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Pomeranz, Kenneth – The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2001)
Category: economy, history, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Brad DeLong’s review; The Bactra Review; Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial?

great-divergence-pomeranz It’s a rare book that not only vastly informs you on a particular issue, but in so doing overturns many prior conceptions you had on the general subjects. Now, Pomeranz is not a good writer. The text is slow and turgid, and readable only by dint of my interest in the subject. Many potential counter-arguments go unanswered (which is not to say that they sink the overall theory, as I will try to prove in this review). All that said, I have little choice but to give it a 5*/5, as this a truly counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing work that overturns many of the triumphalist post hoc narratives of Western chauvinism.

This book attempts to answer the big question of world economic history: Why Europe? It does this by systematically comparing Europe with other leading world regions in the pre-industrial age such as Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India. The first big finding is that – contrary to the conventional wisdom – there were far more similarities than differences, at least between Britain and the most advanced Chinese region, the Yangtze Delta.

Essential Similarities Between Old World Cores

It is sometimes argued that special European demographic patterns, such as marrying late and a celibate clergy, had the effect of lowering its fertility and mitigating the Malthusian impoverishment held to be prevalent elsewhere. Another, often complementary, view is that European consumption markets were already far more developed than in China, which allowed it to hit the ground running (so to speak) once the preconditions for industrial revolution were fulfilled. However, China also saw fertility postponement, and there is ample evidence that at least until the mid-19th century the average quality of life in China as measured by life expectancy, median incomes, availability of consumer goods, etc. was at least as good as in Europe, probably higher, and as good as Britain in its most advanced region, the Yangtze Delta.

Although Europe was technologically ahead in some spheres – most visibly, guns, clock making, optics – China had a clear lead in irrigation, soil preservation and land management, and medicine (yields per acre in Europe only approached Chinese levels by the late 19th century). This is of no small consequence in pre-industrial societies hewing to the laws of Malthus. As in China, per capita food and fuel availability declined in Europe up until the mid-19th century century; only in Britain was this in significant part mitigated from 1800 by the windfall of “coal and colonies” (much more on this later).

Finally, there’s the argument that European capitalist institutions and markets were better developed and thus kick-started its growth. But again, the evidence Pomeranz marshals convinces that, if anything, China was substantially more “capitalist” (in the laissez-faire sense) than Europe. There were far fewer monopolies, and no internal trade barriers – contrast this, for example, with ancient regime France – and as a consequence, the volume of trade flows (in grains, sugar, timber, etc) were far higher within China than in continental Europe. The civil service was professional and meritocratic, whereas in Europe this only came to be in the 19th century. Markets for labor and products were freer in China; guilds had much less political influence than in Europe. Bound labor and feudal obligations remained prevalent far longer in Europe (and India) than in China, where it had long ago become marginal; for instance, the settlement of Taiwan for the cultivation of sugar – China’s equivalent of the Caribbean islands – was done by free labor. Though credit was cheaper in Europe – or, at least, in Holland and Britain – but to cut a long story short, there is (1) no evidence that this made crucial industrial activities unprofitable or impeded further pro-industrial mechanization, and (2) the credit system was more developed in India relative to China and Japan, although it was far more backward in general.

One major factor that Pomeranz glosses over is the impact of the Scientific Revolution. Though Chinese scientific achievements are under-appreciated – for instance, it matched Western mathematical achievements up to and including those of 16th century Italy – it is undeniable that Europe took a commanding lead from about the mid-16th century. There was to be no Chinese Kepler or Newton. But impressive as it was, you do not need calculus or laws of planetary motion to produce coal and iron (“as late as 1827 and 1842, two separate British observers claimed that Indian bar iron was as good or betterthan English iron”), and you certainly don’t need them to more efficiently produce textiles. As first textiles, and then coal and iron, constituted the first stages of the Industrial Revolution – up to the 1860′s or so – the European scientific base was almost entirely incidental to the initial industrial takeoff. Now obviously this scientific base did become vastly more important by the late 19th century, which saw the flowering of the electric, chemical, and international combustion engine industries; and those countries with particularly powerful research establishments, such as the US and Germany, did very well, catching up to Britain. However, by then China was already hugely behind.

Addendum 7/31: I almost forgot to mention this. This is probably obvious, but Pomeranz says nary a word about the contribution of cultural differences to the Great Divergence (in contrast to people like Landes who make it a centerpiece of their analysis, waxing poetic on the influence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, distinctive Western values of separation of church and state, etc). And rightly so. Culture is an intangible, and has very little explanatory power; furthermore, such explanations are frequently contradictory in time and place (for instance, whereas “Confucian values” may be cited as holding Chinese society back, they are now frequently invoked to explain the meteoric rise of the Asian tigers; you can’t have it both ways, folks).

The European “Miracle”: Coal and Colonies

Why then did Europe, and more specifically Britain, industrialize while China fell into an ecological impasse in which food production barely kept up with population growth? Pomeranz argues (convincingly, IMO) that the crux of the matter was a fortunate conjunctures and contingencies that overwhelmingly favored Europe.

First, colonies. Many recent scholars have dismissed their contribution; according to one article, overseas coercion could not have been responsible for more than 7% of gross investment in late 18th century Britain (and far less in Europe). But this neglects the vital role of the New World colonies – with their near endless land and natural resources – at relieving ecological bottlenecks in Europe, and in particular Britain. These included sugar (which acted as an additional source of calories as well as a hunger suppressant) and cotton (for clothing, and indirectly relieving pressure on pastures and timber for heating), and later in the 19th century, massive grain exports. All this “ghost acreage” allowed the British isles to support a far larger population than its existing carrying capacity could have, a highly urbanized one and relatively comfortable too (hence no Malthusian stress as in late Qing China, with its debilitating effects on political and social cohesion).

(Furthermore, even the aforementioned 7% figure could have been significant in a pre-industrial world. Due to high rates of capital depreciation, the net accumulation in capital stock then was only a small fraction of the overall savings rate. For instance, according to one calculation, that hypothetical 7% in “super-profits” – an increment to gross savings not purchased at the expense of consumption – could have significantly increased an otherwise minimal rate of net capital accumulation.)

And these goods – cotton, sugar, etc. – could be imported at very favorable terms of trade, because of another set of favorable conjunctures. The decimation of Native Americans due to European epidemiological superiority cleared the way for settlers, who supplied the Caribbean colonies with food and Britain with timber (thus relieving its Malthusian stress). Furthermore, the slave labor on the Caribbean islands – apart from the implicit coercion (and “super-profits” it enabled) – prevented them from developing their own proto-industrial sectors that could undercut British exports.

This is in contrast to what happened naturally in China, largely by dint of its free labor markets (as opposed to New World slavery or East European serfdom). The inner provinces began to expand their handicrafts and textiles industries, thus undercutting the (more advanced) proto-industrialization of the Yangtze Delta. This was a form of “import substitution,” and economically natural in those times because of far higher transport costs than is the case today. This was accompanied by a growing population in the inner regions. Unable to increase its industrial exports, and facing declining imports of rice, timber, etc., the most advanced Chinese regions, the Yangtze Delta and Lingnan, had to increase the labor intensity of their agriculture so as to keep food production abreast of their own population.

Obviously, the conditions did not exist for a Caribbean turn towards import substitution. The slaves themselves had no choice, and neither did the owners; they needed to produce commodities for export in order to pay for replacing slaves. And this all provided a growing (as opposed to declining) demand stimulus for British industry.

One additional New World advantage covered in some length by Pomeranz is the windfall of New World silver – which was, in large part, a free gift to Europe on account of the slave labor and monopolies used in its extraction. This allowed it to easily balance the books with trade in China for silk, porcelain, etc., which in turn could be used to pay for African slaves and New World resources. And Chinese demand for silver was huge, since it was remonetizing its economy to run on silver during the early modern period. Indirectly, it contributed to the formation of the Atlantic economy.

