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The cultural and scientific achievements of Ancient Greece are so manifold that it is barely worth recounting them. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations of Western philosophy. Pythogoras, Euclid, and Archimedes launched mathematics as a disciple grounded on logic and proof, a break from the approximative techniques that had held sway in other civilizations (and would largely continue to do so). To this day many medical schools have their students swear an oath under the name of Hippocrates. Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides – the originators of, and still giants in, the Western literary canon. Herodotus and Thucydides, the founders of a historiography that was something more than just a court chronicle.

Ancient Greek IQ = 125 (Galton)

Bearing in mind the very small population from which these intellectual giants were drawn – at its height, Ancient Athens had no more than 50,000 male citizens – it is little wonder that many thinkers and historians have posited a very high average IQ to the ancient Greeks, including most recently evolutionary psychologist Gregory Cochran. But the argument was perhaps best stated by the Victorian polymath and inventor of psychometrics Francis Galton, in the (not very politically correctly titled) “Comparative Worth of Different Races” chapter of his book Hereditary Genius:

The ablest race of whom history bears record is unquestionably the ancient Greek, partly because their master-pieces in the principal departments of intellectual activity are still unsurpassed, and in many respects unequalled, and partly because the population that gave birth to the creators of those master-pieces was very small. Of the various Greek sub-races, that of Attica was the ablest, and she was no doubt largely indebted to the following cause, for her superiority. Athens opened her arms to immigrants, but not indiscriminately, for her social life was such that none but very able men could take any pleasure in it; on the other hand, she offered attractions such as men of the highest ability and culture could find in no other city. Thus, by a system of partly unconscious selection, she built up a magnificent breed of human animals, which, in the space of one century—viz. between 530 and 430 B.C.—produced the following illustrious persons, fourteen in number:—

Statesmen and Commanders.—Themistocles (mother an alien), Miltiades, Aristeides, Cimon (son of Miltiades), Pericles (son of Xanthippus, the victor at Mycalc).
Literary and Scientific Men.—Thucydides, Socrates, Xenophon, Plato.
Poets.— Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes.

We are able to make a closely-approximate estimate of the population that produced these men, because the number of the inhabitants of Attica has been a matter of frequent inquiry, and critics appear at length to be quite agreed in the general results. It seems that the little district of Attica contained, during its most flourishing period (Smith’s Class. Geog. Dict.), less than 90,000 native free-born persons, 40,000 resident aliens, and a labouring and artisan population of 400,000 slaves. The first item is the only one that concerns us here, namely, the 90,000 free-born persons. Again, the common estimate that population renews itself three times in a century is very close to the truth, and may be accepted in the present case. Consequently, we have to deal with a total population of 270,000 free-born persons, or 135,000 males, born in the century I have named. Of these, about one-half, or 67.500, would survive the age of 26, and one-third, or 45,000, would survive that of 50. As 14 Athenians became illustrious, the selection is only as I to 4,822 in respect to the former limitation, and as I to 3, 214 in respect to the latter. Referring to the table in page 34, it will be seen that this degree of selection corresponds very fairly to the classes F (1 in 4, 300) and above, of the Athenian race. Again, as G is one-sixteenth or one-seventeenth as numerous as F, it would be reasonable to expect to find one of class G among the fourteen; we might, however, by accident, meet with two, three, or even four of that class— say Pericles, Socrates, Plato, and Phidias.

Now let us attempt to compare the Athenian standard of ability with that of our own race and time. We have no men to put by the side of Socrates and Phidias, because the millions of all Europe, breeding as they have done for the subsequent 2,000 years, have never produced their equals. They are, therefore, two or three grades above our G—they might rank as I or J. But, supposing we do not count them at all, saying that some freak of nature acting at that time, may have produced them, what must we say about the rest? Pericles and Plato would rank, I suppose, the one among the greatest of philosophical statesmen, and the other as at least the equal of Lord Bacon. They would, therefore, stand somewhere among our unclassed X, one or two grades above G—let us call them between H and I. All the remainder—the F of the Athenian race— would rank above our G, and equal to or close upon our H. It follows from all this, that the average ability of the Athenian race is, on the lowest possible estimate, very nearly two grades higher than our own—that is, about as much as our race is above that of the African negro. This estimate, which may seem prodigious to some, is confirmed by the quick intelligence and high culture of the Athenian commonalty, before whom literary works were recited, and works of art exhibited, of a far more severe character than could possibly be appreciated by the average of our race, the calibre of whose intellect is easily gauged by a glance at the contents of a railway book-stall.

Francis Galton was writing before the invention of the standard deviation, but in his methodology a “grade” was equivalent to 10.44 IQ points (under an S.D. of 15), so in practice the Athenians had an IQ of perhaps 120 relative to a Victorian British mean of 100. (And presumably, therefore, about 110 relative to the modern Greenwich mean, which is considerably higher than a century ago due to the Flynn Effect).

There are however a few problems with this.

Ancient Greek IQ = 90 (Apollo’s Ascent)

First off, there is no particularly obvious explanation for why this part of the Mediterranean world evolved such a high average IQ – a standard deviation higher than everyone else – in the first place. One would then likewise have to explain why they then lost it so thoroughly that modern Greeks now consistently place lower in European IQ assessments than all but a few Balkan backwaters.

However, it turns out that using the Apollo’s Ascent method of computing aggregate mindpower – with adjustment for the intellectual discovery threshold – as a function of population size, literacy rate, and average IQ can explain the record of Greek achievement just as succinctly without requiring positing superhumanly high average IQ levels which are so dubious from an evolutionary perspective.

Let us treat each of these factors in turn:

Ancient Greek Demography

It is often forgotten that when we are speaking of ancient Greek accomplishment it is more than just a story of Athens, a city that drew the cognitive elites of the entire oikoumene to itself (much as major metropolises like New York, London, Paris, etc. do so today).

To be sure, Athens might have had 50,000 male citizens, and a total population of 250,000-300,000 [CORRECTION: Actually refers to the entire Athenian city-state. Population of just the city was probably about twice less]. But the population of Greece proper was probably at least five times larger, because the total urbanization rate never went much above 20% in any preindustrial country that we know of. Moreover, Greeks were scattered all across the Mediterranean world, in Ionia and Sicily and the shorelines of Egypt, the Italian “boot,” France, Spain, and the Pontic steppe.


Greece: More than just Greece. Source.

According to recent calculations, the total population of Greeks in the 4th century BC was at least 7.5 million, and probably more like 8-10 million (Mogens Herman Hansen in An Update on the Shotgun Method). For perspective, at the time, this represented just under 5% of the world’s population (i.e. remarkably similar to the US today). These figures might still be modest, but they are essentially comparable in magnitude to those of even the biggest preindustrial civilizations (source: Several, but mainly Angus Maddison):

  • Egypt: A consistent 5 million in both Roman and Islamic times
  • Persia: Likewise, around 5 million
  • Roman Empire: 50-60 million (of which 20 million were in the Greek East)
  • Qin China: 22 million in ~210BC (only 2x more than Greek world!)
  • Han China around 1AD: 60 million
  • Byzantine Empire: 10-12 million when it was at its geographical peak
  • Abbasid Caliphate: 30 million
  • Medieval China: 100 million
  • Medieval France: 20 million (most populated W. European country; peak)
  • Renaissance Italy: 10.5 million in 1500

To be sure, many ancient Greeks were slaves and women who were more or less excluded from participating in intellectual endevours. But in that respect they were no different from any other preindustrial civilization that we know of.

Ancient Greek Literacy

In William V. Harris’ Ancient Literacy, he estimates that the literacy rate of late Classical Greece was 5-10%, rising to 10% in the Hellenistic period, and 10-15% in Roman Italy (but considerably lower in the peripheries like Gaul). This might seem very low and it is. But in that period, it was low everywhere; in reality, the literacy rates attained in the classical Mediterranean world were far higher than had been previously seen anywhere else. Because Classical Greece was pretty much the first society in the world (only much smaller Phoenicia could have been even a remote contender) to attain what he calls “craftsman literacy” i.e. around 10%. All previous societies had been limited to the 1-2% rates that he calls “priestly literacy.”

