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Archive for the ‘Russia / ex-USSR’ Category

[update below]

Everyone has seen the images of Mariupol. Watching this drone film reminded me of one I posted of Homs, in Syria, six years ago. While the regime of Bashar al-Assad played its part in the destruction of that city, it was primarily the œuvre of Russian aerial bombing.

And then there was Aleppo, of course. If you want to watch footage of Russian bombers at work there, targeting apartment buildings and hospitals, the powerful documentary For Sama is a must. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Deliberately bombing civilians and strafing hospitals is not a recent Russian military innovation, as one reads in these pages of a book on the 1939-40 Soviet invasion of Finland.

PBS’s Frontline had a report last week, Putin’s Road to War, which aired on ARTE the other day as Poutine, l’équation guerrière. The story it recounts will be familiar to those who have seen their share of documentaries on the Russian dictator, though is worth an hour of one’s time. Particularly worth one’s time IMO is Frontline’s 45-minute interview—excerpted in the report—with the excellent Julia Ioffe, which may be watched here.

Another excellent analyst of Russia—and Eastern Europe more generally—and whom I’ll read anything by, is the Vienna-based Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, who is interviewed in Spiegel International, “‘Putin lives in historic analogies and metaphors’.”

For those who have any interest in what is being said these days on the American left, New York magazine’s Eric Levitz—by whom, like I.Krastev, I’ll read anything—has a useful run-down, “The left has half-baked answers on Ukraine.” Hardly a surprise.

Campists and wishy-washy gauchistes would do well to read and ponder UK-based Polish journalist Zosia Brom’s scathing, salutary requisitoire, “Fuck leftist westplaining.”

As for the other side of the political spectrum, check out the enquête in New Lines Magazine by journalists Holger Roonemaa, Martin Laine, and Michael Weiss, “Russia backs Europe’s far right: Emails and documents show just how closely Italian, French, German and Austrian politicians coordinate with Moscow.”

Journalist Tom Stevenson has a lengthy report from Ukraine in the April 7th issue of the LRB, “Things fall from the sky.” In the current March 24th issue he has a review essay, “First recourse for rebels,” in which he writes about the unique nature of US sanctions and their evolution into the “weapon of first resort” in American foreign policy.

The question of sanctions is a tricky one, as I am pretty consistently opposed to them, for the simple reason that they rarely advance their objective, which is to change regime behavior, if not to bring down the sanctioned regime altogether. It is now a commonplace to observe that comprehensive economic sanctions achieve little apart from immiserating the population at large while perversely reinforcing the rouge regime. And it stands to reason that it will be likewise with Russia, however much the war criminal Putin and his gangster regime need to be punished.

On the matter of Russia sanctions, I was looking through the smart website Eurointelligence—directed by the smart and invariably interesting Wolfgang Münchau—whose content is usually paywalled but wasn’t today. Münchau is what in French is called an empêcheur de tourner en rond: a party-pooper who disabuses the wishful thinking of people like myself (e.g. on Brexit’s inevitability after the referendum). Here are a couple of his recent cold shower posts on Russia sanctions.

9 March 2022

De-westernising Russia: the politics

Yesterday’s news was that MacDonalds, a totem of US culture, will temporarily close its restaurants in Russia. Visa and Mastercard already left, as did many western fashion brands Russians got so used to. Foreign correspondents left. Outside Russia, western companies will think twice before doing business with Russia today. Russians are encouraged to settle their debt with western creditors in much-depreciated roubles, a quid-pro-quo response to the central bank freeze of Russian reserves. What if the war in Ukraine, as painful and violent as it is, is only the catalyst for a much bigger operation: the de-westernisation of the Russian society?

The war in Ukraine is not only fought militarily. Vladimir Putin was justifying the invasion, which is officially called a special military operation, as a denazification exercise. The rouble payback encouragement is reminiscent of what Hjalmar Schacht, Adolf Hitler’s central banker did with reparations payments. There are eerie parallels with the pre-world war two era. We may ridicule this now, but the Nazi invocation has a psychological impact that could soon grow to have its own life. It taps into old resentments and memories, and fosters a war mentality. It prepares people for the sacrifices that are necessary to emerge victorious out of this.

Our sanctions may help Putin spin this narrative further. Russia can survive, and even thrive, isolated from the west. Economically, politically and socially, it has enough resources to do so in the long run. Our sanctions allows Putin to sever the links with our economies and seek new alliances. It allowed him to impose emergency laws at home, and to purge the opposition. He already controls most of the information flow and the narratives of the war. Most Russians are unaware that a war is already happening in Ukraine and that Russia is the aggressor. The media portrays the military operation as a response to Ukrainian and western aggression.

In his endeavour to increase Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin will demand from his people that they stand united behind him. Already there are 700 university directors, even from renowned universities, pledging allegiance to Putin’s so-called military operation in Ukraine. This will go down all the way through every sector: military, media, business and academia. We are reminded of the coup against Recep Tayip Erdogan in 2016, which was used as a pretext to purge opponents and Nato-friendly personnel in the military and universities. We would not be astonished if Putin’s regime has similar lists.

Increasing the sphere of influence internally and externally is what Putin is after. We may think that our sanctions and boycotts will hurt him as he stands isolated from the west. But it strengthens his power with all those who are on his side. Syria is already in his debt and supports him politically and physically, including with soldiers for urban warfare. Then there are historic allies such as Cuba and South Africa. There is Venezuela. And there is China, which is looking at how to play this new economic opportunity to its advantage. Then there is India calibrating a neutral position, while Israel and Turkey are both eager to mediate in this war. Autocrats in the Middle East are on stand by mode. Then there are tactical moves like the one in Saudi Arabia, which refused the US request to increase its oil production, securing higher oil prices that comes to benefit Russia. What unites those autocratic leaders in the Middle East/North Africa region is an anti-US sentiment and a desire to end or at least curtail US dominance.

The image of power Putin portrays to the world is one that endures sacrifices to reach its long term goal. And this in stark contrast to the squeamishness of the west, where every bump in the road is cushioned with a recovery or resilience fund from governments, and where neighbouring European countries fret about whether they will be next in line for Russian aggression. We will see only much later how this image of power can be maintained by action. And how this mix of threats and seduction works on other nations. But there is no doubt that it will stand in sharp contrast to the narratives of the west.

Identity building is what he is after, and his legacy in the history book. This is what Samuel Ramani, an expert on Russian foreign policy at St Anthony’s college in Oxford, identified as the main driver behind Putin’s invasion in Ukraine. A long-term goal that justifies short-term sacrifices. The war in Ukraine allows Putin to showcase Moscow’s control over its sphere of influence, willingness to combat socially accepted threats, and feeds into popular conceptions of Russian strength, says Ramani. Different to similar moves in the past, Putin appeals to his core supporters, and not the broader public. If this is what Putin is after, it will not be sanctions or diplomacy of the west that will change his mind. Only a rift inside Russian elites that threatens his regime could bring him to recalibrate, even if only temporarily.

And this:

17 March 2022

Seen and unseen economic consequences

Russia may only be the size of the combined Belgian and Dutch economies, but what complacent GDP comparisons always underestimate are the network effects. Remember that Creditanstalt and Lehman Brothers were not particularly large banks before they set off global financial crises.

We have already noted that Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s largest exporters of wheat, on which the Middle East and Africa have become reliant. Egypt gets 80% of its wheat from the two countries. We saw a report in the BBC yesterday that the famous English national dish of fish and chips is now becoming more scarce, and more expensive, because Russia has been one of the biggest exporters of white fish. Our supply chain networks in the late stage of globalisation have become so interwoven that our economies were not resilient to a pandemic and a minor war.

Perhaps even worse are the yet-unseen effects of the sanctions. Russia is one of the world’s largest exporters of chemicals used in fertilisers. The disappearance of Russian chemicals from global markets could have severe implications for world harvests. We are already hearing of farmers in Europe not willing to grow their fields because of exploding fertiliser costs.

The IMF weighed in yesterday with a warning about three effects: the first is another round of price increases for energy and foods. The second is a supply shock for the global economy, and especially for poorer countries; and the third is a regional shock for economies in Ukraine’s immediate neighbourhood.

The IMF also picked up on an issue we have been highlighting in the past few days: the financial fallout from western sanctions. It sees a potential shift in the international economic order in the long run, as international payment systems become fragmented and member states rethink where they hold their national reserves. After the west froze Russia’s foreign reserves, other countries will consider whether their reserves are safe too.

So we are dealing with a short term shock and a long-term shift. We are not sure that those who imposed the economic sanctions thought this through.

In Münchau’s vein, the latest column by the FT’s Edward Luce likewise rains on the parade: “The west is rash to assume the world is on its side over Ukraine: It runs the risk of mistaking a local consensus on Russian aggression for a global one.”

Parting company with somber assessments à la Münchau and Luce is a Pollyannaish March 10th column by Francis Fukuyama on the American Purpose website, “Preparing for defeat,” which is to say, it’s Russia that should be preparing for this. Fukuyama may have misfired on the end of history but let’s hope he’s right on this one.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Eliot A. Cohen in The Atlantic (March 28) says “Don’t let up now: The West must do what it takes to help Ukraine prevail.” Right.

Anne Applebaum, also in The Atlantic (March 22), asserts that “Ukraine must win: Ukrainians and the world’s democratic powers must work toward the only acceptable endgame.” Tout à fait.

Author and journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, writing from Kyiv in The Washington Post (March 24), informs readers that “Ukrainians don’t see Russia’s war crimes as an invitation to negotiate.”

In this vein, Benjamin Wittes has a Twitter thread (March 29) in which he explains why he finds it “really maddening when Westerners speak about a ‘negotiated’ solution to the Ukraine war.”