The second great British advantage was coal – that is, as an alternative to wood, located close to its main industrial centers (China too had coal, but it was far away from its main industrial centers, and transport costs were prohibitive). Coal relieved pressure on woodlands, which were in rapid decline, and – due to its virtually limitless nature – unbound the production possibilities of iron. Steam power was crucial to this expansion, not only by powering other processes but by permitting a huge expansion of coal-mining itself. “The Chinese had long understood the basic scientific principle involved – the existence of atmospheric pressure – and had long since mastered (as part of their “box bellows”) a double-acting piston/cylinder system much like Watt’s, as well as a system for transforming rotary motion to linear motion that was as good as any known anywhere before the twentieth century. ll that remained was to use the piston to turn the wheel rather than vice versa.” So the relevant technical skills were not unique to Europe. In fact, northern China had a huge coke and iron complex as early as the 11th century under the Song dynasty, though it was brought low by the multiple perturbations of the 12th-15th centuries (Jurchen and Mongol invasions, etc). The rest is worth quoting in extenso:

However, a number of factors militated against widespread Chinese (re)adoption of coal as a major fuel source. First, the reorientation of the center of Chinese development to the east and south meant by the Qing dynasty meant that its industrial cores were now located far from the big coal deposits in the north-west; the advantages of linking these regions by transport are only evident ex ante. Second, the best artisans were concentrated in the (low coal) Yangtze Delta or along the south-east coast, and serving a huge public demand for clocks and other mechanical toys. Third, “even if mine operators had seen how to improve their mining techniques, they had no reason to think that extracting more coal would allow them to capture a vastly expanded market.” Finally, and most importantly, the technical nature of extracting Chinese coal was profoundly different from that of extracting British coal; in fact, it made the deep extraction that enabled Britain to boost its output all but impossible.

English mines tended to fill with water, so a strong pump was needed to remove that water. Chinese coal mines had much less of a water problem; instead they were so arid that spontaneous combustion was a constant threat. It was this problem – one that required ventilation rather than powerful pumps – that preoccupied the compiler of the most important Chinese technical manual of the period… Even if still better ventilation had ameliorated this problem—or if people wanted coal badly enough to pay for this high level of danger – ventilation techniques would not have also helped solve the problem of transporting coal (and things in general) as the steam engines that pumped out Britain’s mines did. Thus, while overall skill, resource, and economic conditions in “China,” taken as an abstract whole, may not have been much less conducive to a coal/steam revolution than those in “Europe” as a whole, the distribution of those endowments made the chances of such a revolution much dimmer.

In contrast, some of Europe’s largest coal deposits were located in a much more promising area: in Britain. This placed them near excellent water transport, Europe’s most commercially dynamic economy, lots of skilled craftspeople in other areas, and – to give the problems of getting and using coal some additional urgency – a society that had faced a major shortage of firewood by 1600 if not before. And although timber and timber-based products were imported by sea, this was far more expensive than receiving logs floated down a river, as the Yangzi Delta did; the incentives to use (and learn more about) comparatively accessible coal were correspondingly greater.

Much of the knowledge about how to extract and use coal had been accumulated by craftsmen and was not written down even in the nineteenth century… Harris shows that French attempts to copy various coal-using processes foundered, even when they reproduced the equipment, because the production of, say, a heat-resistant crucible required very detailed knowledge and split-second timing acquired through experience – and the financial losses from making a mistake could be very large… Only when whole teams of English workers were brought over (mostly after 1830) was the necessary knowledge effectively transferred.

Thus we see that technological expertise was essential to Europe’s coalbreakthrough, but the development of that expertise depended on long experience (and many failures along the way) with abundant, cheap supplies. This experience was possible because artisan skill, consumer demand, and coal itselfwere all concentrated near each other. Without such geographic good luck, one could easily develop lots of expertise in an area with a limited future (e.g.,in using and improving wood furnaces) and not proceed along the track that eventually led to tapping vast new supplies of energy.

Furthermore, the adoption of the steam engine – whose synthesis with coal was what really generated the Industrial Revolution – was also highly contingent. It was the result of 200 years of use on British coal fields, which was both economical (free coal due to zero transport costs) and proximate to mechanics-minded artisans which could offer improvements. Nonetheless, it took until 1830 for the costs of energy per unit of power for steam-run textile machinery to decline precipitously; until then, water remained competitive with steam engines!

Take away some of the incremental advantage conferred by skill transfers from nearby artisans in other fields, the learning by doing made possible by the application to nearby coal fields, and the low cost of coal itself, and – as incredible as it seems to us today – the steam engine could have seemed not worth promoting.

So, in conclusion, Britain enjoyed two major advantages that the Yangtze Delta, the Lingnan region, and Japan did not: (1) a colonial system that allowed it to massively increase its effective carrying capacity while simultaneously stimulating its industrial production, and (2) conveniently located coal reserves in damp places.

Apart from Britain, Europe as a whole was nowhere close to an industrial takeoff at the dawn of the 19th century; and though the relative inefficiency of its land usage – and the gains from ameliorating that – allowed it to avoid a crisis for a few decades after 1800 (what Pomeranz calls the ecological “advantages of backwardness”), it was nonetheless approaching an an ecological bottleneck as in China (the 1840′s in particular are known as a time of dearth). This was at a time when the Industrial Revolution had scarcely began on the mainland, and if it had continued it would have required the diversion of more and more labor to working the land intensively, instead of industry. Could industrialization then have been sustained without coal, New World surpluses, and the already existing industrialization of Great Britain?

The general impression one gets is that not only was the “European miracle” in fact just a matter of fortunate conjunctures and contingencies, but that there was nothing especially preordained about the Industrial Revolution. No colonial surpluses; no easily-reachable coal or mechanical culture; perhaps, even no slavery (to enhance the efficiency with which colonial surpluses were extracted) – no industrial revolution. At least, not a few more centuries.

Additional Thoughts for Consideration

(1) Needless to say, I now largely reject my previous theory Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System? I don’t think the hieroglyphics system did China any good, but they certainly can’t explain The Great Divergence.

(2) One important factor that I didn’t see Pomeranz mention – the Atlantic is much narrower than the Pacific! China was building ships as advanced as that of the European Golden Age of Navigation as early as the 15th century, and in huge numbers far exceeding the capacity of any single European state. Navigation itself wasn’t a problem either (note that it was China that invented the compass, topographic maps, etc). But it didn’t practice overseas slave-trading, and those Chinese that settled new lands – be they in Taiwan, or the inner provinces – tended to develop their own proto-industrial economies, which in the presence of conditions of free trade and free markets for labor and products eventually undermined the volume of trade.

(3) The “rise of the West” was in large part built on systems – mercantilism, military-fiscal competition, etc. – that universal Western ideology now condemns. Ironically, the BRIC’s (including most prominently China) are the ones using mercantile strategies to catch up to the West.

(4) What’s even more curious is that it wasn’t only Britain, and then the rest of Western Europe that overtook China; so did Russia. Now Russia was undoubtedly far, far behind both China and the West practically since its inception until (relative to China) about the late 19th century. It had serfdom, very small urban class, a very de-commercialized economy, with luxury consumption being indulged in by a tiny elite, etc. Nonetheless, despite this backwardness – an inevitable one, due to ecological reasons I have written a lot on this blog about – the state did nonetheless successfully leverage what meager surpluses it had to maintain a rough military parity with the West and play the role of a Great Power. So, yet more evidence that strict adherence to neoclassical economic development isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be.

(5) An interesting counter-factual to consider – what if there had been no easily accessible coal in Britain or the Rhineland, and if Columbus had found no New World and instead sunk somewhere in the middle of a globe-spanning World Ocean? Could there have been an industrial revolution? Is industrial revolution contingent on “coal and colonies”?

Or would Europe instead have become something like Qing China in the 19th century, increasingly politically debilitated, and economically stagnant – any improvements in land management and increasing labor intensity swallowed up by an inexorably growing population? Could it, indeed, have collapsed, perhaps after it grew critically weak and was invaded by the Russian Army much like China was by the Jurchens, the Mongols, the Manchus, etc., and pillaged by British pirates much like Japanese pirates preyed on a weak China in the 17th century Ming twilight? Indeed, could it eventually have collapsed into yet another Dark Age as followed the Roman Empire, in which much of the vaunted knowledge of the Scientific Revolution would be lost to memory, with the 18th century to early 19th century coming to be seen as a bygone “Golden Age”?

PS. H/t to Doug M. for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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waterloo“[Poker] exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made [the United States] so great.” Just consider the array of similarities:

1. Though there are rules and etiquette loosely associated with it, otherwise everything goes: in other words, its fundamental nature is profoundly amoral. (This is contrary to the ideologues who claim that capitalism is either A) “moral” / God-sanctioned / Rand-sanctioned / etc or B) “immoral” / “imperialist” / etc; newsflash, it’s NEITHER).