Although he doesn’t spell it out explicitly, the key factor that must have enabled this in my view was the development of the alphabet, which occured first amongst the Phoenicians (who were also respectably creative for their numbers).

It is speculated that the alphabet might have arisen as a result of the intense trading culture of the Phoenicians, which made simplification of the writing system highly adaptive. Due to Greek and Roman influence, Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs were displaced. In contrast, perhaps by the time trade had reached similarly intensive levels in China – perhaps after the construction of the Grand Canal in the 7th century AD – the characters system was already too embedded in the bureaucracy and was kept on due to a QWERTY effect. However, there might also be an HBD angle. Peter Frost has suggested the spread of the ASPM gene from Middle Eastern origins – large lacking in East Asians, and associated with continuous text processing – could have tipped the scales in favor of the adoption of alphabetic systems in the Near East and the Mediterranean in a way that could not have happened in East Asia. (Note that Korea’s Sejong the Great introduced an alphabetic system in the 15th century, for the express reason of increasing literacy amongst the commonfolk, but it took until the 20th century for it to truly catch on).

Whatever the case, it is a simple fact that learning literacy is incredibly easier with alphabet based systems than character based systems. Learn the 50 or fewer symbols of your typical alphabet and their vocalizations and you are pretty much set; everything else is style and detail. In contrast, you need to know 1,000-1,500 characters just to be considered literate in Chinese (and you would still struggle a great deal even with newspaper texts). An average Chinese college graduate is expected to recognize around 5,000 characters and even they frequently have trouble with some remarkably “straightforward” characters. Here is an anecdote that represents this really well from David Moser’s classic essay Why Chinese is So Damn Hard:

I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word “sneeze”?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China.

By medieval times, China had by far the world’s most sophisticated infrastructure for increasing human capital, such as movable type (invented 400 years in advance of Gutenberg), cheap mass produced paper (in contrast, the Mediterranean world had to rely on expensive Egyptian papyru, which put a further limit on mass literacy), the system of meritocratic exams for entry into the Confucian bureaucracy, and a vast network of writing tutors, including free ones (the founder of the Ming dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang was an impoverished orphan who was taught literacy in a Buddhist monastery). Even so, held back by its writing systems, medieval China’s literacy rate was no higher than 10% at best (that was the rate at the close of the Qing dynasty and that came after the beginning of education reforms).

There are some scholars like Evelyn Rawski who argue China’s historical literacy rates were far higher. I addressed them in my Introduction to Apollo’s Ascent article (Ctrl-F for “fish literacy”).

Of course at the time of the Ancient Greeks none of this existed yet in China, so the literacy rate then was probably around 1-2% as was typical of societies with “priestly literacy.” Ergo for the great civilizations of the Middle East before the classical era.

This is common sense, but the point needs to be made regardless: Without literacy, no matter how intelligent you are, you can almost never meaningfully contribute to scientific or cultural progress.

With a literacy rate 5 or even 10 times as high as that of other contemporary civilizations (barring the Romans), their modest demographic preponderance over Greece is put into necessary perspective. To be sure, a literacy rate of 10% might not functionally translate into 5 times as much aggregate mindpower (all else equal) as a 2% literacy rate, because presumably, it is the brightest people who tend to become literate in the first place. On the other hand, however, this was a world of hereditary caste and class, of Plato’s Golds, Silvers, and Bronzes. The advanced cognitive sorting that developed in the US in the second part of the 20th century, as described in detail in Charles Murray’s Bell Curve, was totally unimaginable then. Furthermore, there might be a network effect from having a relatively dense concentration of literate people. I would imagine these two factors substantially or wholly cancel out the effect of diminishing returns to higher literacy in terms of human accomplishment. (If you have any ideas as to how this could be quantified, please feel free to mention it in the comments).

Ancient Greek IQ

As I wrote in Introduction to Apollo’s Ascent, there are a number of factors which have been shown to strongly influence IQ, making it just about feasible to guesstimate them historically.

Some of the most important ones as they pertain to Ancient Greece vs. everyone else are:

  • Nutrition
  • Inbreeding/consanguineous marriage
  • Parasitic Load

It just so happens that so far as all of these are concerned the Greeks hit the jackpot.

Nutrition: The Ancient Greeks were remarkable effective at escaping the Malthusian trap for a preindustrial society. (I am not sure why that was the case. Slavery? Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments).

According to a 2005 paper by Geoffrey Kron, citing Lawrence Angel, the average heights for Classical Greece males are 170.5cm, rising to 171.5cm for Hellenistic Greek males, which is similar to the levels attained by Britain and Germany in the early 20th century, and furthermore, compares very well with the average heights of Greek conscripts in the mid-20th century. The n=927 Roman average from 500BC to 500AD was 168.3cm, and the figures for the Byzantine Empire (at least in Crete) appear to have been similar. Here are some figures for other times and places for comparison from Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms:


In other words, the Ancient Greeks were about as tall as the Georgian British, some of the tallest Europeans at that time, who were on the cusp of permanently escaping the Malthusian trap and were likewise undergoing a remarkable cultural and scientific explosion.

This must have been enabled by a remarkable level of personal prosperity, as expressed in how much grain the average laborer could buy with a day’s wage. Again via Gregory Clark:


The Odyssey is full of people sacrificing ridiculous numbers of bulls. While presumably not to be taken literally, it does probably illustrate that there were no major shortages of animal proteins. (The same certainly could not be said for China, India, or Japan, where diets have always been almost fully dominated by carbohydrates). To be sure the Odyssey takes place in the 8th century BC, but cattle shares in the Mediterranean remained high through the period of Classical Greece and only plunged as Greece transitioned into the Hellenistic period, according to an exhaustive paper by Nikola Koepke:


Additionally, as a seafaring culture, fish and sea products must have played a substantial part in the Greek diet. This would have helped them avoid the iodine deficiency that tends to depress IQ and lead to cretinism in more inland and mountainous areas. Even the very poor who could not afford fish would have used garum, the fish sauce popularized by the Romans but invented by Greeks, to flavor their staples.

Inbreeding: Inbreeding/cousin marriage, especially of the FBD type, directly lowers IQ and to a very large extent. But as prominent blogger hdbchick noticed, the Greeks had begun to outbreed extensively in the Archaic Age:

well, from mitterauer again we have [pg. 69]:

“Greek was the first European language to eliminate the terminological distinction between the father’s and mother’s side, a transition that began as early as between the fifth and third century BC.35

so that’s just at the transition point between archaic greece and classical greece. but starting at least in the early part of the archaic period and lasting throughout to the classical period the archaic greeks were outbreeding! at least the upper class ones were — difficult/impossible to know about the lower classes. from Women in Ancient Greece [pg. 67]:

“Marriages were arranged by the prospective groom and the prospective bride’s guardian, and the wife usually (although not always) went to live with her husband’s family. In the early Archaic Age [800 BC – 480 BC], to judge from the evidence of Homer’s poems (e.g. ‘Odyssey’ 4.5), male members of the upper classes generally married women who were not related to them, and who came from different areas. This upper-class habit of exogamy — marrying outside the community — was related to the political importance which marriage possessed in these circles. Marriage exchanges were one of the means by which noble families created political alliances with groups living in other areas, and in this way they made a considerable contribution to the aristocracy’s stranglehold on power. This practice survived to the end of the Archaic Age. However, with the emergence of the *polis*, exogamy began to give way in some places to endogamy — to marriage within the community. For the upper classes, this meant marriage within a tight circle of aristocratic families living in the same *polis*.”

so there was outbreeding in archaic greece for a few hundred years (at least amongst the upper classes), and, then, eventually — after about 400 years or so — there was a linguistic shift to more general kinship terms which reflected that outbreeding.