Seriously, how can fruitful negotiations be carried out with such a bad faith actor as Vladimir Putin?

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[update below]

A presidential election is happening in France in three-and-a-half weeks—which is to say, the campaign is now in the home stretch—but one would hardly know it from the daily news coverage, dominated as it is by Ukraine and the actions of Russia’s Hitlerite dictator. E.g. my favorite public affairs talk shows, the excellent C ce soir and C dans l’air (both on France 5), have devoted exactly one segment each to domestic French politics over the past three weeks. We’ve been hearing more about Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy than any of the French presidential candidates apart from Emmanuel Macron—and even then—and for good reason obviously.

The Ukraine war has had another consequence for the French presidential campaign, which is to make a Macron victory in the second round—which was already an overwhelming likelihood—a quasi certainty. Marine Le Pen, as it looks today, is the favorite to face off against Macron on April 24th—though a late surge into second place by Jean-Luc Mélenchon is not an impossibility (and personally speaking, I’m hoping for this)—thereby offering French voters the rematch that no one wants, though this time of a candidate of the right—which is objectively where Macron is now situated—versus extreme right, and with Macron winning, though with a narrower margin than in 2017. There will thus be no veritable debate over the really important issues facing France—as Marine LP is not capable of this—and only negative choices for so many voters (I will, along with millions, be holding my nose in casting my ballot for him in the second round).

I had intended to spend this month and next entirely focused on France but, thanks to Vladimir Putin, that plan went out the window. I will indeed have posts on the election but, for now, my attention is mainly on the lands of the former USSR. So instead of going to a movie last Saturday night, I opted to watch Putin’s entire hour-and-a-half speech broadcast (in two parts) on February 21st and 24th (here and here), which was, in effect, his declaration of war on Ukraine—and on the West. If you want to know how the man thinks—and why we are headed for, at the very best, a Cold War far more frigid than the last one—then do take the time to watch the speech (if you can’t bring yourself to do that, you may read the analyses by the NYT’s Max Fisher here and here). There is, to say the least, no possibility of compromise, let alone peaceful coexistence, with Putin and his regime. For the first time in my life, I can say that we—democratically-minded persons with a liberal sensibility—have a truly dangerous enemy in power in a truly powerful state.

If one seeks further insight into Mr. Putin’s Weltanschauung, take ten minutes to listen to this 2016 BBC interview with Aleksandr Dugin, who has been called “Putin’s favorite philosopher” and even “Putin’s brain.” If one is not familiar with Dugin—and one really should be, as he’s a pretty important and influential intellectual and thinker, and not just in Russia (Eric Zemmour and Stephen Bannon are certainly fans)—here are a few articles and papers from the websites of Stanford University’s The Europe Center, the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center, The Conversation, and The Jewish Chronicle. Pure unadulterated fascism.

If you have an hour to spare and want to be both informed and entertained, watch the 2019 debate between Dugin and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Talk about a clash of diametrically opposed world-views. Never have I had such warm sentiments for BHL.

Must-listen podcast discussions from the past week: Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Fiona Hill, all with Ezra Klein; and Stephen Kotkin with David Remnick. Also, from a couple of weeks ago, the conversation with Yuval Noah Harari, Timothy Snyder, and Anne Applebaum. You will learn things listening to any one of these.

For those out there who are still flogging the dead horse of NATO expansion—of insisting that this was at the origin of Putin’s action—political scientists Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel (of McGill and Tufts, respectively) drive the nail into the coffin with a piece cross-posted in Just Security and Slate, “Putin’s war was never actually about NATO expansion.” One notes that the leading insister of the NATO canard, the overrated John Mearsheimer, is doubling down, as is his wont, on his insistence, witnessed by his guest essay in The Economist, which is but an updated version of his now famous 2015 lecture on the subject, which has been watched by millions (I was personally unimpressed). Much more interesting than anything the U of Chicago IR realist has to say is Adam Tooze’s piece in the New Statesman, “John Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism.”

Those of the Mearsheimer bent—plus many who are not—are advocating formal neutrality for Ukraine, akin to that of Finland during the Cold War. On what “Finlandization” actually meant for the Finns was the subject of a full-page tribune in Le Monde dated March 7th by the Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen, “‘Pour la Russie, l’idéal serait de finlandiser toute l’Europe, et pas seulement l’Ukraine’” (For Russia, the ideal would be to Finlandize all of Europe, not just Ukraine). Here’s the beginning (in English via Google Translate—the French version itself being a translation from Finnish—and edited by me):

In the 1970s, when Swedish television broadcast One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, based on the novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962), Finland cut off the transmitters in the Aland archipelago so that citizens could not watch this film, which was forbidden in our country. Indeed, our cinematographic committee had refused the authorization visa to this drama which spoke of the penal camps of the USSR. Reason: “anti-Sovietism”.

The Gulag Archipelago [published in 1973] was to suffer the same fate. The president and the prime minister opposed its publication, and the Finnish publishing house of the Nobel laureate obediently acquiesced. To circumvent censorship, the first part of the text was published in Sweden. Distribution was not easy in Finland, where the book was banned from libraries and bookstores.

A few years later, my Estonian mother arrived in Finland by marriage and I was born in a country which had retained its independence, but where “Finlandization” exercised its influence everywhere. This concept invented in West Germany means submission to the will of the powerful neighbor, Finland being then the only Western country held so severely in the iron fist of the USSR.

The influence concerned not only foreign policy but also defense, the economy, the media, art and science. It was undesirable for academic research to poke its nose into a Soviet economy in a catastrophic state, and it was best to avoid topics considered anti-Soviet so as not to jeopardize career prospects. When the customs directorate found that Soviet tuna contained three times more mercury than the authorized limit, it was decided that the rapporteur had interpreted the value “too theoretically”. Similarly, the maritime affairs directorate changed its regulations when the Teboil company, owned by the USSR, put on sale boats that did not pass safety tests.

Our textbooks made us believe that Estonia had joined the happy Soviet family of its own free will, because the educational system followed the historiographical line of the USSR. All of this was based on the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed in 1948 between the Soviet Union and Finland, and our education directorate was no exception. While the problems affecting the United States had their place in geography books, no negative adjective was ever associated with the Soviet Union.

But it was in the cultural sector that the USSR received unconditional praise. The armistice of 1944 guaranteeing the free activity of the communists, their ideology had no difficulty in spreading in the artistic and educational spheres. Actors who did not sing in unison with the communist line did not land roles.

In Estonia, all this is difficult to imagine: there, under the Soviet occupation, citizens had no choice but to live under dictatorial laws. Finland, on the other hand, was an independent western democracy where leaders were freely elected. Moreover, Finlandization did not need laws: activities contrary to the ambient climate were stifled spontaneously, without any censorship or sanction on the part of the authorities. (…)

If neutrality for Ukraine means this, it won’t fly. Not a chance if Ukraine remains a sovereign state.

The March 2022 issue of Esprit has an excellent article by Jean-François Bouthors, “La vraie nature de l’humiliation russe.” It begins (again, via Google Translate, with a little more editing):

Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, all commentaries are in agreement in condemning Vladimir Putin. But an unfortunate refrain persists, which is that of the humiliation of Russia by the West and of NATO provocations against it. It is continually repeated by those who had already opposed the sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the secessionist rebellion in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk; and we can see today how insufficient these sanctions were. This rhetoric of humiliation is not only repeated today by the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen and Thierry Mariani, by Éric Zemmour, who saw Putin as a true political genius, as by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but it has also been for the past eight years by a part of the French political class, including Philippe de Villiers, François Fillon – who cashed in on it, as it were, by working for big Russian hydrocarbon companies until the war triggered by Putin rendered his position untenable – and, last but not least, Hubert Védrine, who has nonetheless been well-placed to know the veritable situation.

That the Russians have experienced geopolitical and national trauma is obvious. While they were convinced of being the geopolitical equal of the United States, they started to witness the loss of the satellite countries of Central Europe, beginning with the birth of the first free trade union in the entire Eastern bloc, Solidarność, in August 1980. The attempt to quash this peaceful uprising of the Polish population by the imposition of martial law by General Jaruzelski in December 1981 quickly showed its limits. There was no longer any question of Moscow crushing the aspiration of the Poles to regain control of their destiny, as it had done in Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to initiate reforms (perestroika), of which the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 had just shown the dramatic necessity – something that the highest Soviet authorities had been aware of since 1983, by the report by sociologist Tatiana Zaslavskaïa commissioned by Yuri Andropov, when the latter was the boss of the KGB – created a domino effect. While in Russia, an “independent” press opened sensitive files and, in the streets and even on television, people began to speak freely, encouraged by the policy of glasnost, the Central European regimes wavered. A roundtable organized in Poland with the dissident opposition led to the holding of elections, which, while not entirely democratic, could not prevent an electoral landslide and the constitution of a government dominated by activists of Solidarność. In the aftermath, Hungary opened a breach in the Iron Curtain, which was to destabilize the hardline East German regime of Erich Honecker, from which his compatriots fled en masse until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Czechoslovakia fell, then Romania, and so on.

Mikhail Gorbachev and a part of the KGB were not for nothing in this unraveling: for the Soviet leader, it was a matter of weakening the political opposition to his reforms. But his manifest weakness simultaneously nourished other desires, even other appetites. In the Soviet Republics there were hints of autonomy and even independence in the Baltic countries, in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Caucasus, in Moldova… A painful past came to the fore and sought freedom from the tutelage of Moscow, i.e. from the tutelary authority that was held, in practice, essentially by Russians. In Russia itself, through the figure of Boris Yeltsin, there also arose an aspiration to not simply be Soviets, but to rediscover an older identity. The result was the Belovej agreement (Treaty of Minsk), after the failure of the putsch of August 1991, an agreement concluded on December 8, 1991, between the presidents of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian republics: Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislaw Shuchkievich proclaimed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and effectively deposed Mikhail Gorbachev.