2. Players governed by emotions that cloud out calculation lose out in the long run. Blocking out emotions is harder than it sounds, because as in real economies, even able and rational poker players are sometimes overcome by the “animal spirits” of the moment.

3. It is important to maintain a good reputation: for instance, if you become known for bluffing too much (or not bluffing at all), you are going to get called out on it and lose money. Under advanced capitalism every major corporation maintains a PR department.

4. The majority of people in many capitalist societies such as the US believe that they are good enough to get well ahead, whereas in practice that is rarely the case (e.g. median household incomes have been more or less stagnant since 1973). Likewise in poker, most players believe they’re really good at it – ask around and you’ll find that 75%+ of people who play poker say they win on average, despite the mathematical impossibility – but in real life, only <10% end up corralling most of the gains.

5. Those who do lose attribute it to bad luck, rigged games, etc. -anything but their lack of ability. Likewise with the losers of capitalism.

6. The Matthew Principle: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”. Just as there is a tendency in capitalist economies for wealth to become concentrated, so the players with the biggest stacks have a major advantage.

7. Poker doesn’t make money, it only redistributes it. Likewise with capitalism, which doesn’t generate wealth per se, which only comes from labor, capital, (finite) natural resources, and the efficiency with which said factors are converted into useful work. The idea of capitalism (or of bankers, at least prior to 2008) as somehow generating value out of thin air, bypassing the laws of thermodynamics, is one of its most powerful myths. Poker players at least aren’t subject to this delusion.

8. As with effective capitalist systems, there is a lot of scope for social mobility based on specific talents; however, the adjustments can be very big from round to round in no limit poker. (More regulated capitalist systems are akin to limit poker; less regulated to no limit). Bad capitalist systems, e.g. ones dominated by oligarchs or monopolies, are akin to rigged games with insider dealings.

9. However, if you’re ruined, you can sometimes get back into the game. For instance, through buy-backs. But that is rare. More frequently, you are simply ruined.

10. Obviously, the elites at the top that run the poker games benefit through the casino rake, which they use to maintain their sites or brick-and-mortar casinos. This is equivalent to the government taxing capitalists in order to maintain the state apparatus (courts, police, etc) to sustain capitalism itself.

One exception I used to think existed is that there are no “fat tails” in poker, i.e. totally unexpected events that can completely upend normal risk assessments, whereas capitalism positively teems with them (e.g. the chaotic collapse of global stockmarkets on Black Monday in 1987; the collapse of Long Term Capital Management due to their models neglecting the risk of a Russian default). But whereas you can get “bad beats” in poker – in which your opponent plays wrong but beats your stronger hand by lucking out – they would still be within the realm of plausible expectation to anyone familiar with the rules of the game. Your Internet connection may snap, causing you to lose a big hand, but these events can be foreseen (and taken into account in calculations of hourly rate) and will in any case fail to cardinally change the size of your bankroll.

Today, the Feds proved me wrong by shuttering the three companies that dominate online gambling in the US and issuing arrest warrants for their CEO’s, in the latest display of creeping authoritarianism by the Obama regime. (The government only wants you to be able to gamble under their roofs – it’s a pretty sick deal, you get taxpayer funded bonuses for losing money and buy-backs are on the house – though granted, the entrance fee to that casino is just a bit too high for most people). It’s not clear if the players at those sites will be able to cash out their online chips; in fact, it’s even possible that the resulting panic will unleash an exodus that will bankrupt them before players from Europe and Asia can take up the slack. So I guess Black Swans can appear in gambling dens too.


Gambling card games as metaphors for political economic systems can be extended further. For instance, central planning / command economy can be productively compared with blackjack.

In the long-run, even assuming perfect play with *no* tricks, you are going to lose more than you win. Or, constrained Pareto optimality. This is certainly not the case for good poker players.

Of course, most people will never know how to play perfectly, and while they may get lucky and profit from the system, the long term expectation is always one of loss.

There is a solution to this: card-counting. The equivalent would be something along the lines of running a black market, or organizing a covert operation to buy up resources at (cheap) domestic prices and sell it at (higher) international prices. This is hugely destructive to the casino-state, of course, hence the penalties – both at the card table and in real life – are stiff. Card-counting is against the rules in casinos and can get you banned from them. Black marketeers in command economies can expect to get prison, hard labor, or even shot, if uncovered (to avoid this they usually co-opt corrupt members of the nomenklatura of the casino-state, sending them a slice of their profits in exchange for theirs turning a blind eye – or even aiding their operations).

Since it is the casino-state that wins out in the long-run, it is logical to scramble into its ranks. Hence the typical, intense competition for entrance into the nomenklatura seen in planned (and heavily socialist) economies from the USSR to modern Venezuela. But getting in by pure talent rarely works. In most cases, you need connections within the casino staff.
This is it for now, but I’m sure one can make plenty of other points, both pro and contra.

Finally, what about Communism? Well, it’s a utopian state that has never been close to achieved anytime, anywhere; it is a state where scarcity vanishes. Perhaps something like playing poker with stacks of (fake) money. Like Zynga on Facebook?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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In the fourth part of my series comparing Russia, Britain, and the US, I turn my attention to aspects of their politics, including: markets and freedom; media independence; the role of “dissident” voices, billionaires, and corruption; and Internet culture. Some people – perhaps Kremlinologists in particular – will no doubt be surprised by my conclusion that there are far more similarities than differences.

Politics & Democracy

In the US, there are two main parties that form a “bipartisan consensus” on most of the truly important topics. Both parties are beholden to corporate interests (Democrats more Wall Street; Republicans more Big Oil). Obama’s foreign policy is no real change from that of the later Bush administration. The political and mass media establishment is more than happy to criticize foreign countries for human rights abuses, real or perceived – especially those they dislike, like Russia or Venezuela – while similar or identical things happen in the US itself. A good example is the criticism towards the breakup of unsanctioned Russian political protests, which have exact parallels in the US; just as I was writing this post, 100 antiwar activists and 35 Bradley Manning supporters were arrested.

(The double standards thing is every bit as prevalent in the UK too, by the way. For a good summary see this article by Mark Sleboda.)

There is a strong “culture war” element to US politics, with a strong liberal vs. conservative struggle on hot issues such as global warming, the power of unions, gun rights and abortion. The US also has far more direct democracy at the state level than either the UK, not to mention Russia. For instance, when California needs to decide whether to decriminalize marijuana or gay marriage, it consults the voters; in most of the rest of the world, the decision is left to unelected “experts”.

Though it has three major parties, the sphere of political opinion is even narrower in the UK than in the US. On most issues, the Tories/Lib Dems and Labour can all be arraigned within the confines of the Democratic Party. There is, at least, a real difference in views on social rights (e.g. abortion; environmental protection; etc) between the Democrats and Republicans, whereas it is hard to distinguish even these differences between New Labour and the Conservatives. Effectively fringe movements, like the Green Party or the nationalist BNP, have slightly more formal political power than in the US through their own parties. Such pressure movements in both the US (e.g. the Tea Party) and Russia (e.g. the DPNI; greens; liberals) tend to exert political influence through the Establishment (respectively, the two-party system and the Kremlin).

The political consensus in Russia is represented by the Kremlin (with its tightly interlinked political, security and oligarchic elites) and its “party of power” (United Russia). But in contrast to the USSR, modern Russia has no real ideology beyond the national interest and vague allusions to its Great Power traditions (derzhavnost’). Its political economy is a melange of traditional Muscovite patrimonialism, Gaullist statism, and even libertarian elements like the flat tax. Its political space is much wider than in the Anglosphere, ranging from right-wing liberals to the (unreformed) Communist Party; but this is of little account, since the old ideological struggles, e.g. the Slavophiles vs. the Westernizers (Tsarism), or the Communists vs. the liberals (1990′s), are now over. The current system is best characterized as a Kremlin-moderated debate, carried on between different personalities and factions, about how to best modernize Russia, and the pace and extent of liberalization.

