I haven’t been watching the Sochi games at all—TV news reports excepted—, though have been reading about them plenty, more the politics than the sports. I’ve particularly liked the dispatches of TNR’s Julia Ioffe, who’s a bicultural Russian-American and thus knows the country well. But despite her Russian roots she’s no Russophile, loin s’en faut, as she makes clear in this piece from four days ago, in which she nails some of the psychological issues afflicting the collective Russian psyche (and which has similarities with the Algerian psyche, with which I am more familiar). I note that her attitude toward the country of her birth seems to differ from that of Russian-American blogger and former student of mine, Anna, whom I mentioned in an earlier post (Anna and Julia look to be the same age, BTW).
One inveterate Russophile, but who’s fully American, is Stephen F. Cohen, NYU and Princeton professor emeritus, well-known Soviet Union/Russia specialist—I liked his biography of Nikolai Bukharin, which I read way back when—, and who has taken to apologizing for the Soviet Union/Russia over the years, most recently in a piece in The Nation last week, “Distorting Russia,” in which he railed on about “[h]ow the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine.” Oh please. Cohen’s rant recalls The Daily World from the ’70s and ’80s, in which the American media and anyone who criticized the Soviet Union was accused of “anti-Sovietism” (I read this stuff in spades back then, so know of what I speak). Okay, Cohen’s piece was not that crude, but still… Among those he inveighed against were Julia Ioffe, Russia specialist Amy Knight, and Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, the latter two of whom, I regret to inform Professor Cohen, have greater cred in my book than he when it comes to analyzing the lands of the ex-Soviet Union (e.g. here is Snyder’s latest, must-read piece, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” that was posted on the NYRB website two days ago and will appear in the March 20 2014 issue). What Cohen loses sight of is that to report objectively on Russia—as on the Soviet Union in its day—is to necessarily sound negative. Some incontrovertible facts:
- Russia is an authoritarian regime and where the rule of law is non-existent. The country has known nothing but tyranny for almost its entire history. It’s hard to get around this reality when analyzing the country’s politics.
- Vladimir Putin is a KGB thug and with a KGB world-view. Period. He may have been legitimately elected and enjoy majority support among Russians in the heartland there but so what? That doesn’t make him any less of a thug (the parallel with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comes to mind). And if the cult he has built around his male virility is not utterly fascistic, then I don’t know what fascistic means.
- Russia, despite its fabulous natural resource wealth and human capital, is an economic basket case. It is a rentier state which has nothing to offer the world—or even its own economy—but hydrocarbons and weapons. In the latter Cold War years the Soviet Union was nicknamed by its own citizens “Upper Volta with rockets.” Part of the Russian population today lives not too badly—thanks to rentier-generated income—but a significant part of it is still in “Upper Volta.” Russia is, as they say where I live, un pays clochardisé.
- Related to the above, the Russian business oligarchy exports its capital. And sets up residence abroad—in Europe—and has its children educated outside the country. Imagine American (or French etc) capitalists acting likewise.
- Russian civil society is weak and efforts by citizens to engender a measure of civisme are met with repression. Independent or discordant voices meet with little tolerance.
- Russia is a brutal, violent society—which few Russians would deny—and with little social solidarity beyond the immediate family unit. And the political culture is thoroughly reactionary.
- The level of xenophobic nationalism and racism in Russia has no equivalent in the Western world. Better not to be a black, dark-skinned, or Central Asian-looking person there. Or gay, of course. Racism and xenophobia exist everywhere, which goes without saying. One of the problems with it in Russia, though, is that a lot of it is stoked up by the authorities.
- Russian society is ravaged by alcoholism and with societal decay such that overall life expectancy there is at a Third World level (below that of Bangladesh), indicating, among other things, a calamitous public health system.
- Russia could have been a great nation but was wrecked—utterly ruined—by seven decades of communism. The Bolshevik Revolution was one of the 20th century’s greatest catastrophes (just behind Nazi Germany and along with the creation of Saudi Arabia). Some lefties may have a hard time accepting this but it is absolutely the case. The bilan of seven decades of Soviet communism is entirely negative. If Lenin’s train had derailed before reaching the Finland Station, Russia would no doubt be a better place today. And the world too.
- Among the countless catastrophic consequences of communism was the destruction of the environment and of anything resembling a decent cuisine. Soviet cooking: anyone own a cookbook of this?
- And there’s Russia’s predatory, imperialist relationship with its neighbors, who—with the exception of its Orthodox cousins (some of them)—fear and despise it. Go to any city in Poland and ask a hundred people at random how they feel about Russia…
- Et j’en passe…
In his screed, Stephen Cohen took aim at the American press and American commentators on Russia, including those who are bona fide specialists of the country, not editorializing hacks. But he could have said the same thing about the French press and French specialists, whose analyses of Russia hardly differ from those of their counterparts outre-Atlantique. E.g. see the editorial in Le Monde dated February 9-10, “Vladimir Poutine ne mérite pas de podium,” which was no doubt written by Le Monde’s editor-in-chief, Natalie Nougayrède, who was the paper’s correspondent in Moscow and other cities in the former Soviet Union for a dozen years in the ’90s and ’00s. Le Monde’s Marie Jégo, who’s been reporting from Russia for many years, is no different in her assessments of the country. And then there’s Marie Mendras, France’s top academic specialist of contemporary Russia, whose articles on the subject—e.g. this recent one, on how the Putin regime is going after the opposition intelligentsia—hardly differ in tone from those of American specialists decried by Stephen Cohen. To all this one may add the enquête in the muckracking webzine Mediapart by Agathe Duparc, who reported from Moscow for eight years for various French publications, on the fortune Vladimir Putin has amassed during his years in power, which may be as high as $40 billion…
For the French press, Moscow has long been a plum post and with a number of France’s top journalists having been posted there and learned the language. What’s interesting and noteworthy is that the majority of them come away with a severe assessment of the country: not its people—one naturally forges friendships with many excellent individuals and appreciates aspects of the culture, not to mention the courage of political dissidents there—but its institutions, political culture, economic dysfunction, and everything else noted above. Contrast this with the US, Washington and New York also being prestigious posts for French foreign correspondents. Like their Moscow correspondent colleagues they also acquire specialized knowledge after time spent there, but do not become biting critics of America. Au contraire, they may invariably be counted upon to counter or refute a lot of the misconceptions and nonsense recounted about America and Americans by their French compatriots. Their analyses of America—of its politics, culture, whatever—are usually on target. And it is naturally likewise with the sizable community of French academic specialists of the US, whose knowledge of their subject often puts mine to shame. French specialists of other countries are second to none, so I take their analyses and views seriously, on Russia as on everywhere else.
I’ve actually never been to Russia but have long wanted to visit the country. If anyone wants to invite me there on all-expenses paid trip—or just accommodate me in Moscow (I can cover the rest)—I’m game. And if anything I’ve said above is misconceived—or so one deems it—, I’m open to having it challenged.