In eleven years, the Soviet empire had come apart. It was sinking on its own. The power of the “great Soviet nation”, whose propaganda had never ceased to sing its glories until the end of the 1980s, was reduced to nothing. No shot had been fired, except by Soviet soldiers against Soviet citizens in Republics which had expressed an aspiration to independence… Westerners had almost nothing to do with it and, to tell the truth, they could hardly believe their eyes. They themselves were destabilized by the immediate consequences, as we saw with François Mitterrand regarding the reunification of Germany. (…)

If Russia has felt humiliated as a nation over the past three decades, she only has to look in the mirror.

There have been a number of reports on how Russians are being informed—or, rather, disinformed—by their media (see in particular the podcast with Masha Gessen on this). And then there’s Russian propaganda aimed at foreigners. À propos, the NYT has a report dated March 12th, “What it was like to work for Russian state television: Until RT America ended abruptly, life as a journalist there was ‘actually so normal.'” As it happens, the deputy editor in chief of RT, who is cited in the piece, was a student of mine in 2003, during her semester abroad in Paris (she was a sophomore at George Washington University, majoring in international affairs and economics). She’s bicultural Russian-American—born in Moscow, emigrated to the US at a young age with one of her parents—and was a delightful young woman and very smart (she got an A in the course). We liked one another (her professor evaluation of me was stellar, which I know), reconnecting several years later on Facebook, exchanging comments and friendly, if sometimes contradictory, messages there and on AWAV (as she was in Moscow and at RT). She accepted criticism of Russia but then at one point, in 2014, got very upset at one of my more virulent anti-Russian AWAV posts and the communication ceased. I regretted that but it was probably inevitable. One thing I remember her saying in 2003 was that she thought that democracy and capitalism were great for America but not for Russia, as they weren’t compatible with the Russian mentality. I note that she maintains her fine (apolitical) WordPress blog, Home & Away, which may be found toward the end of the blogroll. Great pics of Moscow.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Michael Walker and Aaron Bastani of the left-leaning Novara Media YouTube channel have a useful 30-minute explainer (March 13) on “The Azov Battalion & Ukraine’s Far Right.” On the general subject, do read Cathy Young in The Bulwark (February 18), “Smear and loathing: A close look at accusations of Ukrainian anti-Semitism.”


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Paris, Place de la République, 5 March 2022 (photo by Arun)

[update below]

Friends and family have been asking me for my thoughts on the subject we’re all riveted to and for recommendations of good articles I’ve come across. There’s so much of the latter that I can barely keep up (and including the voluminous output in French). Anything by Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill, and Tom Nichols, to name just a few usual suspects off the top of my head, is clearly worth one’s time. There have been a number of very informative Twitter threads over the past week, notably by former Russian foreign minister (1990-96) Andrei V. Kozyrev and an unnamed FSB officer whose analysis of the current situation in Russia has been translated by Igor Sushko. See as well the threads by specialists (academic and think tank) Thomas de Waal, Ruth Deyermond, Olga Chyzh, and Klaus Richter.

A couple of articles by friends: one on the Institute of Art and Ideas website, “How we got Putin so wrong: Taking Putin at his word,” by Stathis N. Kalyvas, who is Gladstone Professor of Government and fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford, and one of the most brilliant social scientists I know; the other in The Intercept, “Don’t be a tankie: How the left should respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” by Roane Carey, former managing editor of The Nation. As suggested by the lede, “[t]hose who don’t stand in solidarity with the oppressed cannot call themselves leftists,” the target audience of Roane’s piece is left-leaning readers. As it happens, Roane’s salutary POV on the subject looks to be out of line with that of his former employer, as one reads in this Medium post, “The Nation and Putin, revisited,” by Philip Green, Smith College emeritus professor of government and decades-long member of The Nation’s editorial board, but from which he got canned for his POV on Russia-Ukraine.

Dear friend Adam Shatz has forwarded me a piece in New Left Review, “The Russia problem,” by veteran Italian leftist journalist-writer Marco d’Eramo, which, Adam says, has an interesting set of reflections. He’s right about that, though I’m not on the same page with Signore d’Eramo on every last point, e.g. on his holding the NATO expansion at least partly responsible for the genesis of the current crisis. This is a refrain on the left, not to mention on the right and center too, and which, as it happens, was the subject of an exchange I had on Facebook this past weekend with the well-known Algerian political theorist and public intellectual Lahouari Addi, emeritus professor at Sciences Po-Lyon and whom I’ve known for many years (and whose work influenced my own on Algeria in the 1990s), who is very active on FB and with a large following of Algerians. The exchange, which was in French, was prompted by an interview with Noam Chomsky that he approvingly posted (translated on a French website). Here’s the exchange (lightly edited) in English (merci Google Translate).

LAHOUARI: Noam Chomsky, one of the leading intellectuals of the American left, is interviewed in Truthout on the crisis in Ukraine.

ARUN: I find Edwy Plenel’s (excellent) tribune in Mediapart, “Contre l’impérialisme russe, pour un sursaut internationaliste,” more relevant.

LAHOUARI: I find Plenel’s tribune relevant but I was surprised that it did not give the necessary importance to the extension of NATO. Putin is indefensible but it is not NATO that will stop him.

ARUN: On NATO expansion, to set the record straight, this is a red herring and that can in no way explain Putin’s invasion. First, on the initial expansion, whatever the wisdom of it, that horse left the barn 20-25 years ago. It’s a done deal and that, moreover, poses no offensive military threat to Russia. In this respect, even during the Cold War the US NATO troop deployment never posed an offensive threat to the Soviet Union or its Warsaw Pact protectorates. NATO’s posture was purely defensive (whereas the Soviet Union’s was indeed offensive). Second, Ukrainian (and Georgian) membership, despite the Bucharest declaration and whatever Bush and Obama may have said, was/is not on the agenda. It was never going to happen – as, among other things, France and Germany would veto it (and the US was finally not for it either) – which Putin knows full well. What was/is alarming to him is the prospect of Ukraine eventually becoming a candidate member of the EU. This is what poses a threat to his atavistic geopolitical ambitions in Russia’s near abroad.

LAHOUARI: After the collapse of the USSR, NATO should have been dissolved, or at least not sought to expand to the east. The Americans and the Europeans want to extend NATO to the borders of Russia and this is a monumental mistake. They give Putin the pretext to invade Ukraine. In international relations, security is sometimes a feeling, a perception. The powers must not give the other the feeling of threat. There have never been official statements from the Americans and Europeans that they do not accept Ukraine’s candidacy for NATO. On the contrary, they say that a sovereign country has the right to choose its military alliances. Knowing that it is a point of friction, sometimes they let doubt and ambiguities hover. The main victims in this affair are the Ukrainians. Today, they are being massacred by the army of Putin (who is a cynical dictator), and the Americans and the Europeans, instead of going to war to protect them, they send them money and weapons. It’s not sufficient. And why does NATO not declare war on Russia? This is because American and European public opinion – and this is a positive aspect of democracy – will not accept a world war on the grounds of Ukraine joining NATO. Talking about the Ukrainian crisis without talking about NATO is simply superficial. Peace will not be guaranteed by NATO; it will be guaranteed by international law and by the UN, which must be given an authority that it does not have.

ARUN: A few points. First, NATO did not dissolve itself at the end of the Cold War for the simple reason that not a single one of its members wished to do this, and certainly not the Europeans among them, who had been protected by the American nuclear umbrella for four decades and unanimously wanted this protection to continue. In this respect, the Soviet Union/Russian Federation remained a nuclear power after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and with more nuclear warheads than the United States, and in the early 1990s there was no predicting how Russia would evolve politically: if she would become a friendly liberal democracy (unlikely) or a fascistic revanchist dictatorship (which was more likely and is, alas, how things turned out). If NATO had dissolved, European states would have had to dramatically increase their military budgets, and at the expense of social spending – which none wanted to do – and with a reunified Germany no doubt seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, which no other European country would have wished to see (and certainly not France!). The continued existence of NATO and the American umbrella has, it must be said, been greatly beneficial to the Europeans.

Secondly, it is inexact to assert that it was NATO which sought to expand to the east. In point of fact, it was the former Soviet-occupied states – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and then the Baltic states etc – which eagerly sought membership in NATO, not the contrary. Whether or not the expansion was the wise thing to do – and I believe that it was, in view of Putin’s actions – it was not undertaken to threaten Russia. And on Ukraine joining NATO – a bad idea, in my view – this was never going to happen, as I mentioned last time.

As for peace being guaranteed by “international law” and the UN: as Putin, borrowing from comrade Stalin, would ask, how many divisions do they have?

LAHOUARI: Okay, it was not NATO that sought to expand, but it accepted the requests of the Baltic countries and other eastern countries. Did it have to accept them? I see that you agree that Ukraine’s membership is a bad idea, which is the essence of our exchange and we agree. As for Putin, who is the epitome of cynicism and brutality in politics, let us hope that the Russians will get him out and not the military threat. If you haven’t already, see my article published in Liberté on this subject.

ARUN: Happily the Baltic states are in NATO, as this will inshallah dissuade Putin from invading them. But if they weren’t NATO members, I would fear the worst if I were Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian.

On the subject, the excellent University of Washington political theory professor, Jamie Mayerfeld, has an excellent essay cross-posted yesterday on two websites, “NATO, Putin, and Ukraine,” which pretty much settles the matter, and lays waste in the process to overrated IR realists like John Mearsheimer.

On the IR realist crowd and its fellow travelers, The New Republic has a pertinent piece by political scientists Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz, “The American pundits who can’t resist ‘Westsplaining’ Ukraine: John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures are treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk.”