The two major factions, or “Kremlin clans“, are the siloviki and the civiliki. The siloviki, or “power people”, are typically men drawn from the security agencies – primarily the FSB and Interior Ministry – whose fortunes rose with the ascension of Putin to power. Their unofficial leader is Igor Sechin. The civiliki are composed of economically-liberal economists, lawyers and technocrats, as well as the Anti-Narcotics Agency and GRU military intelligence, who form a loose coalition around Dmitry Medvedev, the current President. There is also a third grouping who owe allegiance directly to Putin, most prominently Vladislav Surkov, who is the chief ideologue (e.g. inventing the term “sovereign democracy”).

Though Putin’s position as PM is formally weaker than the President’s, this is counterbalanced by his leadership of the party of power, United Russia. Some analysts regard Putin as the most powerful man in Russia, with Medvedev a distant second, third after Sechin, or even a puppet. I think that each member of the ruling “tandem” has about equal power, with Sechin a distant third. It is certainly a mistake to see the dispute between the two factions – to the extent that one exists, as there is also a lot of cooperation – as a kind of struggle between democracy / transparency / markets vs. authoritarianism / corruption / statism. The relations between these “clans” are largely symbiotic, not confrontational.

Garry Kasparov, leading Russian liberal, meeting with Georgian President Saakashvili, after Russia fought a war with him in 2008. I'm sure things like this do wonders for the liberals' popularity.

Garry Kasparov, leading Russian liberal, meeting with Georgian President Saakashvili, after Russia fought a war with him in 2008. I’m sure things like this do wonders for the liberals’ popularity.

One common but totally misguided characterization of Russian politics is that of an authoritarian Kremlin (brutally) suppressing the liberal opposition. Only in their own fantasies. The liberals’ proud association with the 1990′s and its accouterments (e.g. mass impoverishment under the liberal reforms; criminal oligarchs; etc), lack of constructive solutions (their slogans are pretty much limited to “Putin Must Go!” and variations thereof) and worshipful adulation of everything “European” or “Western” as “civilized” (as opposed to attacks on Russia, or “Rashka” as they like to call it, as irredeemably corrupt and barbaric) filters down their support base to about 5% of the population. (Though that doesn’t stop them from presenting themselves as the genuine voice of the Russian people, especially to credulous Western journalists). There’s no FSB bogeymen or Kremlin “web brigades” marginalizing the Russian liberals; they do it well enough by themselves.

It should also be stressed that the real opposition, to the extent that one exists, aren’t the aforementioned liberals but the Communists. The former have the support of 5% of the population; the latter have the support of 25%. Main problem is that pensioners marching with red flags aren’t quite as photogenic and chic to Western journalists as the airbrushed representatives of the liberal movements.

For a fuller explanation, I highly recommend these articles: A Short Overview of Russian Political Discourse (“kovane”); On The Politics Of Russia (Alexandre Latsa); The Kremlinologist Catechism (yours truly).

For “political freedom indices”, most of which (e.g. Freedom House) aren’t worth the bandwidth they take up, I think the Polity IV is the most accurate. (Not to mention my own Karlin Freedom Index).

Myth: Russia Is A Dictatorship

Several times in the US, I’ve been asked what I think of the “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin”. I don’t like getting into old arguments, so my usual response is a demurral that I’m not interested in politics. But in reality the very question is pretty laughable to me. The Internet is completely uncensored. There are many articles in the major newspapers that are deeply critical of the government, and two major media outlets are run by the liberals who do little else (Novaya Gazeta & Echo of Moscow; the latter, by the way, is owned by state company Gazprom). You can complain, shout or publish pretty much anything you want about how corrupt, tyrannical or treasonous Russia’s leaders are (and it’s not just the liberals who do it; nationalist / far-right rhetoric is even more hysterical, flaying the Kremlin for selling out Russia by allowing in dark-skinned Gastarbeiters). This is not to say that the Russian government never abuses the rights of its citizens or acts in stupid and/or counterproductive ways against these “dissidents”; you can find dozens of examples of this, such as the deaths in pre-trial detention of a lawyer investigating police corruption or the police confiscating copies of Boris Nemtsov’s screed against the the “Putin regime”. But if occasional corrupt and ham-fisted actions like this made Russia an authoritarian dictatorship it would have virtually every other country in the world for company.

The US also has its “dissidents”, ranging from the edges of the Establishment (e.g. Ron Paul, James Hansen) to complete outsiders (e.g. anti-globalization; antiwar; anarchist). But it hardly makes the front page news in the US when they’re put on “domestic terrorist” watch lists, their houses are raided, or their protests broken up. Generally speaking, you can only find out about that kind of stuff on alternate news media and the exceedingly rich American blogosphere.

A Quick Note On Putin Himself

The current PM has managed to maintain an approval rating of 70%+ for the past decade, which is almost unheard of for a leader in the UK or the US. Some argue that it’s because the state media creates a cult around him (some liberals refer to his young supporters as Putlerjugend), others because of some ingrained Russian yearning for a “strong hand”. Largely, I think he’s popular because he’s essentially a moderate conservative who is associated with uncontroversial values such as stability, patriotism, and rising incomes; the theory about government propaganda creating Putinoid drones is undermines by the fact that he is as popular amongst the young and university-educated (i.e. they have Internet access and many know English) as he is amongst pensioners (i.e. who generally rely on TV for news). But my favorite explanation is the one offered by Cracked: that he’s the craziest badass!

Socialism and Markets

Many Americans and British are concerned, even disturbed, by the reemergence of the Russian state as a central player in society and the economy. But this is to project British and American mentalities, in which the state has traditionally played a subsidiary role, to Russia, whose experience has been entirely different: a state (gosudarstvo) that has always been at the forefront of modernization; and a state that has guaranteed Russia’s security against numerous invaders down the centuries (whereas the US and Britain haven’t been successfully invaded since 1066, and whose citizens have come to view their own states as potentially the greatest threat to their rights and liberties).

But not only are Russians accustomed to viewing their state as having a far greater and more central role than in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but they also underwent a far deeper collapse in state power than experienced in either the US or the UK for at least the past century; during the 1990′s, the salaries of state workers went unpaid for months, and elementary state prerogatives such as the monopoly on violence and on money creation slipped out of its control. After such travails, no doubt the Americans and British too would have pined for the return of a strong state*.

* I found a poll a few days ago that pretty much confirms this. In the wake of the economic crash and bank bailouts, the percentage of Americans believing in the free market economy as the best system fell to 59% by 2010 (from 71% in 2005), compared with 55% of Britons (from 66%) and 52% of Russians (up from 43%). It’s telling that after just three years of economic turmoil, Americans are barely more pro-free market than Russians who lived through 70 years of socialism, followed by a decade of hyper-depression and a decade of pretty fast growth under a market economy.

Politics is rarely a topic for conversation in the US or Britain, unless its on Facebook, and the number of ideological positions one can “respectably” take is far more circumscribed than in Russia. For instance, it is perfectly acceptable to call oneself a Communist or a Marxist; not surprising, since 15-20% of the population votes for them. Doing so in the UK will not endear you to polite society, while in the US it is hurled around as a term of abuse in political discourse. Actually admitting to being a socialist, let alone a Communist, will get you shunned in most American circles. It’s pretty hilarious to see the Republicans painting Obama as a radical leftist, when in much of Europe he’d be regarded as a corporatist centrist.

The Weird Ideological Alliance Between Far Right Republicans And Russian Liberals

There is a surprisingly strong affinity between the Tea Party and Russia’s liberals, the main exception being that the former are far more mainstream. Some 28% of US adults call themselves supporters of the Tea Party movement, whereas Russia’s liberals have at most 5% (being generous). Both dislike big government, have 19th century conceptions of what liberalism is about (emphasizing free enterprise, private property, etc). Illarionov, the libertarian economist who fell out with Putin, is also a Tea Partier and has protested in the US against Obama’s healthcare reforms and condemned the Kyoto Protocols. Another prominent Russian liberal, Latynina, believes global warming is a scam to enrich or empower “the global bureaucracy” and supports disenfranchising poor Russians. Yet another, Novodvorskaya, supports Westerners bombing undemocratic and uncivilized Third World countries. No wonder, then, that Russian “liberals” find so much common cause with the nuttier elements of the Republican Party.

Why do these rightist views have much bigger support in the US? Quite simply, the majority of Russians – about 70% of them, according to opinion polls – are essentially statists, who believe the state has a duty to extensively interfere in the economy to protect the weak and assure everyone a safety net. That is similar to attitudes in Europe. The US, in contrast, has a starkly different political culture that has traditionally stressed values such as self-reliance, asperity, the “self-made man”, the “free enterprise system”, etc; which don’t work, at least nowadays, nearly as well as the rhetoric of their proponents. One consequence of this is that there is a far greater degree of “false consciousness” in the US than in Russia.


