and are determined not to let political or humanitarian issues stand in their way.

Ultimately, of course, the relative calm of the “breathing-space” period of the New Economic Policy was overtaken by events – the death of Lenin in 1924 and the intense power struggle that followed, with the ascension of Stalin and his rationalization of Leninist thinking and practice, exemplified in the massive reorganization and expansion of intelligence and secret police to cover almost every aspect of life. The conflicts and contradictions of the West’s interaction with Russia – the growth of the perception of the Soviet monolith as an unmistakable, dangerous and unambiguous enemy, and the blindness of  Western opinion-leaders and observers who allowed themselves to be duped about the monolith’s real nature – became increasingly pronounced as the 1920s gave way to the 1930s. An open military confrontation with the West might have occurred at any point, but for the special circumstances of European politics, which in the aftermath of 1914-18 were dominated by League of Nations pacifism and the sudden emergence of a National Socialist government in Germany.

What shouldn’t be lost sight of, perhaps, is the long-term approach of Russia’s political, military and security strategy. Its modern history has now extended for nearly a century, and is dominated by the interests of a powerful police and intelligence elite that has endured and shows no sign of weakening in its avowed purpose of defeating the West’s global hegemony.

Dead End

Having read the Kindle edition of Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper I’m left with a sense of  incompleteness – the book aims to show that Oswald was a far less mysterious personality than most accounts make him out to have been, yet in doing so it raises many more questions than it answers.

In particular, the author’s analysis of Oswald’s inner life seems to lead merely to a confirmation of just how blank and uninteresting that life was. While the study of Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union is well researched, it reveals a dead end: although it’s clear that while in Belorussia Oswald did come into contact with many representatives of the KGB, and was deeply involved with them, there appears to be no link between this fact and anything that might have led him to assassinate the U.S. President. Indeed, as Inessa Yakhliel, who knew Oswald, has recently pointed out, he “spoke about Kennedy very sympathetically. He said he was the only sensible president. Those were his words.”

Savodnik makes much of the ease with which conspiracy theorists have set out to present their own versions of what really happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and advances his own “simple” explanation – Oswald was angry about issues in his confused personal life and took it out on the president – as most likely to be near the truth. Yet this eagerness to promote the “lone gunman” theory also has its questionable aspect: for in the same way as the conspiracy theories can be used to promote particular political agendas, so can the supposed absence of a conspiracy.

The Kindle edition of the book contains a number of typographical glitches, most of which are unconnected with Oswald’s own idiosyncratic English spelling (in letter and diary passages quoted frequently in the text). In particular, Russian street names and words are sometimes presented wrongly, as in the often-repeated “Kalinina Ulitsa” for “Ulitsa Kalinina”, and there are some odd transliterations that lead, for example, to the Cyrillic letter “у” being rendered as uy. I haven’t seen the book’s print edition, but hopefully these typos have been ironed out there.

The Catastrophe

On June 22 – the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941 – the Russian “intellectual nationalist” website Sputnik  & Pogrom published an article with the title The Birthday of Hope that lamented the outcome of what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. “In speaking of the ‘catastrophe’ of  June 22,” the article’s author wrote,

Soviet – and also post-Soviet – propaganda only partly tells a lie. A catastrophe did indeed take place. However, it took place not on the battlefields but in the minds of the human beings who made up the “new historical community” – the Soviet people. On June 22, 1941, in the minds of the millions of Stalin’s slaves was born a HOPE that gave rise to a military disaster which put the Stalinist tyranny on the edge of destruction.

On June 22 1941 it was suddenly discovered that there were forces in the world that could challenge the Stalinist cannibals. And the millions of slaves felt that the bloody communist rule, with all its party committees, collective farms and gulags – was not forever, that THINGS COULD BE DIFFERENT. For the first time in twenty years, people had the opportunity to choose, and there were very many who did.

The article makes no attempt to justify Nazism – the author says that “socialists always deceive, and the National Socialists were no exception.” But it does make a radical break with the received wisdom about 1941, a break viewed by some as amounting to blasphemy. There were calls for the author and his editor to be imprisoned. Some saw an irony in the fact that the loudest of these calls came from the pages of the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in an article by the shadowy WikiLeaks journalist Israel Shamir, with a photograph of Yegor Prosvirnin headed Why is he still not in jail? Shamir attacked Russia’s liberal and centre-right  intellectuals, claiming that their supposedly enlightened views are really a mask for Nazi sympathies.

In a reply published on the Sputnik & Pogrom website, Prosvirnin retorted:

I swore an oath to Russia and to the Russian people… You, collective deputy Yarovaya and collective publicist Shamir, are not Russia and are not the Russian people… Why are you still not in jail, deputy Yarovaya? Why are you still not in jail, Israel Shamir? Why are you still not in jail, Vladimir Putin? Why are you still not in jail, Treasonous Federation? Why?

See also: Intellectual Nationalism

Continental imperialism

“Pan-Germans and Pan-Slavs agreed that, living in ‘continental states’ and being ‘continental peoples’, they had to look for colonies on the continent, ‘to expand in geographic continuity from a center of power,’ that against ‘the idea of England . . . expressed by the words: I want to rule the sea, [stands] the idea of Russia [expressed] by the words: I want to rule the land,’ and that eventually the ‘tremendous superiority of the land to the sea . . . , the superior significance of land power to sea power . . .’, would become apparent.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958 edition, p. 223.