In this vein, don’t miss the piece in The Bulwark by Russian-American writer Cathy Young, “Putin’s bogus blame-NATO excuse: The foolishness of accusing the West of practically forcing Russia to invade Ukraine.” Likewise with Eliot A. Cohen’s in The Atlantic, “Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man: Why did so many observers misjudge Putin and Zelensky?”

À suivre, évidemment.

UPDATE: Ukrainian anthropologist Volodymyr Artiukh, in an interview with Bulgarian sociologist Jana Tsoneva, “[e]xplains why the Russian invasion shouldn’t have been a surprise: Vladimir Putin uses the language of ‘demilitarization’ to pursue an aggressive imperial policy against Ukraine.” The lede: “In an interview for Jacobin, a Ukrainian socialist explains the falseness of the Kremlin’s pretexts — and why the war could drag on for years.”

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Putin’s war

Like countless persons the world over—and just about everyone I know—I have been riveted to the unfolding events in Ukraine over the past week, following the news and talk shows, and reading numerous articles daily plus the many commentaries on social media. I naturally have things to say about it but will limit myself here to a link to one piece, “Vladimir Putin sits atop a crumbling pyramid of power,” by novelist and playwright Vladimir Sorokin, in The Guardian (Feb. 27).

One may also watch the one-hour documentary, Inside Putin’s Russia, that aired on PBS Newshour in July 2017 (h/t John S.).

More will follow on the subject when I get back to France later this week.

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[update below] [2nd update below]

Subtitle: “The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia.” This is the latest book by journalist and writer Craig Unger, whose previous ones include the 2004 House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties. I’ve been following the Trump-Putin/Russia link like everyone, though haven’t been as riveted to the story as have others. Reading the recent enquêtes by Jonathan Chait, Julia Ioffe, and Blake Hounshell was more than enough to convince me that Trump’s engagement with the Russians is deep and long-standing, and that Vladimir Putin does indeed have the goods on him.

Unger seems to push the story to a whole new level, though. Now I have admittedly not yet seen the book, though did read the article (August 28th) in The Times of Israel, by founding editor David Horovitz, and which is followed by an interview with Unger, “Bestselling US author: ‘Russian asset’ Trump doesn’t truly care for Israel, Jews.” The lede: “Craig Unger, author of ‘House of Trump, House of Putin,’ urges Israel to be wary of dangerous, unprincipled US president, and even more so of Russian leader who helped install him.” It’s an amazing piece, an absolute must-read. Unger details the deep relationship of Trump with the Russian Mafia, whose oligarchs have laundered billions of dollars in Trump’s real estate empire—the American real estate industry being “virtually unregulated,” in Unger’s words. There is, in addition, an important Israel link. Quoting Horovitz:

Unger’s revelations directly impact Israel as well. About half of those 59 named “Russia Connections” are Jewish, and about a dozen of the 59 are Israeli citizens and/or have deep connections to Israel. (Several of those he names, such as Lev Leviev, Alexander Mashkevich and Mikhail Chernoy, are very wealthy and prominent businessmen with direct access to the highest levels of Israel’s elected leadership.)

Those numbers necessarily raise questions about whether Israel too is being compromised by Putin’s Russia — about whether unsavory characters are exploiting Israel’s Law of Return to gain Israeli citizenship and by extension access to the West; about whether Israel, with its own lax financial regulations and inadequate law enforcement, is serving as a conduit for money laundering by Moscow-linked individuals and companies; and about whether Moscow is building strategic relationships with Israeli politicians — as Unger charges it has done to such phenomenal effect with the president of the United States — in order to influence and if necessary subvert Israeli policies in its interest.

Israel is not the focus of the book and Unger says he doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s pretty clear that Bibi Netanyahu is knee-deep—if not higher—in the muck and that Israel is a pretty corrupt place. As is the United States—except that in the US, corruption, a.k.a. K Street, is mainly legal. Also, Vladimir Putin is indeed a danger, and particularly to Europe. Just read the piece, right now.

UPDATE: Specifically on the “House of Trump,” lots of people have been (rhetorically) asking over the past three years if the S.O.B. is a fascist. The real thing. The most recent are journalists Talia Lavin—presently a researcher of far-right extremism and the alt-right at Media Matters—and Andrew Stuttaford—a contributing editor at the National Review—who debated the question, “Is it right to call Trump a fascist?,” in the September issue of Prospect magazine, with Lavin saying ‘yes’, the branleur is indeed one (small f), and Stuttaford ‘no’, that El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago may be a lot of things but he’s not that. I agree wholeheartedly with Lavin, ça va de soi, as would, I am sure, my favorite “neocon” intellectual Robert Kagan, whose column from May 2016, “This is how fascism comes to America,” may be reread with profit.

2nd UPDATE: NYT contributor Thomas B. Edsall has a must-read column (Sep. 6th), “Trump and the Koch brothers are working in concert.” The lede: “They disagree about trade, tariffs and immigration, but don’t be fooled. Neither side can get what it really wants without help from the other.”

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I normally wouldn’t have posted anything on it, hardly being a specialist on Russia or having anything original to say about what happens there, but came across this fine article in TWS, dated March 13th, by Garry Kasparov, whose analyses are always sophisticated and political viewpoints I invariably find congenial, “The truth about Putin: The March 18 elections are nothing but a sham—the Russian dictator will serve just as long as he pleases.” If you read just one thing on the Russian election, let it be this.

If you have time, also take a look at former NYT Moscow bureau chief Steven Lee Myers’s news analysis, “The poison Putin spreads,” in today’s NYT Sunday Review.

 

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The Bolshevik Revolution

[update below]

Today is the 100th anniversary, if one didn’t know. The Bolshevik Revolution was a reference for me in my 1970s gauchiste youth. All self-respecting gauchistes back then studied the Revolution closely and positioned themselves vis-à-vis what happened in Russia in that year and after, specifically as to when the Revolution started to go wrong. For the slavish pro-Soviet members or fellow travelers of the CPUSA, it never did. For Maoists, it went wrong in 1956, after Khrushchev’s secret speech (Maoists upholding Stalin’s legacy). Trotskyists asserted that the Revolution went off the rails in 1925-27, when Stalin consolidated power and sent their hero into exile. Those of us who read Gramsci tended to see the crushing of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion as a turning point.

It should be clear to any sentient person nowadays that, in point of fact, it all went wrong in October 1917 (November new style), that the good revolution was in February of that year, and that the Bolshevik Revolution was one of the most calamitous, disastrous events in modern history. Period.

To mark the anniversary, I am linking to one piece and one only, which is a review essay by Martin Amis of books on “Lenin’s deadly revolution,” in The New York Times three weeks ago. It’s good.

BTW, on the slavishly pro-Soviet CPUSA of Gus Hall and Angela Davis fame, I happen to know its current chairman. We went to the same college, are the same age, lived across the hall in the dorm one quarter, took a couple of classes together, talked/debated politics. C’est drôle, non?

UPDATE: Anne Applebaum has an essay in The Washington Post (November 6th) that is well worth reading: “100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.”

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I was reading the other day a lengthy enquête on Turkey in Le Monde dated Feb. 27th, on the resistance by Turkish civil society to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s implacable determination to consolidate his dictatorship and crush all opposition to his rule. The piece, by journalist Marc Semo, begins with an account of the ethnologist Ahmet Kerim Gültekin, who was abruptly dismissed from his professorship at Manzur University in Tunceli after last July’s attempted coup d’état—which he had nothing whatever to do with—and thereby from the civil service, and with his passport revoked, thus preventing him from seeking employment abroad. But it’s not as if there are other options available to him in Turkey, even as a waiter in a restaurant, as any employer will see, upon registering his social security number, that he had been fired from his job in the post-coup purge, and will thus not want to touch him with a ten foot pole. So he is unemployable, a “dead man walking.” But he resists, vaille que vaille. There are tens of thousands like him in Turkey.

As it happens, I saw a film on this precise theme last week—the day before reading the above article—the final one by Poland’s great director Andrzej Wajda, who died last October: Afterimage (in France: Les Fleurs bleues), which recounts the story of the persecution by Poland’s Communist regime of the country’s renowned avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński, from 1948—when he was fired from his position at the State Higher School of the Visual Arts in Łódź, of which he was one of the founders—to his death in destitution in 1952 (at age 59). Strzemiński—who had an arm and a leg blown off during WWI—was fired from his institute for his uncompromising rejection of the official doctrine of socialist realism as imposed by the Soviet Union. Not only was the blacklisted painter—who was Poland’s greatest of his era—unable to obtain steady employment but was deprived of ration cards to buy food or even oil paints and brushes, the sale of which was controlled by the state. But Strzemiński refused to capitulate to the commissars. And he died broken and destitute.

As for the film, it’s typical Andrzej Wajda: well-done, with a not so subtle political message (see my post on his previous one, Wałęsa: Man of Hope), and, in this case, tragic (as was his 2007 Katyń). It is as powerful an indictment of the Communist regime in Poland—indeed of every ‘really existing socialist’ regime of the sort—as one will find. For a discussion of Strzemiński’s life and œuvre—though which mentions his political persecution only in passing—go here. And to see some of his art, go here. The trailer of the film is here.

Back to Turkey, I read a sad essay this weekend—which makes one almost want to cry—dated last October 5th, on the Big Roundtable blog (h/t Claire B.) by writer Selin Thomas, “My shattered Istanbul: Turkey is slipping away from my family, collapsing into the arms of a tyrant. We thought she was ours. Maybe we were wrong.” 😥

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Trump and Putin

Created by: Greg Palmer

Created by: Greg Palmer

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

And the pipelines to nowhere. That’s the title of an article I just read today, in Medium, dated December 15th (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld), that offers the most convincing explanation IMO as to why Trump and Putin are hooking up, as it were. In short, it’s all about oil and the politics of climate change, i.e. raw economic interest, i.e. money. The author of the article, previously unknown to me—I admittedly do not know who is who in this field—is Alex Steffen, who is a “planetary futurist” and author of three books. He clearly knows what he’s talking about.