Glaring divisions of wealth are far more evident in Russia and America. Whereas the UK has 33 billionaires for 61 million people, Russia has 101 billionaires for 143 million and the US has 412 billionaires for 308 million people.

Furthermore, whereas the British affluent stress Weberian values of keeping a low and modest profile, many American billionaires enjoy a cult-like status (Bill Gates; Warren Buffet; Steve Jobs…) and Russian oligarchs flaunt their wealth with absolute abandon.

This makes some Russians bitter, since most of the Russian billionaires obtained their assets in the anarchic 1990′s through shady, dubious, and semi-legal (at best) ways; in contrast, US billionaires are either self-made or inherited their wealth. However, the more common sentiment amongst younger people isn’t so much hatred or envy but a desire to emulate them (what that says about their values I’ll leave to you).

One factor that probably diminishes Russians’ ill feeling about the wealth of the oligarchs is that – to a far greater extent than in the West – they are now firmly under the Kremlin’s thumb. Their property rights aren’t secure, as in the West; instead, they are conditional on their political loyalty and their help in maintaining social stability. E.g.,

  • Roman Abramovich funded infrastructure and social services as governor of the remote region of Chukotka from out of his own pocket.
  • Viktor Vekselberg repatriated imperial-era art objects, including luxury Fabergé eggs – created for the Tsars and taken out of the country after the Revolution – and loaned them to Russian state museums.
  • They are expected to maintain employment rates and pay wages on time, even if it’s unprofitable for them. When Oleg Deripaska failed to do so in Pikalyovo, he was publicly chastised by Putin, after which he promptly reversed course.
  • A consortium of oligarchs provides financing for flagship Kremlin projects such as the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the Skolkovo technology center.

In return for these services, Russia’s oligarchs get to keep and profit from their assets. The Russian state is also generous about providing them help with penetrating foreign markets, on the many occasions when oligarch economic interests coincide with the Kremlin’s foreign policy interest, e.g. acquiring steel mills in Ukraine, or stakes in West European energy companies. This system is, in some circles, called “Kremlin, Inc”.

The American model of billionaire-political interaction is much more one-sided; basically, whereas the oligarchic elites have in Russia have decisively come under the heel of the political and security elites since 2003*, the political system in the US has come to be extremely influenced by the billionaire class – especially after the Citizens United judicial decision that removed limits to corporate funding of political of political campaign. The Koch brothers’ bankrolling of the Tea Party movement and war against social rights and environmental protections is only the tip of the iceberg.

* The symbolic occasion was the arrest and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest oligarch at the time. Formally, the charges were tax evasion; in actuality, it was for using his wealth to manipulate the political process, such as funding opposition parties and buying out parliamentary deputies to lobby for lower taxes on the oil industry.

Patriotism & Nationalism

Political correctness is far more developed in the US and Britain than it is in Russia; if you hate immigrants or think women should stay in the kitchen, you’d be best off keeping it to yourself when in ordinary company. In contrast, Russians have no problems mouthing off shockingly racist comments about dark-skinned people (“black-asses”) or telling you that the country is degenerating and needs another Stalin*. However, I don’t think this indicates that Russians are backwards so much as that Westerners are more practiced at concealing their true feelings. If you want proof, one need look no further than the anonymous comments sections on sites like FOX News or The Telegraph; they are full of Islamophobia (and Russophobia, Sinophobia, etc.), anti-immigrant sentiment, war-mongering, paeans to the superiority of Western culture, etc.

* For whatever reason, every single Russian taxi driver I’ve ever hitched a ride with happened to be a hardline Stalinist.

There is a high level of civilizational nationalism in the US: the flag is omnipresent, in the conservative states elementary school students recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, politicians and pundits go on about how “exceptional” the US is and why it should exercise “global leadership.” Though it sounds quaint at best to Europeans – including the British who let go of messianic complexes by the 1960′s and the Russians by the 1990′s* – the fact is that many Americans truly believe in this vision of the US as a “city on the hill” with a civilizing global mission. While the official rhetoric about “freedom promotion” and “democracy building” mostly elicits cynical smirks from the politicos in the End Of History-type places like the Bay Area, it is treated with the appropriate gravitas in Middle America.

* To summarize: The British had an empire; the Russians miss their empire; the Americans run an empire, but don’t want to admit it.

Famous photo of Red Army soldier hoisting the Soviet flag over Berlin. (The US equivalent has American GI's raising the flag on Iwo Jima).

Famous photo of Red Army soldier hoisting the Soviet flag over Berlin. (The US equivalent has American GI’s raising the flag on Iwo Jima).

Russian patriotism is based on appreciation of its culture, values, and a shared history that reaches its apogee in the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). The shared sacrifices incurred in that struggle – 27 million dead in the USSR, including 13 million Russians – for survival bind together not only Russian citizens, but all the peoples of the former Soviet Union. The Kremlin has encouraged its emergence as the primary national myth consolidating the modern Russian nation-state.

Arguably, Russian patriotism tends to be less bombastic and immediately visible than in America, but is every bit as deep-seated; certainly the Russian flag is nowhere near as omnipresent as in the US (though more so than in the UK or Germany). British patriotism is as real as Russian or American, but tends to be more low-key and even self-deprecatory.

It is hard to deny that the pageantry of the Russian state – as in its anthems, songs, marches, flags, symbols, monumental architecture – is some of the deepest and most moving and inspiring in the world. E.g. see this video of the 1945 Victory March in Moscow.

Ethnic based nationalism is an extremely fringe movement in the US, despite sites like Stormfront and books like The Turner Diaries. It has a far more visible presence in Russia, where skinhead gangs make parts of some cities unsafe for people with the wrong skin color, especially after events like football matches*. Though the gangs themselves number no more than a few tens of thousands, the slogan of “Russia for [ethnic] Russians” is approved by nearly half the population.

* It is common for supporters of rival football clubs to duke it out at set times and places on Russian streets. The police keep a watch on these brawls, but don’t interfere as long as they doesn’t spiral out of control. I heard that some decades ago there used to be similar scenes in Britain, but nowadays the police take a far harder line against football hooliganism.

Party Systems

One of the great strengths of the two party system in the US is that whenever one of its halves loses legitimacy (as indicated by elections), the other half takes over and starts out with a clean slate. But members of both parties are drawn from the ranks of the same power elite that never loses its standing in this system of dynamic equilibrium. There is a similar dynamic in Britain, although it has 2.5 major parties; their “first past the post” electoral system prevents small parties from playing any significant role, as is common in Europe.

In contrast, the current Russian arrangement is metastable, i.e. in a delicate equilibrium that is maintained by popular approval for the Kremlin and its leading personalities. The Kremlin may resolve this long-term stability problem by encouraging a genuinely competitive politics, e.g. by splitting United Russia into conservative (merge with LPDR) and social democratic (merge with Fair Russia) wings. But as it currently stands, if its political legitimacy were to fade away, e.g. if economic stagnation sets in, then the consequences may be unpredictable.

The Media

The UK print media is dominated by The Guardian (liberal left; pro-Labour; readers nicknamed “Guardianistas” by right wingers); The Daily Telegraph (right conservative; pro-Conservative); The Independent (very liberal, left; vaguely pro-Liberal Democrat); the centrist Times; The Financial Times (The City’s paper); and the tabloids The Sun (right populist) and The Daily Mail (centrist populist; nicknamed “The Daily Fail” by critics). The most important magazine is The Economist, whose most valuable service, IMO, is not the spread of good information or analysis – they follow a blatantly pro-Western, pro-free markets line and try to force everything into that narrow narrative – but the provision of good insights into the mentalities of the political/financial Anglo-Saxon elites. My favorite British paper is The Independent (you can comment on almost every article) and The Guardian (its investigative journalism is unparalleled); but in fairness, The Telegraph and even The Daily Mail have interesting stuff. Certainly, British conservatives are far more reasoned than their American counterparts. I also used to like The Times, but haven’t checked back since they raised a paywall.