Moreover, of Emmanuel Todd’s four main European family systems – nuclear, egalitarian, authoritarian/stem, and communitarian (see Craig Willy’s post for a detailed explanation) – the Ancient Greeks practiced the authoritarian type, in which the eldest son stays with the parents while his siblings leave and inherits most or all of his family’s property.

The authoritarian family system, also seen in regions such as Germany, Sweden, Scotland, the Jews, Korea, and Japan (after ~1500), and substantially in 18th century Britain, seems to be highly eugenic in terms of selection for IQ and longterm planning. This stands to reason. Families with a lot of land/property can breed a lot of children and disperse them into the general population, and when they die, the eldest son who inherits everything can himself repeat the process. Those families who mismanage their affairs and lose land no longer have the resources to produce so many children (surviving ones, at any rate) and thus their contribution to the overall genepool peters out.

This is the opposite of the dynamics involved in communitarian family systems, in which property is divided equally amongst the sons. But all of the major Middle Eastern civilizations, as well as the Etruscan Roman heartlands, were characterized by communitarian family systems (albeit with varying rates of cousin marriage: Low in the Roman world, much higher in the Middle East and especially Egypt, where even brother/sister marriages appear to have been been quite widespread under both the Pharaohs and the Greco-Romans).

In communitarian family systems the eugenic factor is much weaker. Family ties play a big role with associated nepotism and (especially in the most endogamous societies) clannishness. Reproductive success is tied not so much on one’s own capability to use intelligence and planning to create surpluses as on support from the extended family and clan. hbdchick calls this “clannish dysgenics,” though considering that communitarian family systems are the “default” for most of human histor, I would argue it might be more apt to talk of “nuclear/stem family eugenics.” Be as it may, aggregate selection for increased IQ is much weaker.

The ancient Greeks also practiced direct eugenics, exposing physically deformed babies. The Spartans in particular are (in)famous for it. However, this seems to have been more or less universally prevalent in preindustrial history, so I doubt this could have been much of a factor.

Parasitic Load: The Mediterranean climatic and agricultural system made for a (relatively) very salubrious environment, in stark contrast to subtropical environments with their humidity and endemic diseases (e.g. India, South China) and to inland agricultural systems heavily dependent on irrigation, in which large bodies of still water are breeding grounds for all sorts of nasty parasites (most major civilizations outside Europe).

In particular, as noted in Mark Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past, aggregate parasitic load steadily INCREASED in China over the past two millennia, as its demographic center of gravity shifted inexorably south, which was characterized by irrigated rice growing and high humidity.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Ancient Greeks and other Mediterraneans also had one of the most potent counters to parastitic load in the form of their advanced viniculture. Due to their relative wealth (see above), they could afford a lot of wine, and back then it was usually stronger too.

Aggregate Mindpower in Ancient Greece

And now we can put together the final tally for Ancient Greece:

  • Could draw on a population of ~10 million Greeks (Romans: 50 million; Han Chinese: 60 million; Renaissance Italy: 10 million)
  • Had a literacy rate of 10%. Romans – Also 10%; Chinese – ~2%; Renaissance Italy – about 20% (see Van Zanden et al., 2009).

Some back of the envelope calculations for IQ:

  • Greeks are Caucasoids so let’s take the modern Greenwich mean of 100 as first default approximation, and slightly higher for Mongoloids (Romans: 100; Chinese: 105; Italy: 100)
  • Nutrition (subtract from optimal): Greeks – minus 5; Romans – minus 8; Chinese – minus 10 (would increase later); Italy – minus 5 (was very well fed in the depopulated years after the Black Death).
  • Inbreeding/Family Systems: Greeks – minus o (positive advantage of stem family type cancels out relatively modest incidence of cousin marriage); Romans – minus 2 (exagamous communitarian); Chinese – minus 5 (exagamous communitarian but more cousin marriage than amongst Romans); Italy – minus 0 (egalitarian family system with little cousin marriage thanks to Catholic Church regulations)
  • Parasitic Load: Greeks – minus 5 (let’s say that’s best possible in preindustrial age); Romans – minus 7 (did have more irrigation); Chinese – minus 10; Italy – minus 7
  • Guesstimated IQ: Greeks – 90; Romans – 83; Han Chinese – 80; Renaissance Italy – 88. Incidentally, this would give the Greeks enough of an edge to give substance to ancient stereotypes about their intelligence and craftiness but without having to evoke superhuman IQ levels.

Let us recall some definitions:

Assume that the intellectual output of an average IQ (=100, S.D.=15) young adult Briton in the year 2000 – as good an encapsulation of the “Greenwich mean” of intelligence as any – is equivalent to one nous (1 ν).

This can be used to calculate the aggregate mindpower (M) in a country.


Technological growth c * M(>threshold IQ for new discovery) * literacy rate

Here are some rough calculations:



  • c is information tech multipliers, i.e. things that make scientific/cultural progress easier. A modern example would be the Internet. I gave Renaissance Italy a bonus because of its invention of eyeglasses, which essentially doubled the creative lifespans of skilled artisans (and at the peak of their powers), and the spread of the printing press from the mid-15th century.
  • M is total aggregate mindpower. It does not have much meaning for Malthusian societies, but in the modern world it would generally correlate with total GDP.
  • The other Ms refer to the aggregate mindpower that is above the Greenwich mean to one, two, and three standard deviations respectively. Recall that not even a trillion homo erectus will come up with the calculus; you need to be above a certain threshold to make any progress. Recall also that the discovery threshold is generally 2 S.D. above the mastery threshold.
  • Recall also the assumption that (beyond the threshold) more intelligent people are exponentially more effective at solving problems that duller people; but of course the absolute numbers of those highly intelligent people taper off dramatically due to bell curve dynamics.

To understand the Pythagoras Theorem you need an IQ of around 100, implying that to discover it, the threshold is around 130. The Odyssey might be a great classic, but it has a simple, linear storyline with no particularly deep moral themes or conundrums (reminder: The putative heroes end up hanging all the female household servants who had allegedly slept with the suitors and no time is lost on further introspection). I suspect the threshold for writing it is also around 130.



This implies that around that period – the 8th-6th centuries BC in the Mediterranean – you needed a 130 IQ to move the intellectual boundaries outwards. As we can see, Ancient Greece was overshadowed by both the Roman Empire and Renaissance Italy at ΔT(+2.0), except that… conveniently, neither of the latter two existed. Its competitors at the time, civilizations like the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, lagged substantially in IQ and literacy, and did not compensate demographically; Phoenicia might have matched Greek literacy, but was probably behind in IQ, and had far fewer people. Remarkably, it was vastly ahead of China even 500 years later.

Literacy increased during this period, and the population rose steadily to its plateau of ~10 million as Greeks colonized the Mediterranean rim, and so during this time, intellectually they were the only game in town.

During the two centuries of Classical Greece’s flowering from the 5th-4th centuries BC, the Ancient Greeks almost singlehandedly pushed the discovery threshold up by almost a standard deviation. In the process, tons of discoveries and advancements were made. To really appreciate Euclid, you probably need an IQ closer to 115. Archimedes was perhaps the most quantitatively brilliant Greek of them all, coming tantalizingly close to uncovering the calculus. Understanding classical Greek philosophy (and for that matter, the later works of the Neoplatonists and Gnostics) likewise becomes far more demanding but is not beyond the capabilities of a committed 110 or 115 IQ person. Even so, they have nothing on the likes of 20th century philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein or Martin Heidegger. Even very intelligent people have to commit years of dedicated effort in order to master their ideas. The complexity of the Antikythera mechanism (Hellenistic times) has been compared to late medieval European mechanical clocks. To really master them, I suspect the minimal IQ is likewise around 110-115, hence innovating it might require a threshold IQ of around 140-145.

By Hellenistic times, progress became much harder, not because Greeks had become (much) dumber or had become culturally Orientalized, but because the low hanging fruit had already been picked. Naturally, the same went for the Romans.