On this general subject, also see the must-read two-part article in the December 8th and 22th New York Review of Books, by David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman—who are, respectively, president and director of the Rockefeller Family Fund—”The Rockefeller Family Fund vs. Exxon,” and “The Rockefeller Family Fund Takes on ExxonMobil.” The name Rex Tillerson comes up more than once. After reading these articles you will—unless you’re already an authority on the subject—have a better understanding of what’s going on than you did before reading them.

UPDATE: Putin-apologizing Americans of both left and right have been furiously pushing back at the well-founded accusations of Russian implication in the DNC email hack, one being Glenn Greenwald—who is often right about things but often not, and is always a dickhead regardless—who has gone so far as to make common cause with Fox News talking heads on the matter. À propos, lefty journalist Bill Weinberg has a great post (Dec. 31st) on his Facebook page, “Yes, the Russians. Wake up and smell the vodka.” And Democratic Party activist David Atkins has a good post (Dec. 31st) on the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal Blog, “Even Glenn Greenwald and his fans should fear the Trump-Putin alliance.”

2nd UPDATE: Journalist Peter Savodnik has a must-read piece (Dec. 12th) in Vanity Fair, “Why angry white America fell for Putin.”

3rd UPDATE: Masha Gessen, who is hardly a Putinophile, clarifies matters in a post (Jan. 9th 2017) in NYR Daily, “Russia, Trump & flawed intelligence.”

4th UPDATE: Rachel Maddow has an absolutely must-watch 20 minute investigative report (Jan. 11th) on her MSNBC show, “Exxon needs US policy change to cash in on big bet on Russia.” The lede: “Rachel Maddow shows ExxonMobil’s heavy investment in Russia, which it has yet to be able to exploit because of U.S. sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea, and how a change in that policy could means hundreds of millions of dollars for ExxonMobil.” The name Rex Tillerson naturally comes up in the report.

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Photo: WITT/SIPA

Photo: WITT/SIPA

Continuing from Wednesday’s post. François Fillon and Alain Juppé had their debate yesterday: a little short of two hours, with two highly articulate, supremely self-confident men in command of their arguments on the issues, that they expounded upon in a gaffe-free, wonkish detail inconceivable in political debate outre-Atlantique not including Hillary Clinton. As Arthur Goldhammer remarked in real time on Facebook

Watching the Fillon-Juppé debate. I think we should send our politicians to France for debate prep…. I think these guys could out-debate our guys in English, let alone French. And not just Trump.

As for the substance of what was said, the first half was given over to the economy, and specifically to reform of the state—i.e. the number of posts in the fonction publique that will be eliminated, though precisely which ones not specified—revamping—i.e. shredding—the Code du travail, raising the legal retirement age, and the rest of the litany that one has heard countless times on the right and for almost as long as one can remember. Not that the issues aren’t legitimate subjects of debate—they absolutely are—or that reforms are not called for, but politicians—here, Fillon—make it sound like embarking on “radical,” “difficult” reforms (Fillon’s words) is a mere matter of political will on the part of the president of the republic, that upending the labor and tax codes, slashing unemployment insurance, overhauling pension regimes, to name just a few pledges, can be carried out swiftly, in the first three months of a presidential term—i.e. during the summer, when people are on vacation—via ordonnance—i.e. by fiat, without debate—and that will be that. The modern history of France suggests that it will not happen quite that way.

Fillon and Juppé are more in agreement on these issues than they’re not, though there is a question of degree, with the former a few notches to the right of the latter and more Bonapartist in posture. There will be occasion to examine the programs in detail once the real campaign is underway—in the late winter and early spring—but what strikes one about Fillon’s neo-Thatcherite rhetoric is how has-been it is. It’s from another era. Fillon gave the impression that he was addressing an electoral clientele—PME patrons and provincial bourgeois retirees—not the broader electorate. In point of fact, it’s hard to see his neo-Thatcherite project catching fire during the general election campaign. Au contraire. Not only has it not been demonstrated that outsourcing public services to the private sector and making it easier for employers to fire personnel fosters economic growth, lowers unemployment, or saves the precious taxpayer’s money—and no partisan of these measures has dared argue that they will reduce inequality—but voters in their majority are not asking for this. In France, people want more public services—for the state to be more present—not less. And they don’t want job security, such as it exists, to be undermined (and pedagogy about insiders and outsiders in the labor market are not going to convince a single citizen to flip his or her vote in the direction of neoliberalism). People want a stronger social safety net, not less of one. On this, N.B., e.g., the huge unpopularity of the El Khomri law in public opinion polls, with not only the left opposing it but sizable numbers on the right as well—and which is one reason, among many others, why François Hollande’s reelection chances, should he suicidally decide to run, are close to nil.

The bottom line: Fillon, assuming he wins on Sunday (a safe bet) and then next May 7th (and he’ll be the favorite come next Monday), will be the most conservative president the Fifth Republic has seen to date. Arch réac Patrick Buisson said as much on Europe 1 yesterday, calling Fillon’s victory a “historic moment” for the French right. So much for Fillon’s erstwhile séguiniste social Gaullism (insofar as this was ever his real conviction). What makes Fillon so effective—and redoubtable—a politician is his mild manner combined with solidity of character. As I said last time, he presents himself very well and is very well-spoken. He is, in reality, no less right-wing than Sarkozy—including on the ‘4 Is’, with perhaps a nuance here and there—but, because of his style, has given the impression of greater moderation. As Libé’s Laurent Joffrin put it, whereas Sarkozy will blurt out to a citizencasse-toi pauv’ con” (beat it, asshole), Fillon will politely say “passez votre chemin, mon brave” (please move along, my good man). In public speaking, as I never cease to say, form is as important as substance, when not more so.

Fillon also knows to downplay his conservative positions on societal issues and resist the temptation to demagogue. E.g. he is personally opposed to abortion but, when the question was put to him in the debate, he insisted that he will never touch the Loi Veil or seek to abrogate the Loi Taubira on same-sex marriage (it was striking to watch him and Juppé both solemnly affirm their support for a woman’s right to chose, and with Fillon saying that “as a man, [abortion] is a not a decision for me to make;” hell will freeze over before such words are ever heard in a US Republican Party debate). As for his ties to conservative Catholic anti-gay marriage groups like Sens Commun, it is most unlikely that, given the ambient anti-religiosity in French society—France being one of the most atheistic countries in the world—that this will translate into any retrograde policy initiatives. Lefties and laïcards are shrieking over Fillon’s liaisons dangereuses with reactionary Cathos but he’s just playing symbolic politics. It’s not a BFD.

What is a BFD, however—and a big one indeed—is foreign policy, and specifically Fillon’s ties to Vladimir Putin. Russophilia—Putinophilia, en réalité—has become pronounced on the French right over the past decade and with Fillon one of Putin’s best friends in Paris. The bienveillance of Donald Trump and Michael Flynn toward Putin does not compare. Fillon and Putin know one another well—a relationship forged during Fillon’s five years as Sarkozy’s PM—have met some fifteen times, and are on the same page on numerous questions, among them Syria, with Fillon outright supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On this, see Daniel Vernet in Slate.fr and Pierre Haski in L’Obs and The Guardian, plus his à chaud reaction on Facebook the night of the 1st round, in which he said

D’ailleurs, si Fillon l’emporte à droite et se retrouve au deuxième tour avec Marine Le Pen, ce seront deux amis de Moscou qui s’affronteront, assurant à Vladimir Poutine une victoire assurée. Son “investissement” a payé.

Now France does need to have a correct relationship with Russia but there are limits, as Juppé, who differs considerably with Fillon on the issue, asserted in the debate, notably on Ukraine and Syria. For Juppé, there can be no compromising or dealing with Bashar al-Assad. Fillon took care to assure that France under his presidency will not change alliances (go here and scroll to 1:56:30), that she and America are allies, and that France shares “fundamental values” with America that she does not with Russia. Très bien. But then, how to explain this tweet that Fillon sent out last March?

“American imperialism”? And during the Obama administration? And that “threatens” Europe? Now what is that supposed to mean? This is the first time I’ve seen the expression “American imperialism”—exclusively far left in pedigree—in a long time. And I have no memory of having ever heard it uttered by a high-level politico in a French party of government, and by one who may be elected president of the republic no less.

Strange. This requires explanation, though less so to the crazy new administration in Washington that awaits us than to Angela Merkel and the other principal actors in the European Union (a subject that was not mentioned once in last night’s debate, BTW). If a President Fillon makes nice with Vladimir Putin over and above France’s relationship with Germany, that will mark a sea change of major proportions on the continent—and in geopolitics more generally.

France Inter’s great geopolitics commentator Bernard Guetta has had some very good commentaries this week on Fillon, Putin, France, and Russia, here and here.

On the matter of Russia, we have learned over the past week that Alain Juppé has been subjected to an odious, viral campaign on the fachosphère—France’s nebula of Alt-Right websites—accusing him of being an “ally” of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and generally being in cahoots with “Islam,” on account, entre autres, of his cordial relationship, in his capacity as mayor of Bordeaux, with Bordeaux’s imam Tareq Oubrou—the epitome of moderation, whose liberal interpretation of the Islamic faith is music to French ears, but whom the fachosphère, along with extreme right-wing Jewish websites, have libelously slandered as a fundamentalist and antisemite, and sullying Juppé’s name in the process, nicknamed “Ali Juppé” by the fachos (for details, see the article by Claude Askolovitch in Slate.fr, “L’alliance de la fachosphère et des ultras du sarkozysme pour éliminer Juppé,” and the enquête in Libé, “Qui veut la peau d’«Ali Juppé»?”).

