Archive for the ‘Russia / ex-USSR’ Category

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]

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.

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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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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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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 worshipped 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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