ΔT(+2.0) i.e. at the 130 discovery threshold for Ancient Greece as of ~500 BC was 43,000 (plus/minus a very large percentage error). ΔT(+3.0) i.e. at the 145 discovery threshold for the Romans as of ~0AD was 2,500 – and there were far more discoveries to be made. Naturally, progress slowed down drastically.

ΔT(+3.0) i.e. at the 145 discovery threshold of Renaissance Italy just by itself more than twice as dynamic as the entire Roman Empire. And the figures for Europe as a whole would have been vastly bigger still. Hence the (real) perception that by the Renaissance, the boundaries were once again being pushed outwards at a face rate, which would become a positive explosion from the 17th century on, when the first incipient mass literacy programs were launched and demographic mass also started soaring.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Ancient Near East, Apollo's Ascent, BigPost 
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aleksievich-nobel I don’t make any claims to being some kind of hifalutin literatus. To the extent I read any fiction at all it is almost inevitably either sci-fi or fantasy. I am woefully uncultured when it comes to “Big L” Literature, and looking at the postmodernist dreck that seems to dominate the modern scene, I am frankly content to continue wallowing in my ignorance.

So I was not very surprised to find myself completely ignorant of Svetlana Alexievich when she was announced the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. What was more surprising is that this ignorance was widely shared amongst my Russian acquaintances. It is not particularly the case that my acquaintances are cultural troglodytes. As Western journalists have recently confirmed, she really is pretty unknown in the Russosphere.

The pathos of Alexievich’s situation is that, while some of her books have been successful—War’s Unwomanly Face reportedly sold two million copies—today, the humanist writer is nearly unknown in her dehumanizing homeland, and is of little interest to its people. Her print runs are modest. There are virtually no comments or votes on her books on (link in Russian), Russia’s answer to, and most of the books are not even in stock. By contrast, the previous five Russian-language winners of the literature Nobel—Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Mikhail Sholokhov, and Joseph Brodsky—are all still household names.

Below is a graph I compiled using Google Trends comparing online chatter about her compared to some other prominent Russian language writers from multiple genres and sides of the political spectrum. The graph runs from 2004 to September 2015, to avoid the artificial spike coinciding with the announcement of Alexievich’s Nobel Prize this October.

Dmitry Bykov is a poet and essayist, Viktor Pelevin is a postmodernist but does some truly original and profound things with it, and Boris Akunin is a bestselling historical detective fiction writer. Perhaps more importantly to the sorts of people who decide on whom to give awards to, all three are strongly anti-Putin and pro-Maidan. The exception here is Sergey Lukyanenko, whose urban fantasies have probably made him into modern Russia’s internationally best known writer.


What all four of them have in common though is that not in a single month have they had their names mentioned online less often Svetlana Alexievich. As one can see from the bar graph, any one of them is an order of magnitude more popular. None of them would have been an unworthy Nobel Prize winner. There are dozens of other Russian language writers well ahead of her, to say nothing of the rest of the world. So her Nobel Prize certainly couldn’t have been the result of prominence and popular acclaim.

Was she then selected on the basis of the Swedish Nobel committee’s deep level of understanding and appreciation of Russian literature? Was she the diamond in the dirt that ain’t been found, the underground queen that ain’t been crowned?

Fortunately, blogger (and one of my regular commentators) Lazy Glossophiliac looked into this question in some detail, doing the work that lazier journalists wouldn’t. The book he looked at was The Chernobyl Prayer: Chronicles of the Future (published in 2006), which is available online in Russian here:

Even for a non-literary kind of person – Lazy Glossophiliac is a technical person – it quickly becomes obvious her work is second rate.

She has a blithe indifference to facts. Numerous bold claims are made that are either unsubstantiated or flat out statistically false. Some are pretty minor (she says Belarus is a majority rural county; in reality, it stopped being so in the mid-1970s). Others are cardinal, such as her remarkable claim that radiation from Chernobyl was the most important reason for Belarus’ demographic decline. In reality, it was not the first or even tenth most important reason. In Belarus as in Russia and the wider USSR, mortality remained relatively low thoughout the late 1980s – recall that Chernobyl blew up in 1986 – due to Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign. In Belarus as in Russia and the wider USSR, it soared after 1991 – that is, 1991 – 1986 = 5 years after Chernobyl – as the economy collapsed and the state lost its former monopoly over vodka production.

Such sins might be forgiven for a truly “literary” writer, but she was an expressly nonfiction writer. The first such, for that matter, to be awarded a Nobel Prize since Winston Churchill in 1953, who got his Nobel Prize in Literature for, amongst other things, his “mastery of historical and biographical description.” I haven’t read Churchill but I would imagine he got his basic historical facts right.

Perhaps she made up for it with beautiful, sublime prose?

Here is Lazy Glossophiliac on that.

At the start of the next section Alexievich tells us that the Chernobyl accident was “the main event of the 20th century, in spite of all the terrible wars and revolutions for which that century will be remembered”. I’m chalking that up to chick logic. A certain quantity of pseudo-profound nonsense follows. I’m finally up against this year’s Nobel prize winner’s own voice. It’s boring and pompous: “Chernobyl is a secret which we will still have to uncover. An unread sign. Perhaps a mystery for the twenty-first century. A challenge to it.” Of course she’s not talking about anything technical here – it’s all hot air.

“The facts were simply not enough anymore, one was drawn to look beyond the facts, to get into the meaning of what was happening.” Oh really? The carelessness she showed with the “facts” which she quoted at the start of this book suggests that she’s simply bored by them instead.

She says that Chernobyl left everyone confused because throughout the ages the measure of horror was war. “We are in a new history, a history of catastrophes has begun.” She is utterly devoid of any sense of historical perspective. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics – never happened. She goes on and on about the revolutionary newness of radiation’s invisibility, but viruses have always been invisible too, and much more deadly.


No Brodsky, Pasternak, or Solzhenitsyn is she. They might have been anti-Soviet, and justifiably so, but all of them produced real literary masterpieces (well, just One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in Solzhenitsyn’s case, but even that is still one more than I am aware of Alexievich ever writing).

Also… HOW MANY ELLIPSES DOES SHE USE?… a Ctrl-F reveals 4,196 of them… out of 78,000 words… I can’t even!… that is like… MORE THAN ONCE EVERY TWENTY WORDS!

As I said, I do not pretend to be any sort of expert on the sense of style. In fact, I am downright awful at it. (Just look at that weasel phrase at the beginning of the last sentence. And putting this in brackets. And starting sentences with “and”).

Even so, should I ever find myself peppering my texts with an ellipse or two every other sentence, I will take it as a cue to wrap up my writing forays and spare the world any more of my inchoate ramblings.

But perhaps she got her Nobel Prize not on the basis of popularity or even style but on account of the, erm, human truths – telling truth to power – living not by lies – insert Soviet dissident slogan of your choice – that she revealed in her writing.

That is what Philip Gourevitch * ventures in his panegyric of her for Human Rights Watch:

But although her work is often hot with the passion and outrage of independent witness, it is wonderfully free of any polemical or activist agenda. She serves no ideology, only an ideal: to listen closely enough to the ordinary voices of her time to orchestrate them into extraordinary books.

This is a message that was echoed by the Nobel committee itself. Ostensibly, she was rewarded for “her polyphonic writing, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

In literature, polyphony as defined by Mikhail Bakhtin refers to a style of prose in which the author refrains from making his characters sockpuppets for some idea or ideology. Instead, he makes them vie for power and influence in a world where the only truth is that there is no truth. Dostoevsky was the primary example for Bakhtin’s definition of polyphony. Who can say which Karamazov brother was right: Ivan or Alyosha? George R. R. Martin would be a good modern popular example, in which the principle heroes and heroines tend to represent distinct moral codes and values, none of which are obviously superior to that of any other except to the extent that they are blessed with varying amounts of luck, dragons, and shadowbabies.

You have to have very high social intelligence and psychological astuteness to be able to convincingly write this kind of prose.