So what’s the link with Russia? Russian trolls, so L’Obs reports, who lent a helping hand to the fachosphère—which is entirely pro-Putin—to undermine Juppé and help Fillon. As there is now no doubt that the Russians undermined Hillary Clinton via cyberattacks and fake news to favor Trump, the circumstantial evidence that they likewise employed their underhanded methods in the French primary campaign may be regarded as prima facie.

There was a small brouhaha over something Fillon said Wednesday on Europe 1 that sounded borderline antisemitic

I think that sectarianism is increasing today within the Muslim community and that the sectarianists are taking that community hostage. We need to combat this sectarianism and we need to do it as we have in the past. We fought against a form of Catholic sectarianism or like we fought the desire of Jews to live in a community that does not respect the laws of the French Republic.

There was a time in history when Jews as a “community” didn’t respect the laws of the republic? WTF? Claude Askolovitch took Fillon apart on this in a great piece on Slate.fr, “Des juifs, de Fillon, et de l’inculture historique de nos politiques.” Who knows what Fillon was thinking when he said this. I rather doubt he’s a closet Judeophobe, as there has been no indication of this in his long life as a public person. If he were, ça se saurait. He clarified the matter almost immediately on his Facebook page. L’incident est clos.

My prediction au pif for Sunday’s vote, FWIW: Fillon 58%, Juppé 42%.

Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, March 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, March 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

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fair play

I’m sort of following the Olympics, watching a bit on TV, keeping up with the medals table. I’ve read about the Russian doping scandal over the past couple of weeks. Am not surprised the Russkies got off with a slap on the wrist. The affair recalled a good Czech film I saw last year, Fair Play (in France: Sur la ligne), about state-organized doping of athletes in Czechoslovakia during the communist era (and that was likewise in the other eastern bloc countries). Here’s a plot summary culled from IMDB

The 1980s in Czechoslovakia. The young talented sprinter Anna (Judit Bárdos) is selected for the national team and starts training to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (before the Soviet decision to boycott). As part of the preparation she is placed in a secret “medical program” where she’s getting doped with anabolic steroids. Her performance is getting better, but after she collapses in training, she learns the truth about the drugs. Anna decides to continue her training without the steroids even though her mother (Anna Geislerova) is worried that she won’t be able to keep up with other athletes and might not qualify for the Olympics, which she sees as the only chance for her daughter to escape from behind the Iron Curtain (her parents having been dissidents and her father living in exile in Vienna). After Anna finishes last in the indoor race, her mother informs the coach (Roman Luknar) that Anna had stopped using steroids. They decide to apply the steroids to Anna secretly, pretending it’s nothing but doses of harmless vitamins.

The film offers what is certainly the most accurate cinematic treatment one will find of state-organized doping in communist countries: of the collaboration of doctors, oversight of the secret police and the party, and the pressure that was brought to bear on the athletes to comply—e.g. access to higher education and other resources, post-sporting career employment—and particularly if the athlete’s family was already politically suspect, as was Anna’s in the film. In short, it lays bare the overall insidiousness of the really existing socialism of the Soviet bloc countries. The pic did well at the box office in the Czech Republic (it has yet to open in the US or UK). The reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are good. Trailer is here.

Not all was dodgy or somber in the Soviet bloc sports scene, it should be said. Last year I saw the terrific documentary, Red Army, by American filmmaker Gabe Polsky, about the saga of the HC CSKA Moscow ice hockey team, nicknamed “Red Army”—that formed the core of the national team the Soviet Union fielded in international competition—mainly from the 1970s to the early ’90s. The Red Army/USSR ice hockey team may well have been the best ever in any sport—and, under the yoke of the legendary slave-driver coach, Viktor Tikhonov, no doubt the most militarily regimented. The national team regularly blew away the competition in international sporting events (though was shocked by Team USA—then comprised of college-level amateurs—at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports). They were amazing. One does not need to know a thing about ice hockey or have the slightest interest in it to find the documentary riveting and all-around excellent—critics in France and the US/UK alike gave it the thumbs way up—as it’s about politics, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union in its waning years as much as it is about sports (see the trailer here). Among those interviewed throughout the documentary are two of the USSR national team’s great players, Vladislav Tretiak and Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov—the latter, along with others on the team, going to the US and Canada in 1989 and after to play in the NHL—and the journalist Vladimir Posner, who was a fixture on American television in the 1980s, as a slick, English-speaking spokesman for the Soviet Union.

Did the Soviet hockey players take anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs? Probably, though in that they would not have differed from their counterparts in North America.

redarmy-poster-de-fr-it-640

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Vladimir-Putin-Islamic-State-troops-609757

This piece by George Soros in Project Syndicate (February 10th) merits a blog post, not a mere tweet. It begins

The leaders of the United States and the European Union are making a grievous error in thinking that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The evidence contradicts them. Putin’s current aim is to foster the EU’s disintegration, and the best way to do so is to flood the EU with Syrian refugees.

Soros gets it right, IMHO. Putin, via Russia’s action in Syria, is out to destroy the European Union as a supranational political entity and assert Russian primacy in Europe. Europeans need to understand this and, if they have the interest and will, to resist it.

On Syria and US policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on tribune in The Wall Street Journal (February 12th), “The flawed logic in blaming the U.S. for Syria’s humanitarian crisis.” ADM concludes

As horrible as the destruction in Syria has become, the U.S. doesn’t bear primary responsibility. A more accurate assessment starts with Bashar Assad, ISIS, Iran (and Hezbollah), and Russia.

In case one missed it, Vox’s Max Fisher has a must-read post dated February 10th on the “14 hard truths on Syria no one wants to admit.”

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idi_i_smotri-1985

Continuing from my last post, on WWII films, this one merits special mention. It’s a Soviet film from 1985 (titre en France: Requiem pour un massacre) and that won the top prize at the Moscow film festival that year, but that I knew nothing about—nor of the director, Elem Klimov—until last fall, when I received an email about it from my friend Adam Shatz, who wrote that “[i]t’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the horror of war.” The film was released in 1987 in France and the US, but if it came to Chicago, which is where I was that year, I completely, totally missed it. But as it’s available via Netflix, I managed to see it on my last US trip.

Adam was right. I won’t summarize the story; for that, one may read the 2010 review by Roger Ebert, who, putting ‘Come and See’ in his “Great Movies” category, called it “one of the most devastating films ever about anything.” In short, the film is set in Byelorussia in 1943 or ’44, when the Germans were retreating under the Red Army onslaught but fighting furiously. In something I read recently—or maybe it was a documentary—a historian said that the June 10th 1944 massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, which was the worst German atrocity of the war in France—committed by the Waffen-SS Das Reich Panzer Division—happened every two days in the villages of Byelorussia and the Ukraine in 1943 and ’44. And in ‘Come and See’, such a massacre is reenacted precisely as it must have occurred and down to the last detail: in short, of all the men rounded up and shot, with the women and children herded into the village church, which, the doors sealed shut, was then set on fire. And with the German soldiers laughing and cheering as the crying and screaming hundreds inside burned to death. This is what happened at Oradour and was the almost daily reality of the German occupation of the Soviet Union, which was, as Timothy Snyder put it, “the bloodiest occupation in the history of the world.” To repeat what Adam and Roger Ebert said, if you want to see a movie about the horrors of war—and, in particular, of the eastern front in World War II and the evil of the Nazi Germans—this is it. Trailer is here.

come and see

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Putin’s Way

vladimir putin

[update below]

The PBS public affairs program Frontline aired a 52-minute report on January 13th by this title and that I just watched (thankfully US networks don’t remove reportages and documentaries from their websites after one week, as do their French counterparts). It’s a must. I jotted down one passage in particular, by Karen Dawisha—author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?—that is worth quoting

The bottom line, just to put it with two numbers. Two numbers is all we need [to grasp the essence of Russia under Putin]. The median, or the mid-point wealth for the average Russian is $871, according to Crédit Suisse. Very neutral report. $871 means that half the population has more than that in wealth and half the population has less. Median wealth in India is over $1000. So the average Russian is poorer than the average Indian. So that’s one number: 871. The other number is 110. 110 individuals own 35% of the wealth of Russia. [Russia is] the most unequal country by far in the world.

The Frontline report may be seen here.

If one has time for more watching, the webzine Mediapart has a most interesting 55-minute interview/debate (dated February 8th), “Vladimir Poutine, «âme slave et idée russe»,” with Michel Eltchaninoff—an editor at Philosophie Magazine and author of Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine—and Juliette Cadiot, historian at the EHESS and author of Laboratoire impérial, Russie-URSS 1860-1940. The question framing the discussion: What is Vladimir Putin’s long-term political project?

UPDATE: If one wishes to watch yet another lengthy reportage, ARTE aired an 82-minute one on Chechnya three days ago (on March 3rd), “Tchétchénie, une guerre sans trace,” which may be seen on its website, for the time being at least. The description

Vingt ans après la première guerre de Tchétchénie, Manon Loizeau explore un pays terrorisé, dont le président Kadyrov et ses milices veulent éradiquer jusqu’à la mémoire. Un témoignage exceptionnel, porté par de fragiles voix dissidentes.

The ubuesque dictatorship of Ramzan Kadyrov, installed in power eight years ago by Vladimir Putin. Chechnya: talk about a martyred nation…

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Photo credit: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

Photo credit: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

[update below] [2nd update below]

Geopolitics analyst Bernard Guetta had a most interesting commentary this morning on the meaning of the Boris Nemtsov assassination, which may be read or listened to here. In short, he argues that Nemtsov did, in fact, pose a real threat to Vladimir Putin and that this no doubt explains why he was killed.