On TV, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) pretends to be neutral and editorially independent, but that’s not the case now if it ever was; back in 2004, its head was sacked for alleging – not without cause – that the government “sexed up” the case for the Iraq War. The rot has only festered since. What makes this particularly annoying is that to watch TV at all in the UK, you have to pay a tax specifically for the upkeep of the BBC, even if you have no intention of ever watching it. The most interesting and controversial voices tend to appear on Channel 4.

In the US, the two major papers are The New York Times (centrist, largely pro-Democrat; nicknamed “The Gray Lady” and regarded as the paper of record), The Washington Post (centrist), The Wall Street Journal (right-wing paper of the financial/business class), The Washington Times (neocon jerks), The Christian Science Monitor (intelligent centrist), The LA Times (pretty good), the San Francisco Chronicle, etc. My favorites are the NYT, WaPo, and CSM.

The US also has a huge variety of high-quality journals dedicated to specific issues or opinion, e.g. Foreign Affairs, Salon, The Atlantic, The Nation, The National Interest, etc. Of particular note is STRATFOR. Its best feature is that it does not, like the mass media, try to fit events into some ideologized narrative, e.g. by peddling myths such as that the reason France or the US got involved in Libya is because of human rights or democracy. Instead, its combination of good intelligence, focus on geopolitics and realism, and disavowal of ideology enables excellent analysis. Tje subscription fee isn’t cheap but well worth the money.

I’ve never bothered to get a TV in the US, but from the stuff I’ve seen, it was a good decision. Ads are long and news coverage is juvenile and more slanted than in the UK (let alone Europe).

Though a great deal is made of the US media being privately owned, and therefore editorially independent, there is no such connection; to the contrary, being reliant on advertising revenue, private media has to cater to popular stereotypes (by reducing everything to simplistic, good vs. evil narratives) and to maintain good relations with the government (to get the approved leaks and inside sources that make news stories; plus, the media’s parent companies sometimes generate some of their revenue from contractual relations with the government itself). Even the NYT, the most highly regarded US newspaper, has on numerous occasions acted to conceal information deemed embarrassing to the government (and not a threat to national security, as claimed). The simple fact is that where the state does not set the editorial line (e.g. the BBC; most of Russian TV), journalists tend to self-censor themselves anyway.

PS. Here I should make an important semantic note. Whereas “liberal” tends to mean leftist in the US (often with social liberal connotations), and to mean a social liberal in the UK and Europe (for instance, the Liberal Democrats are more socially liberal than New Labour; but they are further to the right economically), in Russia it tends to imply right-wing economics and pro-Western orientations. The opposite of liberal, in the Russian political discourse, is “patriot”, and typically has leftist and pro-Russian/pro-Eurasian connotations.

The Russian print media is dominated by Komsomolskaya Pravda (leftist); Vedomosti (liberal right; features good coverage of political and/or corruption scandals); Kommersant (centrist, financial); Argumenty i Fakty (left-patriotic); Izvestia (centrist-patriotic); Nezavisimaya Gazeta (liberal left); Novaya Gazeta (very liberal; the voice of the liberal intelligentsia); Trud (very leftist; the voice of the Communists); Rossiyskaya Gazeta (responsible for publishing new laws, official paper of record). Also of note is Lenta.Ru, an Internet-based publication. Then there’s the infamous Pravda, which is tabloid trash and, contrary to popular opinion, has nothing to do with the old Soviet paper of the same name. My favorite papers are Kommersant, Argumenty i Fakty, and Vedomosti.

This is a gross generalization, but my impression is that (serious) Russian newspapers tend to have more details on global events than major Western ones; they are certainly far better at giving both sides of the story when it involves the West vs. Someone Else. For instance, in contrast to the good guys vs. bad guys narrative spun by most US/UK newspapers on Libya, the Russians were far earlier and more insistent on raising uncomfortable questions, such as: Are the rebels truly more human rights-respecting than Gaddafi? Do they actually have more popular support? Are they militarily competent, and if not, might a ground intervention not become necessary? What about their ties to radical Islamists? Is NATO’s goal to provide civilian protection, as allowed by UN resolution, or regime change? The only major Western publications that are as probing and skeptical on these issues as the likes of Kommersant or Lenta.Ru that come to mind are STRATFOR and Spiegel.

Russia’s TV channels are, pretty explicitly, pro-government (though unlike British (BBC) or American ones (FOX News – “fair and balanced”) they don’t bother making claims to impartiality). The main independent broadcast media are Ren TV (which airs controversial documentaries and prominently features opposition liberals and socialists) and the Echo of Moscow radio station.

I can’t really comment in any detail on the differences between Russian, British, and American TV because I haven’t watched the box in many years.

Western news channels unleashed a barrage of propaganda during the South Ossetian War, portraying it as an unprovoked Russian invasion of free democratic Georgia.

Western news channels unleashed a barrage of propaganda during the South Ossetian War, portraying it as an unprovoked Russian invasion of free democratic Georgia.

Whereas many Western political scientists make a big deal of the division between the “free” US (UK, etc) press and the “controlled” Russian press, I’m hard-pressed to spot a difference. When the Western political elites are united on a particular goal (e.g. the months leading up to the Iraq War in the US), then their broadcast media follows in step; plurality only appears when the elites divide (e.g. in the aftermath of that same Iraq War, when prominent politicians began to question the wisdom of the adventure).

The best demonstration of the myth that Western media is in any way exceptional lies in its coverage of the 2008 South Ossetia War, in which the uniform line was that Russia was the aggressor against Georgia. The inconvenient facts that it was the Georgians who had started the war by shelling the Ossetian city of Tskhinvali and the Russian peacekeepers guarding it remained unknown and unaired to viewers of the mainstream media throughout the war. CNN presented pictures of Georgian destruction in Tskhinvali as Russian destruction of the Georgian town of Gori. Of course, the Russians too were actively involved in this “information war”. As this Wikipedia article makes clear, both Western and Russian journalists where driven not by the search for truth but by the agendas of their editors, bosses and political handlers back home.

Russia has what its fans call a “dissident press”; small publications, typically liberal or socialist, online (e.g. the liberal Ezhednevny Zhurnal, whose denizens are called “ezhiki”, or hedgehogs; and Left.Ru for socialists). The US has them too, where they are called the alternate media; examples include The Daily Cos, Alternet, Antiwar, Counterpunch, Exiled Online, and they are usually populated by leftists, anarchists, and libertarians.

Russia Today's real sin is that it asks uncomfortable questions that others are too afraid to ask.

Russia Today’s real sin is that it asks uncomfortable questions that others are too afraid to ask.

Interestingly, Russia Today – the English-language broadcasting arm of the Russian state (who main political analyst Peter Lavelle I interviewed here), which is criticized for spreading anti-American propaganda by some and defended as encouraging Westerners to “question more” by others, is favorably cited by the aforementioned US dissidents. Their mirror image are the Russian dissidents who tune in to Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe or Voice of America, which mainstream Russian politicians dismiss as propaganda channels seeking to undermine Russia. The symmetry is amusing to say the least.

While Russia Today is critical of many US policies, especially foreign policy, if you were to call it “anti-Western”, then you’d have to call the vast majority of Western media outlets “Russophobic” for consistency. For instance, it is one of the very few media outlets that covers US antiwar protests, e.g. at Fort Benning where several RT journalists were arrested. Similarly, Western media outlets devote a lot of attention to Russian liberal protests (but not Communist, anarchist, etc.) than Russian journalists. And of course it’s not like that it’s only Russian protesters who get beaten up…

That said… American journalists are still far, far better at covering the US than the Russian journalists digging around for horror stories of American healthcare; just as Russian journalists are far better at covering Russia than British or American journalists on two year assignments in Moscow who may not even know the language and believe that liberal protests are the cutting edge of Russian political life.

(PS. One important point on which the symmetry breaks down is that whereas the Western media frequently claims that the Russian media is controlled, the reverse practically never happens. For instance, in the lead-up to the Wikileaks Cablegate, The Christian Science Monitor patronizingly wrote:

WikiLeaks ready to drop a bombshell on Russia. But will Russians get to read about it? WikiLeaks is about to release documents on Russia, but the tightly-controlled Russian media is unlikely to report them the way Western media attacked the documents about Afghanistan and Iraq.

Which is of course why state news agency RIA and Kommersant both reported it on the same day! Not to mention that describing the Western media’s (largely negative) response to Wikileaks in such glowing terms can only be ironic…

And this is one example from literally thousands. Again, I can’t be emphasize just how annoyingly repetitive and willfully ignorant the Western media tends to be on their Russian counterparts).