Overseas imperialism

“It was neither His Majesty’s soldier nor the British higher official who could teach the natives something of the greatness of the Western world. Only those who had never been able to outgrow their boyhood ideals and therefore had enlisted in the colonial services were fit for the task. Imperialism to them was nothing but an accidental opportunity to escape a society in which a man had to forget his youth if he wanted to grow up. English society was only too glad to see them depart to faraway countries, a circumstance which permitted the toleration and even the furtherance of boyhood ideals in the public school system; the colonial services took them away from England and prevented, so to speak, their converting the ideals of their boyhood into the mature ideas of men. Strange and curious lands attracted the best of England’s youth since the end of the nineteenth century, deprived her society of the most honest and the most dangerous elements, and guaranteed, in addition to this bliss, a certain conservation, or perhaps petrification, of boyhood noblesse which preserved and infantilized Western moral standards.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958 edition, p. 211.


“Thus closes the only episode [The Dreyfus Affair] in which the subterranean forces of the nineteenth century enter the full light of recorded history. The only visible result was that it gave birth to the Zionist movement — the only political answer Jews have ever found to antisemitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958 edition, p. 120.

Anti antisemitism

Wednesday is Holocaust Memorial Day. Michael Gove (in the Telegraph) writes that in many ways we are still in its shadow:

Originally it was the Jewish people’s religious identity which came under attack, and the Church led a programme of forced conversion. Then, as society replaced religion with science as a source of authority, anti-Semitism mutated so that the Jewish people came under attack on racial grounds. Now it is Jewish identity expressed through the right of Israel to self-determination which is the focus of anti-Semitism. Israel, like any state, makes mistakes. Sometimes grievous ones. But many of Israel’s enemies now risk repeating one of the greatest errors of history by infusing anti-Semitism with a new and toxic vibrancy. We see it in some of those who have attached themselves to recent anti-war campaigns, with Britons marching through the streets of London declaring “We are all Hezbollah now” even though Hezbollah is a fascist organisation whose leader is a Holocaust-denier who believes the Jews are “grandsons of apes and pigs”. And we also see the apparent mainstreaming of anti-Semitism in comments such as those of a former ambassador who recently objected to the composition of the Iraq inquiry team because two of its members were Jewish.

And in the JC, Douglas Carswell explains why the British left hates Israel:

The contemporary left appears to meander behind the 18th-century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The founding father of cultural relativism, Rousseau contended that the primitive and pre-industrial were more noble than advanced Western society. Israel’s very existence demonstrates that the western way of life is more rewarding than other, primitive forms, and is a repudiation of cultural relativism. Along with common law, property rights, women’s equality, liberalism and democracy in the space of a single generation, a new state turned desert into fertile land. Within two generations, high-tech business parks have sprung up in downtown Tel Aviv to rival anything in California. And what, meantime, of Israel’s neighbours? Precisely.

Compromising positions

In a post which among other things assesses Obama’s Russia, Middle East and China policy in the light of historical precedents, Ted Lipien looks back at another U.S. president who, in all good faith, tried to “reset” East-West relations. He also has some words of advice for Hillary Clinton, after her Moscow visit:

Appeasing the Kremlin and the Chinese communists in the hope of winning concessions makes such concessions far less likely, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found out during her humilating visit to Moscow last week.  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Medvedev couldn’t be more brutal in telling her that putting pressure on Iran to end its nuclear programs was not in Russia’s national interest, when in fact they meant their own interest. Prime Minister Putin went to China and was not around to receive her.

In fact any Russian scholar with a good sense of realism could have told President Obama that the current leaders in Russia want the U.S. out of Eastern Europe but don’t believe that they owe America anything if the Americans leave. They will also continue to rely on anti-Americanism to consolidate their power internally. They want oil prices to be as high as possible, and therefore want tensions to be high in the Middle East. For that reason, they want the United States to be bogged down both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The only thing that the Obama Administration should expect from the Kremlin are Russian concessions that would allow the U.S. to continue and expand military operations in these two Muslim nations.

Charles Krauthammer has more.

The new Soviet Russia – 2

Via Marko Mihkelson: An interesting discussion on Russia Today about Russia’s post- (or perhaps neo-) Soviet aspirations in Central Asia and elsewhere around its borders. The contributions by the British speaker are particularly noteworthy, and rather disturbing.

Finland as a question, Russia as reply

Next March the Finnish publisher WSOY will release an unfinished work by the poet, author and publisher Paavo Haavikko, who died last year at the age of 77. The book bears the slightly odd title Suomi kysymyksessä, vastauksena Venäjä (literally “Finland in question, Russia in reply”), and is an attempt to trace and analyse the historical relations between Finland and Russia throughout the centuries, concentrating on the genetic myths and memories, and the hatred and hostility that developed in the conversation between the two countries, influenced by official propaganda on both sides.

(cross-posted from Nordic Voices)