Guetta does not come out and say that Putin ordered the assassination. No serious analyst can do that in the absence of any proof. On the question of who was possibly responsible for the hit, NYU global affairs prof Mark Galeotti, writing on his In Moscow’s Shadows blog, examines the “known knowns and the Nemtsov murder,” in which he asserts that we simply don’t know. His conclusion

Let me re-iterate: Putin could still have ordered Nemtsov killed or hinted that he would like to see this happen and let others take the initiative. But so far we don’t know. The one particular issue that I do think stands out is quite how the killers targeted him. Once they knew he was dining at the Bosco on Red Square, given that he is known to live over the river, then waiting to catch him on the bridge, a natural choke point, makes sense. But how did they know where he was? Had they been following him beforehand (in which case there may be traces on other cameras, and perhaps cellphone traffic mirroring his, which could be a useful clue)? Or was his location monitored through his phone, which again could mean direct government responsibility, or the involvement of some security officer acting on his own authority, or just criminal/informal connections. Either way, answering that question might get us a little closer to knowing for sure what happened.

Amy Knight, the NYRB’s main Russian politics analyst, has a post on the NYR Blog, “Russia: Another dead democrat.”

Journalist Ola Cichowlas, who writes on Russia and Eastern Europe, has a piece in Politico Magazine on “The fascist in the Kremlin.” The lede: How Putin is eliminating enemies at home while creating new allies abroad.

On the Foreign Policy website, Elias Groll and Reid Standish—both of FP—have a doozy of a piece entitled “Laser bears and occupants: These are the masterpieces of delusional Russian propaganda.” The Russian propaganda videos they link to have to be seen to be believed. Russia today is a wild and crazy place. Also worrisome. And dangerous.

UPDATE: Bill Browder—whom I linked to in my previous Nemtsov post—has a piece in Politico Magazine saying that “It’s up to the United States to solve Boris Nemtsov’s murder.” The lede: I’ve dealt with the Russian justice system. Putin’s “investigation” will go nowhere.

2nd UPDATE: Amy Knight has another post on the NYR Blog (March 15th) on the Nemtsov murder, “A Kremlin conspiracy gone wrong?,” in which she follows the Chechen trail.

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Moscow, March 1 2015 (Photo: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images)

Moscow, March 1 2015 (Photo: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images)

[update below]

That was a nice march in Moscow yesterday expressing outrage over his murder. As Julia Ioffe points out, though, only 50,000 out of 12 million Muscovites participated, compared to 1.6 million in Paris—same metro area population—on January 11th. For Russia today that’s probably not too bad. After learning of Nemtsov’s murder I remembered a report of his, co-authored with Leonid Martynyuk, that I posted on this blog a year ago, on the scandal of the Sochi games.

So who ordered Nemtsov’s assassination? As Masha Gessen says in an NYT op-ed

In all likelihood no one in the Kremlin…and this is part of the reason Mr. Nemtsov’s murder marks the beginning of yet another new and frightening period in Russian history. The Kremlin has recently created a loose army of avengers who believe they are acting in the country’s best interests, without receiving any explicit instructions. Despite his lack of political clout, Mr. Nemtsov was a logical first target for this menacing force.

And why would any number of persons in the Russian Federation and its near abroad want to kill Nemtsov? For a possible response, watch the must-watch seven-minute video, “5 facts that prove Putin’s behind the conflict in Ukraine,” produced last year by Nemtsov and Martynyuk. The video’s title in Russian: The Warmonger.

A few commentaries I’ve come across on Nemtsov’s murder:

Julia Ioffe, writing in the NYT Magazine—where she’s now a staff writer—”After Boris Nemtsov’s Assassination, ‘There Are No Longer Any Limits’.”

For perspective, Ioffe recommends reading this piece on “Hearing Out Russia’s Patriotic Bloggers on Nemtsov’s Murder.”

Journalist Leonid Bershidsky—who threw in the towel last year and quit Russia—writes in Bloomberg View on “The Russia That Died With Boris Nemtsov.”

BuzzFeed News Foreign Editor Miriam Elder, who reported from Moscow for a decade, says that “Murder, even in Russia, is always a shock.”

And here is Bill Browder’s “Statement on the Murder of Boris Nemtsov.” For those who don’t recall Bill Browder, he is, as Anne Applebaum describes in her recent must-read NYRB essay

[The] grandson of Earl Browder, leader of the American Communist Party[,] who set up a Russian investment fund that invested heavily in Gazprom. After he turned out to be an annoyingly activist shareholder—he kept asking why the company’s accounts were so untransparent—Browder was barred from the country in 2005. His companies in Russia were subsequently destroyed by a particularly Putinist form of corporate raiding: tax officials and police attacked their offices, reregistered them, declared them bankrupt, stole their money, and arrested and harassed their employees. Browder’s lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky, was eventually beaten to death by guards in a Russian prison.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?—reviewed by Anne Applebaum in the NYRB essay linked to above—offered her instant reaction, on the CNN website, to the Nemtsov killing. And The Economist magazine’s Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, writes in The Daily Mail of “My friend’s murder and chilling echoes of Stalin: How Boris Nemtsov’s assassination may herald a return to the terrifying past or a descent into a still more alarming future.”

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leviathan_poster

As I’m reading and thinking about Russia at the moment—the contemporary politics and international conduct of which is the current subject in one of my graduate level classes—, I want to mention two films from or about that country that I’ve seen this fall. The objectively superior one is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ‘Leviathan’, which premiered at Cannes in May. As the French reviews were dithyrambic and Zvyagintsev’s last film, Elena, first rate, I had high expectations for this one. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a powerful film, one of the best of the year. It is, moreover, the most devastating portrait of the political order in contemporary Russia—of the us et coutumes of those who run the Russian state—that one will see on the big screen (though, as it happens, the film was made with the support of the Russian ministry of culture). I’ll let Variety’s Peter Debruge describe it

In “Leviathan,” which director Andrey Zvyagintsev has described as a loose retelling of the Book of Job, an ordinary man must wrestle with his faith not in God but in the Russian state — an epic struggle against a monster with many faces possessed of the capacity to bend the law to suit its own appetites. Resistance is futile, as they say, and yet this stunning satire’s embattled patriarch valiantly perseveres for the sake of his family, even as it crumbles around him. Debuting in competition at Cannes, this engrossing, arthouse-bound opus spans a meaty 142 minutes and unfolds with the heft of a 1,000-page novel.

Lest you think Zvyagintsev’s latest a work of science fiction, the leviathan in question is strictly metaphorical — a concept borrowed from Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 treatise of the same name. That may come as a disappointment to those who’ve likened the 50-year-old slow-cinema auteur to a latter-day Andrei Tarkovsky, hoping this might be the abstract metaphysical feature they’d been waiting for. And yet, there’s ample cause for celebration: This is the director’s most accessible and naturalistic film, using everyday characters to test how well modern-day Russia is maintaining the social contract with its citizens.

The setting is a small town on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia, a has-been fishing community littered with the carcasses of ships and whales alike, far from Moscow and yet close enough to “civilization” that the locals can practically see Finland from their backyards. Come for the scenery, stay for all that’s rotten beneath the surface in what amounts to an expose touching on the many challenges that face the country today: religion, politics, guns and alcohol.

No doubt, when his ancestors settled the riverside homestead on which Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) and his family — son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and sexy second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) — still live, they never imagined a crooked mayor (Roman Madyanov) would one day seize the land to do with as he pleased. But Kolya is no pushover, enlisting his longtime lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) all the way from Moscow to contest the mayor’s claim of eminent domain. (…)

To continue reading Debruge’s review, go here. Reviews by other Anglo-American critics who saw it at Cannes are equally stellar. The pic is scheduled to open in the US before the end of the year. So if you have any interest in Russia or simply like seeing great movies, don’t miss this one. Trailer is here.

The other film—which I saw three nights ago—is Michel Hazanavicius’s ‘The Search’. Pour mémoire, Hazanavicius directed The Artist—which won five Oscars, including best film and director—plus the two OSS 117 comedies (I saw the first, which was okay; my students tell me I must absolutely see the second, so I will). This one, which is far more sober and serious than the director’s previous pics, is about the Second Chechen War (set in 1999-2000 in Chechnya and Ingushetia, shot on location in Georgia). I was looking forward to it in view of the subject matter and having seen the trailer, and with Bérénice Bejo and Annette Bening at the tête d’affiche an added draw. But then I took note of Le Monde’s thumbs down review (placing it in the “to be avoided” category) and read that the film had received a chilly reception at its screening in Cannes (though the boos mainly came from Russian journalists in the audience, so it was said). And the reviews have been mixed—or divided between the very positive and sharply negative—, both in France and by US critics who saw it at Cannes (one consequence of the negative reception at Cannes was Hazanavicius cutting some 20 minutes from the film, thus reducing its commercial running length to 2¼ hours). The film is not flawless, that’s for sure. There are problems with some of the characters—who are, as Variety’s Justin Chang put it, “reduc[ed]…to either tragic victims or moral mouthpieces”—and with the Russian soldier protag lifted straight out of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (which was kind of flagrant and that just about every critic mentioned). And the depiction of the Chechen war is manichean. Hazanavicius has it out for the Russians, to put it mildly. They’re the bad guys, period.