But there is no indication whatsoever that this describes Alexievich.

To the contrary, there is a clear polemical agenda at the very start of the book that we decided to analyze. My translation of its second opening paragraph:

For little Belarus (population: 10 million), Chernobyl was a national catastrophe, even though the Belorussians themselves don’t have a single nuclear power station. This is still an agrarian country, with a mostly rural population. During the years of the Great Patriotic War,the German fascists destroyed 619 Belorussian villages together with their inhabitants. After Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements… In the war, every fourth Belorussian died; today, every fifth Belorussian lives on contaminated land.

Relativizing the unique horrors of the Nazi occupation bymaking flimsy and hyperbolic comparisons to the Soviet record is a favored approach of the post-Soviet intelligentsia, but very few Russians (and Belorussians) buy into it because of its inherent selectiveness and dishonesty. And probably not so much because:

The powers that be behave themselves as if I don’t exist. I don’t get printed in the state publications, I am not allowed on the radio or TV, I am only published in the opposition media.

Published in the opposition media? No wonder she came back to live in Belarus in 2013, after a decade of sojourning about Europe where no media – that is, neither state nor opposition – seem to have cared about her writings.

Indeed, a perusal of her interviews and speeches (aggregated here and here), in particular their polemical and activist agenda, is actually the single biggest clue as to why she got her Nobel Prize. Far from creating any sort of literary polyphony, she comes off as a proficient recycler of 1970s-80s Soviet dissident stock of tropes about Russia that nobody there apart from a tiny self-styled intelligentsia in the capital cares the least about. In short, she is a marginally saner and much less entertaining version of the late Valeriya Novodvorskaya.

I recently returned from Moscow, having partaken of the May festivities there. For a whole week the air was filled with the rumbling of tanks and orchestras. I felt that I was not in Moscow, but in North Korea.

Hysterical Russophobia? Check.

One Italian restaurant owner advertised that Russians are not welcome at his establishment. This is a good metaphor. Today, the world once again begins to fear what is in that hole, that abyss, which combines in itself nuclear weapons, mad geopolitical ideas, and lack of respect for international law. I live with a sense of defeat.

One is tempted to wisecrack on whether she is describing the US here, but that will certainly not improve your chances of getting a Nobel.

We have to preserve this fragile peace established after the last war. We are talking about the Russian man, who in the past 200 years has spent 150 years of them at war. And never lived well. For him, human life is worthless, and his conception of greatness is not in the sense that people should live well, but that the state should be great and armed to the teeth with rockets. This gargantuan post-Soviet landscape, especially in Russia and Belarus, where the people were first lied to for 70 years, then looted for the next 20, has bred very aggressive people, who are very dangerous for the entire world.

I do so wonder why Russians and Belorussians aren’t rushing to buy her books! It must be the little Putin in all of them…

Of course Russian TV corrupts you. What the Russian media says today – they simply have to be prosecuted for it. For what they say about Europe, about Donbass, about Ukrainians… But this isn’t all. The problem is that people actually want to hear this. We can talk today about a collective Putin, because there is a Putin sitting in all Russians. The Red Empire has vanished, but its people have remained.

And, naturally, this people of vatniks and sovoks has to be dissolved, and another elected, as per Bertolt Brecht and the time-honored Russian liberal tradition of taking him so very literally.

The Nobel Prize is one of our world’s equivalents of dragons and shadowbabies.

As an ethnic Ukrainian with Belarussian citizenship writing in the Russian language, whose output mainly seems to consist of poorly disguised political polemics, she is an ideal tool to project Western soft power into the Russian world. Not just Russia itself, but also Ukraine and Belarus, the latter of which – quite coincidentally, surely – is having its Presidential elections a mere several days after the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature. From this perspective, she is in fact a very good candidate.

With a Nobel under her belt, a formerly second rate journalist and polemicist will be able to pontificate on her favorite themes with the authority of a secular prophetress.

There is nothing to be done about this, since neither Russia nor any other non-Western power has the soft power or cultural autonomy to offer a credible alternative to the Nobel Prize. It does however confirm that, much like the Peace Prize, the Literature Prize can be definitively ticked off as having anything to do with real human accomplishment in that sphere and instead be seen for what it is: As just another tool of Western political influence.

* EDIT 10/27/2015: As has just been brought to my attention, Keith Gessen is not the author of the quoted HRW piece, as was previously credited. That accolade belongs to Philip Gourevitch. Keith Gessen is her translator. I mistakenly got the impression he was the author because his byline appeared at the bottom of the page, but in my skim through of the piece, I failed to notice that Gessen’s byline merely referred to the translation at the end, whereas the editorial content that formed the bulk of the HRW page had been produced by Gourevitch. Sorry for the error.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Belarus, BigPost, Literature, Nobel Prize, RealWorld 
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As Russian fighters begin their baptism of fire in Syria, it is worth pointing out there are at least three separate wars going on here. And they’re all quite distinct.

(1) The Actual War

Once again I urge people to familiarize themselves with a map of the Syrian conflict (e.g. here). All of Assad’s most critical fronts – the big region between Aleppo and Latakia, and the pockets around Homs and Damascus – are FSA/Al Nusra/Al Qaeda. So long as they threaten Syria’s three biggest cities, including its capital and the Alawite heartlands (where Russia’s airbases happen to be located), focusing on the Islamic State would be sheer military folly.

Striking ISIS intensively right now would be pointless because there are no ready SAA forces that could rush in to exploit it. The US coalition’s own record proves that. Which is not to say that Russia is avoiding striking the Islamic State on principle, as the more deranged neocons have been claiming. You will just not be hearing much of them, first because (as per above) Al Nusra/FSA are the main priorities right now, second because the Western MSM has clearly been given a directive to discredit the Russian intervention.

Here is a side-by-side map of areas of control in Syria, and of the location of the Russian air strikes. ISIS territories do get bombed, but the main targets are logically those that are closer to SAA positions.


As those of you who have been following my recent writings on the Arab militaries will know, one of the key problems that the SAA – as a conventional Muslim Arab army – continues to face even now is a relative lack of morale (compared to those who fight for God, like Al Nusra or IS, or those who fight for clan, like the Kurds, the Druze, and the Shi’ite militias). This means that although it is able to hold on quite effectively when defending its Shi’ite heartlands, it finds it much more difficult to make offensive gains, since its combat efficiency is lower due to those morale hits that typically accrue to any Arab conventional state army, and its superiority in military capital (tanks, fighters, etc) is considerably nullified by their incompetence in using them. Like it not, but the sad reality is that clannish, ~85 IQ peoples just do not make good soldiers for the purposes of modern combined arms warfare. Needless to say, it also doesn’t help that it is usually attacking well-fortified urban outposts (attackers generally need a 3-to-2 total combat power advantage to make gains in such conditions).

This is where the Russian Air Force can hopefully make a big difference. Even the fighters already in place will allow the Syrians to effectively double their number of sorties, and Russian fighter pilots are much more skilled and have more modern armaments than their Syrian counterparts. Effectively, this translates to a tripling or quadrupling of Syrian air power that can be concentrated in support of SAA ground operations. Air power can seriously degrade the combat power of enemy formations that do not have adequate AA counters to it (that describes both the FSA/Al Nusra and ISIS). Whereas a front might have once been in equilibrium, due to roughly matching combat power on either side, a sustained air campaign could begin to systemically swing the advantage over to the SAA and eventually enable the reconquista of Syrian territorities currently under renegade Islamist control.

Why are American air strikes hopeless? Because they are missing the ground element. Even in its most benign interpretation it is nothing but a big Whac-a-Mole game. It refused to countenance any sort of coordination with the SAA. If it had, then the ISIS takeover of Palmyra – which involved crossing 150km+ of open desert over a single major road over a period of a month – would have been impossible (and Khaled al-Asaad, the executed architect who became the object of many MSM crocodile tears, would still have his head attached to his shoulders). Even the Pentagon has admitted that its project to train “moderate” fighters to combat IS has been a colossal, expensive failure. It claims that its airstrikes killed 10,000 ISIS fighters but these are frankly dubious. Even if it did, considering that IS probably has close to 100,000 troops by now, it wouldn’t have made a major difference anyway.