Right-wing political analysts in the US and Russia like to predict each other’s collapse. For instance, in its global forecasts, the CIA has repeatedly predicted the breakup of the Russian Federation into its constituent ethnic parts and demographic takeover by Muslims within the next few decades. Meanwhile, some analysts linked to Russia’s intelligence community, such as Igor Panarin, have predicted the breakup of the US, and the annexation of its southern borderlands by Mexico. Needless to say, they should all be writing sci-fi novels.

The final three Russian publications of note are RIA Novosti (a state-owned international news agency but liberal leaning); The Moscow Times (an independent publication for Western expats in Russia that is full of liberal sensationalism); and Inosmi (a site that translates Western news items, mostly about Russia, into Russian for a patriot-leaning audience that then proceeds to discuss them or mock them).

Both Russia and especially the US have rich blogospheres, which are in some cases threatening to supplant the centuries-old dominance of the mainstream media altogether.

Internet Culture

Internet penetration is near universal in the US and the UK. It is also near universal amongst younger Russians, although this has only come about in the last few years. The fastest Internet is on the East Coast, followed by the West Coast including California, followed by the UK, followed by Russia. Stuff like Internet businesses and Internet shopping remains the most developed in the US, less developed in the UK, and far less developed (but growing very fast) in Russia. Also, it is typical for cafes and other public places to have access to Wifi in the US; this is still very rare in both the UK and Russia.

xkcd Americans are an opinionated people, hence the richness, variety and zaniness of its blogosphere. Every Joe wants a say. While the majority aren’t worth listening to, nonetheless, practically every subject under the sun has at least one very knowledgeable pundit plugging away at the keyboard: North Korea watchers; Arctic aficionados; Afghan tribe trackers; peak oil theorists; etc. The most fascinating fact is that many of these people don’t even work in universities, think-tanks, governments, corporate research, etc.; they are amateur enthusiasts whose works blow away those of the self-proclaimed experts.

Another aspect of the American blogosphere is that at its heights, it has begun to merge into the mainstream and traditional media. For instance, at the pinnacle, it is unclear whether The Huffington Post is even a blog or a news site. Like the American body politic, the blogosphere is rife with “culture wars”; some of the biggest battalions marshal at the blog of Matt Yglesias (the liberals) and Michelle Malkin (the conservatives). Generally, I think there are far more conservatives at the nuttier ends of the spectrum than liberals, though certainly there are also many liberals who veer from well-meaning criticism of US policies to Americanophobia. Other wars and sub-wars carry on in the dark depths of cyberspace. I’m well acquainted with three.

The “Russophiles” vs. “Russophobes” (encountered when I first started blogging, though fortunately in more recent years the Russia debate has largely transcended these simplistic categories). The “deniers” vs. “warmists” is a huge war between those who accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming and those who deny it. And the “doomers” vs. the “cornucopians”, which I encountered when I took an interest in concepts like peak oil and the technological singularity; roughly, the former think civilization will soon collapse and we’ll die out, while the latter believe – just as absurdly – that the Earth can sustain unlimited (economic, demographic, etc.) growth.

A putztriot's dream.

A putztriot’s dream.

The main culture war in Russia is fought on multiple fronts (as opposed to liberals vs. conservatives in the US). You have the “patriots” (generally like Putin; skeptical towards Western intentions; sometimes steer into nationalism; called “putztriots” by their liberal detractors); the liberals (most love the West, and especially the US, unconditionally; blind hatred of Putin; accused of sucking up to the West; are called “liberasts” or by their patriot detractors, and are said to belong to “demschiza“, i.e. pseudo-democratic schizophrenics); the Communists (love socialism, and frequently Stalin; nostalgia for USSR; many dislike Putin regime for tolerating oligarchs and parasites; called “kommunyaks” and “sovoks” by liberals and some patriots); the foshists (the fascists – liberals tend to think patriots are all fascists, and at times the line can be blurry; nonetheless, there are real and significant differences, namely that patriots aren’t racist, while fascists hate the Putin regime for allowing Russia to be “polluted” by Jews, Caucasians, etc.); and Kremlin supporters (called the “kremlyad” and “Putinoids” by detractors; most often by liberals and fascists, but anti-Kremlin patriots and Communists have been known to use it too).

All groups criticize de rmoktariya (lit., “shit democracy”), but it means different things for everyone. For Kremlin supporters and most patriots, it primarily refers to the perceived sham democracy of the 1990′s (as opposed to the “sovereign democracy” of today); for liberals, it refers to the current system (as opposed to the 1990′s Golden Age of freedom); for many Communists, it refers to the post-Soviet system in general; and the fascists equate all democracy with dermoktariya.

Across the entirety of “Runet”, i.e. the Russian Internet, I would estimate that of the politically inclined: 50% are patriots; 30% are Kremlin supporters; 20% are Communists; 20% are liberals; 10% are fascists. These groups overlap extensively (see below).

A liberast's dream.

A liberast’s dream.

The most loathed group are the radical liberals, the ones who hate Russia; faced by them, the patriots, Communists and Kremlin supporters tend to unite to suppress them on the political message boards or LiveJournal blogs. But frequently, a patriot or a Communist would mock a Kremlin supporter, because, say, the former doesn’t like the Kremlin’s corruption or perceived tolerance for illegal immigration, and the latter doesn’t like inequality, corruption, crime, etc., and all the other things they think were better in the good old Soviet days. Interestingly, your typical patriot and Communist is actually more anti-Western than the straight-laced Kremlin supporters.

Eddie Limonov: "We will need children from the new people... Permit polygamy, free associations. Women should get pregnant continuously and to bear fruits... Education will become short and will be different. Boys and girls will be taught to shoot from grenade throwers, to jump from helicopters, to besiege villages and cities, to skin sheep and pigs, to cook good hot food and to write poetry."

Eddie Limonov: “We will need children from the new people… Permit polygamy, free associations. Women should get pregnant continuously and to bear fruits… Education will become short and will be different. Boys and girls will be taught to shoot from grenade throwers, to jump from helicopters, to besiege villages and cities, to skin sheep and pigs, to cook good hot food and to write poetry.”

There is also a lot of overlap between groups. Most patriots, and many Communists, and even a few liberals, do actually support the Kremlin (note that the Kremlin itself is divided between “patriots”, and the patriot-liberals clustered around President Medvedev). Other, more marginalized, chimeras include liberal nationalists (pro-Western, but with ethnic Russian nationalist leanings; the most prominent such is Alexei Navalny, mentioned in the first part of this series); Communists with liberal leanings, who would be social democrats or greens in Europe; and nationalist Communists, such as the wacky National Bolsheviks (their leader, Eduard Limonov, is an especially colorful character: a playboy émigré who returned to Russia in the 1990′s to preach a weird synthesis of Nazism and Stalinism, he was imprisoned for plotting a revolution in Kazakhstan; since then, he has joined forces with the liberals against the Kremlin, which is ironic to say the least since those same liberals would be first up against the wall in the fantastical scenario that the NatsBols ever come to power).

Throughout the blogosphere, these culture wars are characterized by rudeness, extremism, censorship, etc., on all sides, including those who call themselves liberals or democrats and pretend to worship free speech. Fun anecdote: the Russian liberals frequently accused their opponents of using “web brigades” – bands of Kremlin-paid commentators posting under changing usernames – to defeat them on Internet discussions. So unfair! So what do some of them decide to do? They created web brigades of their own to attack the “bloody regime” and its defenders! That is, until the plot was revealed by a disillusioned insider. While this liberal web brigade operated, it succeeded at influencing the outcomes of practically zero discussions. Ironically, their greatest victory was to prove the infeasbility and uselessness of “web brigades” – be they liberal, Kremlin, or Martian – in the first place.

To a large extent, the British blogosphere is tied up with the American one, due to the common language.

The Anglo-Saxon blogosphere mostly uses blog platforms like WordPress (excellent) and Google Blogger (mediocre). Most Russians use LiveJournal – which is far more profiteering, restrictive, and generally crappy – for no good reason I can see.