This all being said, though, I was thoroughly absorbed in the film and, when it was over, pronounced it to be not bad (and, as it happens, the audience reaction—in later screenings at Cannes and on Allociné—has been more positive than that of the critics). One may acknowledge the film’s shortcomings and heavy-handed didacticism but still find it worthy. Now if I were Russian I would possibly wince at the way the Russian Ground Forces—soldiers being about the only Russians one sees in the film—are depicted, an army commanded by sadistic psychopaths with not an ounce of humanity and whose foot soldiers are hazed into becoming such. As Hazanavicius is French—and may or may not know the Russian language—, one may want to express skepticism at his portrayal. On this, I look forward to the verdict of those who know the Russian army from the inside or can speak about it authoritatively. But until then, I will go with Hazanavicius’s portrait, which conforms to everything I’ve read, understood, and simply know about the Russian army and its Red Army predecessor: about the violence involved in the hazing of soldiers and their behavior toward civilians identified with the enemy side. The fact of the matter is, the Russian army did commit massacres and wantonly bomb and kill civilians in Chechnya—as it did in Afghanistan and every previous war it waged. The opening scene in ‘The Search’ did happen during the Chechen wars and its occurrence was not exceptional. Such has been thoroughly documented and there is no disputing it. Now the Chechen fighters were not exactly enfants de chœur themselves—they committed their share of exactions and war crimes, as insurgents invariably do in such conflicts—but this must not detract from the principal culprit, which was the army prosecuting the counterinsurgency.

Hazanavicius said in an interview that, in his mind, ‘The Search’ is his best film to date. He has clearly been indignant about the Russian campaign in the Chechen wars and used his post-Oscar notoriety to make a film about it, which cost some €22 million. Technically the pic is excellent and with the Georgia locales where it was shot looking authentically Chechen. The film is mainly in Russian and Chechen—with actors and extras recruited among Chechen refugees in Georgia—, with some English and French (by Bejo and Bening, who respectively play the Ingushetia-based EU human rights commission official and war-weary ICRC rep). Hazanavicius’s enterprise here is similar to that of Angelina Jolie’s 2011 ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’—which I posted on last year—, a manichean indictment of the Serbs in the Bosnian war, shot on location in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Serbo-Croatian. I entirely shared Mme Jolie’s views of that conflict and entirely agree with Hazanavicius’s perspective of the one he treats. Others may view it differently. See the film and decide for yourself.

UPDATE: Historian Michael Wood, who writes on film for the London Review of Books, has an essay on ‘Leviathan’ in the LRB’s January 8th 2015 issue.

The Search poster

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putin

Back in March ’12 I had a post on a terrific review essay by Stephen Holmes in the LRB, on Luke Harding’s book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia. In the latest issue of the NYRB, Anne Applebaum has an equally terrific, must-read review essay, “How he and his cronies stole Russia,” on a new book on much the same subject as Harding’s, this Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Dawisha, a well-known political scientist and Russia/ex-USSR specialist at Miami University in Ohio, looks to have researched her subject more extensively than anyone else so far—and so much so that Cambridge University Press, with whom Dawisha initially had a contract, backed out of publishing it due to fear of libel lawsuits from Russians named in the book. Money quote

Whatever their conclusion, almost all of these analysts [of the failure of the 1990s reforms] seek an explanation in the reform process itself, asking whether it was effective, or whether it was flawed, or whether it could have been designed differently. But what if it never mattered at all? What if it made no difference which mistakes were made, which privatization plans were sidetracked, which piece of advice was not followed? What if “reform” was never the most important story of the past twenty years in Russia at all? (…)

… the most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves. Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.

Again, this is a must-read essay. So read it. Now. The whole thing.

While I’m at it, I just read, on The American Interest website, an interesting, if debatable, analysis of Putin’s geostrategic vision, “The Geopolitical Nihilist,” by Jakub Grygiel, who teaches IR at Johns Hopkins-SAIS. Grygiel begins

Russia’s bold moves into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine give one the impression that a calculating strategist sits in the Kremlin. Putin’s own public pronouncements tell us that his apparent aim is to restore Muscovite power and influence over territories deemed by him to be historically Russian. Putin is thus feared to be a shrewd competitor willing to use all forms of Russian power—from nuclear innuendo to a superiority in conventional forces to relentless information warfare—in order to build methodically a new regional order. In other words, he may be a geopolitical master.

But there is another possibility. It’s plausible that he has no such well thought out vision of geopolitical reconstruction, and little or no planning for how to establish and maintain whatever new rules Moscow might impose. Even if Putin did have a new regional order in mind, he may be incapable of translating it into reality. By choice and by necessity, Putin may simply be eager to wreck the status quo with nary a thought given to what comes after. In other words, he may be a geopolitical nihilist.

Also while I’m at it, Bruno Tertrais, the excellent French analyst of geopolitics, published an op-ed in the November 22nd Le Monde, rhetorically asking “Did the West really ‘humiliate’ Russia?” The lede (my translation): “Vladimir Putin’s bellicosity is often interpreted as the consequence of the supposedly hostile policy of the West toward Russia since the fall of the USSR. Nothing could be less true.” Tertrais’s op-ed looks to have vanished from Le Monde’s website but fortunately a blog—previously unknown to me—saw fit to cut-and-paste it, so here it is.

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Wałęsa_Człowiek z nadziei

This film, which premiered at the 2013 Venice Biennale and opened in France the week before last (under the title L’Homme du peuple), was not one I was going to miss, in view of its subject matter and the director—Poland’s great Andrzej Wajda—even though it’s a biopic, which are normally merely good at best and rarely chefs-d’œuvre. But having seen it two evenings ago, I can report that it’s a solid, entertaining, well-done film on one of the most important revolutionary leaders of our times, Lech Wałęsa, and, more generally, on one of the most momentous revolutionary movements of the twentieth century, period: the working class uprising against the Communist dictatorship in Poland—a Soviet protectorate for 45 years following the end of WWII—and that set in motion the chain of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet rule in eastern Europe, and the end of the Cold War. As Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg puts it in the introduction of his thumbs up review

There’s something fitting about Andrzej Wajda bringing Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to life, just as it’s proper that he subtitles the film “Man of Hope.” For “Walesa. Man of Hope” is a natural companion piece to the great director’s landmark “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron,” his influential duo on resistance to communist oppression. With a bit of understandable triumphalism devoid of hagiography, Wajda tracks Walesa’s career from shipyard worker to Nobel Prize winner, crafting an old-fashioned (in the best sense), at times stirring biopic that masterfully integrates an exceptional range of contempo footage…

To continue reading Weissberg’s review, go here. As for ‘Man of Marble’ and ‘Man of Iron’, which I saw in 1978 and 1981 respectively, these were remarkable films for their time but, technically and otherwise, ‘Man of Hope’ is superior (at least insofar as I remember the two early films, as I only saw them once). Wajda does a good job in depicting the wretchedness of Communist rule—particularly in the early scenes of the 1970 protests in Gdansk and Gdynia—and the economic clochardisation it brought about, but also the doubts that apparatchiks of the system had by the 1980s of their own legitimacy. And while Wałęsa is portrayed as a charismatic leader and a hero—which he was—Wajda does not, as Weissberg accurately asserts, portray him as a saint. He is a leader with undeniable qualities but is also cocky and full of himself—are there any charismatic leaders who are not?—and who could have descended into megalomania were it not for the stabilizing presence of his loving but strong-willed wife, Danuta (that’s how Wajda depicts it at least).

À propos, I was discussing the film earlier today with a colleague, who said that he was hesitant to see it after having read a mixed review in Libération, whose critic, according to my colleague, criticized the film for being a hagiography (I have not yet bothered to look for Libé’s review). My response to this was that many on the Western European and North American left—including those who were not at all “Stalinists” or enamored of the Soviet model—were—and remain—uncomfortable with Wałęsa (and even with Solidarność itself). They intellectually understood the situation and sympathized with the workers in Gdansk but had a hard time wrapping their heads around the spectacle of a genuinely working class movement and independent trade union contesting a self-proclaimed socialist order, and with the movement’s leaders and members being, to a man and woman, devout Catholics and who worshiped the Pope (the adulation of Wałęsa and all those around him—and including lower-level regime agents themselves—for Jean Paul II is well depicted in the film). This was tough for many Western gauchistes to swallow—as was Wałęsa et al’s embrace of American support (e.g. one sees at the end of the film the hero’s welcome Wałęsa received in the US Congress in 1989, and with Dan Quayle seated in back of him while he gave his speech). Having frequented a gauchiste milieu in those years and knowing its discourse and world-view comme ma poche, I know of what I speak.

So if one has the chance to see the pic (which has yet to open in the US), do so, as I give it the green light. The review in The Guardian is here and article in the NYT is here (the film was a big hit in Poland). My anecdote of shaking hands with Wałęsa and hearing him speak is here. Trailer is here.

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putin rides bear

Here’s the latest in my occasional series of links to interesting articles on the ex-Soviet Union (the last one in April), this prompted by David Remnick’s report in the August 11th issue of The New Yorker, “Watching the eclipse,” on the political evolution of Russia—and eclipse of democracy there—since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. The lede: Russia’s President sees himself as the leader of a new anti-Western, conservative axis, and his actions in Ukraine have made him a hero at home… Remnick’s narrative is framed by the experience of his friend Michael McFaul, political scientist and Russia specialist at Stanford, who was US ambassador to Moscow from January 2012 until resigning this past February. At some 11,500 words the piece is long but well worth the read.

While I’m at it, one good article I’ve saved, that dates from April 18th but is not time sensitive, is a special report by Reuters journalists David Rohde and Arshad Mohammed on “How the U.S. made its Putin problem worse.”

Here’s a 52-minute documentary that first aired on French public television in December 2013, “Russie, au cœur du goulag moderne.”

And in May M6 had a 1 hour 18 minute “enquête exclusive” entitled “Moscou au cœur de tous les extrêmes,” which may be viewed here.

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