(2) The Propaganda War

This pretty much says everything there is to say.

Homs Airstrike: White Helmets Caught Faking Syria Casualties


No wonder everybody sane from Russia to Hungary to Egypt are kicking out American NGOs!

Mark Adomanis sardonically points out that whereas the US couldn’t find moderate rebels in 3 years, the Russians did so in 24 hours.

Senile Cold Warriors from McCain to cuckservative icon Tom Cotton rave and demand to knock Russian fighters out of the sky to protect their beloved Al Qaeda proteges. On the off chance this leads to WW3 and the world of Stalker/Fallout, Americans should know that they did this to protect literal cannibals, genocidal fanatics, and – horror of horrors – homophobes.

Note also that there were no loud proclamations from Obama and his stooge Hollande when Turkey hit only Kurdish targets under the pretense of fighting ISIS.

This is because the US is disinterested in combatting ISIS and cares only about overthrowing President Assad, no matter if doing so involves flagrant violations of international law (Syria never gave it permission to use its airspace) and effectively allying itself with the people who carried out 9/11.

Perhaps the only redeeming feature in all of this is that, to the elites’ horror and bewilderment, the general public and their representative The Donald have stopped lapping up their lies and propaganda, something that is easy to observe from the comments sections on sites from YouTube to CNN (incidentally, has anyone else noticed how all the MSM sites are beginning to close their comments sections? What’s up with that LOL).

(3) The Geopolitical War

Remember my account of Egor Prosvirnin’s recent legal travails? Well, his Sputnik i Pogrom site has produced the following propaganda poster:


“The finale of Soviet regimes is remarkably simiar: Afghanistan, 1979 – Syria, 2015.”

This poster encompasses two big criticisms of Russia’s new Syria adventure from the (nationalist) Right.

(There are is also the usual predictable whining in Russia from pro-Western liberals going on about how Russia is supporting a “bloody dictator” and hoping the freedom fighters knock Russian fighter jets from the sky but nobody cares about their opinions except the American NGOs who finance them).

(1) The idea that Syria will become an Afghanistan-like quagmire.

After all, the Soviet Union never *invaded* Afghanistan either (even if it was presented as such by the Cold Warriors). It came by request of the legitimate Afghan authorities. And it ended getting bogged down and losing the lives of 15,000 soldiers, in an ultimately futile attempt to preserve some semblance of civilization against mujahedeen financed and sponsored by the Saudis and their best friends the Americans. According to Islamist propaganda, which neocons admire greatly (at least so long as it is aimed against Russia), this provoked the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The key difference: So far Russia is only sending fighter aircraft, and military advisors who will not be actively taking part in the fighting. So long as things stay that way, the Syria intervention will not constitute a major financial commitment, or a major commitment in terms of morale and approval ratings. The worst that can happen is that a fighter pilot is captured and gruesomely executed by Al Nusra or ISIS.

That, however, runs the risk of provoking a larger-scale Russian ground intervention, especially if the SAA fails to make the hoped for advances with the help of the Russian Air Force. They could get gradually sucked in like the Americans did in Vietnam. At least this is how this argument goes in Russian liberal and some nationalist circles. But I assume the Russians are familiar with that particular history and will not fall into a similar trap, no matter how much the neocons might be wishing otherwise.

(2) The idea that it involves abandoning the Novorossiya project.

There is, in fact, a recent Guardian article to that effect, which happens to quote Prosvirnin himself:

In Moscow, too, there are rumblings that the “Novorossia project” to carve out a pro-Russian statelet in east Ukraine has been well and truly closed down. Egor Prosvirnin, editor of the nationalist blog Sputnik and Pogrom, has been called in for questioning in recent weeks over suspicions that his website may contain “extremist material”.

The article in question, while advocating for Russia to take full control of eastern Ukraine, does not contain anything that could not have been heard regularly on Russian state television over the past year and a half, and Prosvirnin believes Russian authorities are now trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle.

“The conflict is being frozen and we are too strongly in support of the Novorossia project, we’re too independent. This is a warning to us to stop what we’re doing,” he said.

As a result, there is currently a great deal of hatred for Assad and Syria in Sputnik i Pogrom circles. (The hatred for Putin has always been there).

At this point, it’s worth quoting the main parts of SiP’s “conspiracy theory” as I recounted it (otherwise known in Russian discussions as “Putinsliv” theory, lit. Putin flushing [Novorossiya] away):

But then again… back in July of this year, Prosvirnin on his Facebook page – I can’t locate it now, but it was certainly there – predicted that Novorossiya would soon be betrayed (nothing new) and replaced with a propaganda campaign in favor of Russian involvement in Syria, including boots on the ground (very new!).

He even argued that this would be a way of mending US-Russian relations, which certainly cuts against the conventional wisdom – both in the mainstream and the altsphere – that the West and Russia are fundamentally at odds in Syria and that the US is committed to seeing Assad go.

In effect, Russia would doing the “dirty” work of wrapping up the Syrian Civil War with the quiet acquiescence and approval of the West and the Gulf Arab states while they get to wash their hands of it, condemn Russia, take meaningless symbolic actions against it (e.g. requesting that Greece close its airspace to Russian military cargo only for Greece to promptly refuse it), and otherwise quietly shake Putin’s hand and congratulate him with the restoration of order in the Levant and, in the Europeans’ case, for helping end the refugee crisis.

And for all my, and the Saker’s, prior skepticism… some of this does seem to be happening.

Russians tanks and gunships are appearing in the Alawite heartlands. Bases are getting expanded. According to the latest reports from (an anti-Kremlin publication), Russian military contractors are being sent to Syria to fight for Assad against their will.

It looks increasingly that Prosvirnin must have either guessed very, very well… or that he had very, very senior informants in the Kremlin.

If this version of affairs is in any way accurate, then it appears that Putin is setting himself up for a fail of epic, 1989-like proportions.

My operating assumption is that the US does not tend to honor those of its commitments that are not both written and binding (just ask Gorbachev about NATO expansion). Imagine that Russia “sorts out” Syria, assuming onto itself the opprobrium of keeping “bloody Assad” in power and doubtless taking some military casualties in the process to boot. Assume it also betrays Novorossiya, as Prosvirnin has been insisting it would for over a year now. Assume it does all this on some promise from the US to drop sanctions, accept Crimea, and help reintegrate Russia into the international (read: Western) community.

But why would it?

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on… shame on you, as that old Texan saying somewhere in Tennessee goes. If Putin falls for a trap this obvious, he will have nobody to blame himself. And with an approval rating now presumably in tatters, he will find both nationalists and liberals coming at him with knives unsheathed (unless, perhaps, he takes care of them beforehand).

And indeed the points in support of this theory have arguably grown since then. Now we know for sure that Russia’s intervention in Syria is 100% real. We have evidence of a real de-escalation in the Donbass, perhaps even in preparation for “stuffing back” the LDNR into Ukraine (though I should remind panicky readers that the DNR is preparing to go forwards with local elections on October 18th and the LNR on November 1st, which is is evidence against Putinsliv because these elections do not abide by the conditions of Minsk 2). And, away from neocon and Cold Warrior hysterics, it seems that the CENTCOM and the Russian military, and Obama and Putin at the higher level, are initiating a real dialog on avoiding costly “misunderstandings” in Syrian airspace.

All of this must be very distressing for those Russians who consider Novorossiya to be orders of magnitude greater importance than what is going on in Syria. That is perfectly understandable.

But as I also wrote in my answer to a question on the future of Novorossiya:

The military power of the NAF continues increasing. It now has 40,000 well-equipped troops and (reportedly) 450 MBTs. A year ago, it had no more than 20,000 troops, with just a few dozen MBTs. More importantly, it is a *real* army now, with centralized C&C, whereas a year ago it consisted primarily of independent militias. These can be adequate in defense, but you cannot carry out coherent, large-scale offensive operations with that kind of structure. Prosvirnin and Co. say the purging of the most recalcitrant militia leaders is “proof” that a zrada is nigh. But it could just as plausibly be interpreted as rational, consecutive steps to increase the NAF’s military power. I do not think these changes could have been possible without Russia’s support. Ultimately, why would Russia bother with upgrading the NAF if it planned to give it all back to the junta anyway?

In the meantime, with any luck, the Ukrainian economy will continue to degrade, and Poroshenko finds himself trapped between a rock (the Minsk Accords) and a hard place (the Maidan absolutists and the hardliners of the Far Right), and we will see a collapse into complete chaos, which may finally convince the Western powers to give up on Ukraine and create many other opportunities. But it’s also quite possible that the system will manage to pull through. That is the risk Putin took when he decided against military intervention last April.

Ultimately, the military power of the Novorossiya Armed Forces (to say nothing of the Russian Southern Military District) is still incomparably bigger than Russia’s current, ultimately modest investment in Syria.

The transfer of a couple dozen modern ground attack fighters to Latakia does not represent any real diminution of Russia’s military capabilities relative to the Ukrainian junta.

It will however provide valuable “real life” training opportunities for the Russian Air Force, much like Spain in the 1930s or Korea in the early 1950s.

And another potential advantage (though one I expect absolutely no-one will exploit) is that observing the fighting in Syria will serve to better demonstrate what real Russian combined arms warfare actually looks like in practice. So that the next time some two-bit neocon propaganda stooge like Paul Goble or Roderick Gregory claims a bazillion Pskov paratrooper casualties in the Donbass they would be laughed off the stage instead of getting endlessly and respectfully requoted in MSM outlets. But in fairness I don’t expect any of this to happen, since Poroshenko is in the West’s pocket and the “independence” of the Western media is mostly a fiction, while Russian soft power doesn’t have the requisite reach and sophistication.

So as before I still say that the Putinsliv theory remains unproven, and as such, there is no reasonable cause for dismay just yet. It’s not a very satisfying answer, to be sure, but if I was in the business of giving simple, satisfying, and self-confident answers, my readership would be a lot higher than it actually is.

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Effective altruism (EA) is the fairly simple idea that in charitable giving as in financial investment, you should aim to put your money where it would do the most good – be it earning the highest returns, or helping the maximum number of people. It is a laudable enough goal, though the ideas behind it are hardly new or revolutionary – I recall Jeffrey Sachs touting the superiority of anti-malarial nets over other higher-profile forms of development aid on cost-effectiveness merits back in the mid-2000s, well before “effective altruism” was on anyone’s radar. And I agree with the approach in principle. How could anyone not? Because the core of EA is just helping people live better, richer, healthier lives in clever and cost-effective ways, e.g. anti-malarial nets over dams, $40 trichiasis operations over $40,000 guide-dogs for the blind, machine intelligence research to ensure our future robot overlords don’t kill us all, and – open borders.

Wait, what? Here is where we come to some “problematic” aspects of EA. On paper, it is all about being rationalist. In practice, it is composed of people. What kind of people? EA demographics overlap a lot with that of LessWrong, which has carried out detailed censuses of its members – only 2% of them describe themselves as conservatives, while another 2% describe themselves as neoreactionary (where else would you get that kind of breakdown?), while the other 95% are mostly liberals, libertarians, social democrats, and anarchists of various stripes. They are composed primarily of upper-middle class Americans more compelled to engage in passive aggressive status signalling than to reliably carry rationalism through to its logical conclusions, no matter how unpalatable they might be liberal sensibilities. A few are just outright sperglord level autists.

effective-altruism-immigration A good litmus test for this hypothesis would be to see their attitudes on the current immigration engulfing Europe. The LessWrong boards are almost dead, and as far as I can see all the most intensive discussions are occuring on Facebook. A Sailerite Ctrl-F on EA’s biggest Facebook group shows 33 results for “refugee” and 22 results for “migra” just this past September.

Even if we were not all evil racists who don’t want any filthy foreigners aroun… or, merely accept the validity of discounting the welfare of outside groups relative to that of our own countrymen, there would still be some very legitimate arguments against open borders fundamentalism even from a pure EA perspective.

Here are some of the obvious ones:

  • As anyone with eyes to see has noticed, and as even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has admitted in a recent report, the overwhelming majority of the current migrant wave into European is composed of young adult males. Not women or children, who are typically the biggest war victims.
  • Of which only half are from Syria.
  • Will in general be people who can afford the ~$10,000 needed for the Mediteranean route in the first place, or the ~$5,000 route to Norway via Murmansk so it’s not clear how much in the way of cash and other material aid they really need in the first place.
  • So we are really talking about maximizing utility, so wouldn’t it be more logical to make this more targetted and efficient by importing a few million of the most destitute people in say the D.R. Congo as opposed to Syria or Iraq, which however wartorn they might be are still far more prosperous than most of Sub-Saharan Africa?
  • But where precisely do you stop? 640 million people want to emigrate around the world, most of them from the Third World to the First.
  • Will First World countries composed overwhelmingly of Third Worlders continue to remain First World? More importantly from an EA perspective, would they retain the ability to substantively help the teeming multitudes of the Third World, or even hold conferences on topics such as “effective altruism”? The answer to this question might seem obvious to Unz Review readers, but will likely only confuse and bewilder many self-styled rationalists and EA’ers, many of whom are cognitive and racial blank slatists (this includes their high prophet Eliezer Yudkowsky if his magnum opus HPMOR is anything to go by).

And some of the less so obvious ones:


Ocean Front Suites for $2,500 in city center of Dar es Salaam.

  • One dollar of spending money goes about five times further in poor countries than it does in First World countries due to purchasing power differences. (And that’s without considering the “extras” in the form of extra policing, language courses, welfare spending, etc. that First World nations would have to provide in order to pay for all the new vibrant diversity). If conditions in Syria are so utterly unacceptable that young males have no choice but to emigrate, surely it would be more effectively altruistic to encourage them to settle elsewhere in the Third World – say, why not a relatively stable and Islamic but poor country, like Tanzania, Senegal, or Bangladesh? The $10,000 they pay the Italian or Greek mafias to smuggle them into Europe would probably be enough to buy a nice house there!
  • European EA’ers could even subsidize them with a few $1,000s for the first few years to help them settle in their new homelands and encourage them to stay put. A Syrian doctor or engineer would be a great boon to a typical $1,000-$2,000 GDP per capita African country, where there are very few such specialists in the first place. In a European country, there are no substantive shortages of high IQ specialists, and your Syrian doctor or engineer would be just as likely to end up as a taxi driver (or would it be Uber now?) as to make relevant use of whatever professional qualifications he might have. There are 4 physicians per 1,000 people in Germany, compared to 1.5 in Syria and just 0.4 in Bangladesh, 0.1 in Senegal, and 0.0 in Tanzania. Having a Syrian doctor be a taxi driver in Germany is a bad skills misallocation on the global level, one that easily incurs an opportunity cost in the $10,000s, and it should elicit howls of outrage from any truly rationalist EA’er.
  • Or how about at least channeling some of this money to the few million real refugees stuck in drab refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey? Those people at least won’t be throwing food away like the desperate starving illegals at Calais:

  • When a Syrian migrates to Germany or Sweden, he effectively triples his carbon dioxide emissions. When he migrates to the US, he almost doubles it again. If we are talking about an Eritrean instead, the increase is more on the order of a hundredfold. Exploding populations in the First World means carbon dioxide emissions increasing much more rapidly than if it had taken place in a relatively poor country like Syria, let alone in the most destitute countries like Eritrea. More carbon dioxide emissions means more rapid global warming which in turns means even greater challenges to increasing prosperity in the countries of the Global South. AGW is a topic typically beloved of by progressives, but for some reason they don’t tend to mention it much in the context of immigration debates.
  • How about just stop funding Islamist crazies and support Assad, who according to opinion polls enjoys the most legitimacy of any political force in Syria? That would be not just the EA’iest but also literally the easiest low-effort, high-impact action of them all.
  • Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen, since the people opposing this are considerably more powerful than the Left’s anti-immigration racist bogeymen and most rationalists appear to have lapped up their propaganda as readily as most other Westerners.

Now some of the comments on immigration in the Effective Altruism Facebook discussion group are within the rationalist spirit of EA and are intelligent and relevant even if they fail to challenge the broader “open borders” dogma. (I see no reason to blank out names since this is a public group).

refugees-effective-altruism Others however are just your typical status signalling do-gooders and moralistic exhibitionists.


Ines Ve sounds like a nice enough if naive person. Let’s hope she doesn’t get too disabused of her notions, like this fellow did:

And predictably you have the SJWs, down to the non-ironic use of “problematic” in casual conversation. I can’t even!


Highly authoritarian and typically of only fairly modest intelligence, they are the death of any mildly interesting or intellectual movement that embraces them. I would not bet much on EA’s future.

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Nearly every other day brings another scary headline about Russia’s economic apocalypse. Inflation is robbing Russians of buying power and Putin propagandists are denying it. The “wheels are coming off” the regime according to our friends at the RFERL, the end of the regime is nigh according to Bill Browder, and Putin’s days are numbered, at least in the creative imagination of Ukrainian nationalist academic Alexander Motyl.

Masha Gessen’s friends can no longer get their little Gruyères, the “legendary” (primarily for losing his clients’ money) Moscow investor Slava Rabinovich is predicting food shortages, and things are only about to get worse with oil falling to $25 per barrel and the ruble to 125/$1, at least according to the Khodorkovsky-funded Interpret Mag’s Paul Goble, who has made something of a professional career forecasting Russia’s takeover by Muslims and the Chinese.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the guy who has predicted all twelve of China’s past zero recessions amongst other forecasting accomplishments, says that Russia is “in a full-blown depression.”

One would think from all the noise that we are looking at some sort of Greece-like depression, or an imminent rerun of the collapse of the post-Soviet economy in the 1990s.

Now for the rather banal reality. Real GDP is expected to contract by around 2.7% this year according to the World Bank, but then recover to 0.7% in 2016 and 2.5% in 2017.

The reasons behind this are likewise pretty banal. They don’t have a great deal to do with Western sanctions, which hurt the ability of Russian companies to raise capital but otherwise have had little bite, and they have even less to do with any particular feature of Russia’s political system/kleptocracy/lack of economic freedoms that both anti-Russian establishment pundits like Ariel Cohen and pro-Western liberals in Russia like former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin like to claim as dooming it to economic stagnation. If they were right, then East-Central Europe – most of which is rated as a lot economically freer and less corrupt than Russia on the various indices that proclaim to measure such – would not also have been stuck in a relative economic rut since around 2007.

No, the reason for Russia’s recession is quite simple and boils down to the sharp collapse in oil prices from ~$100 in 2014 to ~$50 this year.

Though the Russian economy is about far more than just oil – natural resource rents are 18% of GDP – it is true that oil is the key component of Russia’s export basket. So when oil prices collapse, in the absence of massive and unsustainable interventions, the ruble devalues. This is indeed what happened. Imports went down, goods became more expensive, and inflation rose. The Central Bank jacked up interest rates in order to prevent runaway inflation, but at the price of a decline in aggregate demand and consequently a short-run decrease in the GDP. If one is really searching for a comparison, the correct one would be not to Greece (which is locked in a monetary straitjacket by the ECB) nor to the late Soviet Union (wholly irrelevant) but to the Volcker recession in the early 1980s US.

Sergey Zhuravlev's permanent oil shock model. Steady growth line represents $100 oil scenario; trough and recovery line represents $50 oil scenario.

Sergey Zhuravlev’s permanent oil shock model (click to enlarge). Steady growth line represents $100 oil scenario; trough and recovery line represents $50 oil scenario.

There is now a very substantial output gap. Dependence on Western credit is now much reduced relative to 2013, to say nothing of 2007. Meanwhile, there are active and serious efforts to develop Russia’s own financial system, which remains woefully underdeveloped for an economy of its size and scope.

Finally, even if oil prices drop permanently to $50 – which is entirely possible, given the removal of the Iran sanctions, this would not mean the Russian economy would be necessarily doomed to years of stagnation. To the contrary, econometric modeling by Russian economist Sergey Zhuravlev indicates that it would result in a ~1.5 year recession (which began in mid-2013, versus 2012 in his model; but otherwise it remains very relevant) followed by accelerated GDP growth thanks to exports.

Otherwise, macroeconomic indicators remain unremarkable. Corporate debt repayments scheduled for the second half of the year are twice lower than in the first half. The budget deficit is forecast to be 3-4% of GDP for the year and overall state debt levels continue to be very low. (Incidentally, this figure is 20% for Saudi Arabia. Which should put the nail in the coffin of the idiotic conspiracy theory that the fall in oil prices has been orchestrated by them and the US to undermine Russia).


Unemployment in Russia (Trading Economics).

Unemployment has barely budged, not even reaching 6% at its peak. In comparison, it was at 10% throughout much of the 1990s. This is almost entirely an output recession.

Now inevitably when recessions occur, living standards tend to fall, and people have to live more frugally. Reading the Western media, one would think that the recession has led to a tsunami in worker protests, criminality, and elite intrigues against Putin.

But in statistical terms, the real impacts of the downturn have been modest. According to Levada opinion polls, the percentage of people having difficulty buying food and clothing increased to 32% this year from 21% in 2014, but this is still lower than the figure for (pre-crisis) 2012, when it was at 33%, to say nothing of the early 2000s (higher than 50%) or the 1990s (around 80%). The percentage of Russians who spend either “almost all” or “two thirds” of their incomes on food, another measure of poverty, is 26% this year, completely unchanged from 2014, and actually lower than in 2013 (33%) or the 2000s in general (40%-50%), to again say nothing of the 1990s (consistently around 80%). These numbers have been confirmed credible by observers such as Russia Insider’s Gilbert Doctorow and Alexander Mercouris, who have personally assessed the situation on the ground, in stark contrast to the New York Times’ Masha Gessen’s reliance on her “Je suis fromage” liberal Russian friend.

Index of "protest potential" based on percentage of Russians saying they'd be willing to partake in protests.

Index of “protest potential” based on percentage of Russians saying they’d be willing to partake in protests.

It is deeply unfashionable to say this but Russian living standards have improved astronomically in the 15 years of Putin’s rule – more so than the headline GDP figures. As such, even a recession like the current one only kicks living standards back by one or two years.

As such, it is not surprising – if deeply disappointing to the Western elites who want to stir up a color revolution in Russia – that Russia’s level of “protest potential” (the percentage of Russians saying they would be willing to participate in protests, or rating the likelihood of protests as being high) is currently near record lows.

Naturally, any such attempts to put the effects of an ultimately modest ~3% drop in GDP into statistical perspective will be met with accusations of callous indifferent to the plight of the Russian people, and the work of Olgino trolls to boot. I have seen this replayed numerous times on the Internet, even when the people making such arguments were Russians living in Russians, whose only sin was to recount their own (generally modest) experiences and impressions of the recession.

Make no mistake – there is a well coordinated media effort in the West to leverage any Russian economic problems to destabilize the Kremlin. Note the chorus of condemnation around the destruction of food illegally imported from the EU in contravention of Russian sanctions, even though the destruction of excess food is routine under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Naturally, this is driven by their altruistic and heartfelt commitment to the wellbeing of the Russian people. Though isn’t it just a wee bit strange that those journalists and “activists” who tend to shout loudest about the burning of European food also tended to be the ones who maintained the thickest silence about the burning of Russian people in Odessa in the new European Ukraine.

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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.