Google dominates search engines in both the US and the UK. In Russia, a viable competitor to Google (in its own country, not abroad) has emerged in the form of Yandex. The premier online shopping hub in the US and UK is Amazon; in Russia, it is Ozon. The social network of choice for the British and American middle class is Facebook (the best network). The lower classes use MySpace (pretty crappy), though many of them have began migrating to Facebook in recent years. The Russia network of choice used to be Odnoklassniki (which is pretty crappy), but the more advanced elements have switched to Vkontakte (a substandard copy of Facebook, even down to the color scheme); however, Facebook is growing very fast, albeit from a very low base. Twitter remains largely dominated by Americans.


One common stereotype is that Russia is much more corrupt than the US or the UK. This is true for small scale corruption. Slipping in a bill – or a bottle of cognac for male, a box of chocolates for female bureaucrats – will tend to enhance your chances of getting a driving license, getting documents processed faster, having a ticket written off by the traffic policeman, etc. That said, corruption is certainly far from ubiquitous and it is almost always possible to have everything go through legal channels. The small scale corruption is now in retreat, as bureaucrats are becoming subject to more stringent checks and controls; the result is that with increased risk, the size of the average bribe has nearly doubled in the last few years. According to various opinion polls, 15% of Russians say they paid a bribe in the past year, compared to about 2% of both Britons and Americans.

In my view, the main reason that lower-level corruption is far more prevalent in Russia than in the developed West is that the cost/benefits are more skewed in corruption’s favor, due to lower salaries, far more red tape, and weaker anti-corruption mechanisms. For instance, no California policeman is going to risk his cushy, full-benefits, $60,000 job even for big bribes from motorists. Consequently, as a rule, mostly it is billionaires or very rich people who can enjoy the benefits of corruption in the US or Britain, e.g. the billionaire pedophile / sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein who got a one year home arrest (and free to leave for work 16 hours per day!) for what would usually be a 20 year mandatory minimum sentence. In Russia, similar privileges are available for mere millionaires and regional political bigwigs, e.g. Ludmila Shavenkova, daughter of a United Russia deputy in Irkutsk guilty of vehicular manslaughter, got a 2.5 year sentence but only due to start in 14 years – by which time she would most likely have been quietly acquitted… And even that symbolic sentence was only imposed after a big citizen outcry.

I used to believe that corruption at the higher levels of government and business was also far more prevalent in Russia, but the financial crisis – and the cozy ties between regulators, banks and politicians that it revealed, and the $100′s billions that well-connected financial institutions received in bailouts from the US and UK governments – has made me reconsider. While there can be little doubt that Russian elites sock away a lot of money to offshore havens – e.g., state pipeline operator Transneft was recently discovered (by Navalny) to have socked away $4 billion through an elaborate network of shell companies and offshore havens – at least they do it far more discretely now than in the 1990′s, when the graft was visibly, even proudly, in the open.

In stark contrast, the rot at the heart of the Western economies has become increasingly evident since 2008 and the bailouts, which unleashed a cascade of corruption in which trillions of dollars of free credit were unaccountably transferred from American taxpayers to rich individuals and corporations, which in turn lent the money back to the government at (higher) market rates. The difference is the billionaires’ subsidy. As in Russia, most of what we know of corruption at the highest levels comes not from the traditional media, which is beholden to the power elites, but investigative reporters working for smaller “alternate” publications, such as Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone. Similar financial shenanigans have also become prevalent in the UK.

One major difference between corruption in Russia and the US is that in the latter, much of it is “legalized corruption”; i.e., what would count as corruption in Russia (and in European countries in general) goes as a matter of course in the US. Some examples of this “legalized corruption”:

  • Politicians receive the bulk of their money from corporations. Lobbying is not only a legal but an integral part of US political life. Corporations enjoy individual rights, such as freedom of speech (though not so much their detractors, who can be sued for libel), and under the Obama Presidency, the Supreme Court has removed limits to corporate funding of political campaigns. Much of what passes for lobbying in the US would invite criminal investigations in Europe.
  • Government regulators not only enjoy good relations with institutions they’re supposed to regulate, but a “resolving doors” culture means that every few years they actually swap places! E.g., the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) that is supposed to investigate suspected Wall Street fraudsters is actually more interested in protecting them.
  • Symbiotic relations between private prison companies and the justice system; between pharmaceutical companies and doctors; advertisers and the news media; the privatized anti-terrorism sector and the politicians at the money spigots.
  • Plea bargaining is a central element of the justice system; threats, rewards and coercion from the side of the prosecutors can steer results from the just legal outcome, as innocents are frequently tempted to settle for a lighter term in exchange for not running the risk of incurring a very heavy one.

Overall, corruption is far less prevalent in the UK, at least outside the financial sector. There is a long and ongoing scandal about M.P.’s expenses, in which politicians tabbed expenses unrelated to their work such as buying cars or redecorating apartments. But what stands out about them is that ultimately, the sums involved, going no higher than the $100,000′s, are really pretty modest by Russian standards, where typical political corruption scandals can run into the millions, tens of millions, and higher.

The most well-known corruption index is the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) compiled by Transparency International, in which for 2010 the UK gets 7.6, the US gets 7.1, and Russia gets 2.1. The main problem with it is that it is not a measure of corruption per se, but of corruption perceptions; those who do the perceiving are mostly various Western experts and businesspeople; not only do they rely on the Western media extremely negative coverage of Russia, but as covered in the documentary film Inside Job, many of these same experts and businesspeople enable or even participate in corruption in their own countries!

I do not think Russia’s score, wedged in between Zimbabwe (2.2) and Equatorial Guinea (1.8), reflects its real level of corruption. While no-one disputes corruption is extremely prevalent in Russia, it does provide social services – in some sectors, like education, relatively good ones – to its population, and is surely far from those kleptocracies on any objective corruption scale. In fact there are a lot of other, similar absurdities in the CPI: for instance, Saudi Arabia – where most oil rents flow to a few thousand members of the House of Saud – is apparently cleaner than Italy, which is just WTF? See this comments thread for a critique of CPI’s methodology.

I think a fairer index is the Global Integrity Report, which actually analyzes the specific policies and laws rather than relying on something as fluffy as perceptions. My own ranking would go, from least corrupt to most, something like: (Sweden) – UK / (Germany) – USA / (Italy / Belarus / 1980′s USSR) – Russia / (Greece) – (Ukraine / Mexico) – (Saudi Arabia / Nigeria) – (Equatorial Guinea / Congo / Somalia).

One aspect of corruption in which Russia may perform better than the US and the UK is in tax compliance by big corporations (though not small ones, in which under the table payments remain widespread). Simplified tax laws since 2000 have created more incentives to pay up, while the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – widely condemned in the Western media – has made many big businessmen too afraid of using tax havens for tax avoidance. Tax collection has risen from around 50% of the expected take in the 1990′s to 90% by the mid-2000′s. Tax avoidance by big companies in Britain and the US seems to have become endemic in recent years, to the extent that a grassroots organization called Uncut has arisen to protest and harass them.

The Environment

At the popular level, only about half of Britons believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW); especially after the Climategate (non-)scandal. That said, environmental consciousness is undoubtedly most developed in Britain (if nowhere near the extent in Germany or Scandinavia). At least, one Green Party M.P. got elected in the last elections; whereas both US and Russian green parties are extremely marginal in the political process, and their activists are widely vilified.

On the plus side, Russia does not have the idiotic, ideologized AGW denialism that has taken over one of the main US parties, the Republicans. That far north, the effects of global warming are clear – especially after the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010, in which a third of its grain crop was destroyed – and the only real question is about whether it should actually do much about it. After all, theoretically, a moderate degree of global warming would actually benefit Russia, by opening up agricultural lands in the north, clearing the Northern Sea Route, and making remote resources exploitable for the first time. However, there is a sizable number of people who view global warming as a natural climatic cycle (including Putin); many others, as in Canada, argue that even if it’s caused by humans, it would nonetheless be a positive development for the country, and that it should just bask in the sun and let the warming take its course.

Many Russians and Americans tend to assume the “cornucopian” view that there are few, if any, limits to growth on the planet. Though it is fast gaining political acceptance in Europe (including Britain), peak oil remains a fringe theory in the US (with the exception of California, which has a lot of unconventional thinkers, and survivalists), while Russia has many proponents of the theory of abiogenic petroleum origin, which holds that oil is created by constant geological processes, instead of biological processes in the distant past. As a high-density country that imports most of its energy and mineral resources, Britain is understandably far more concerned about the possibility that oil supplies won’t last forever.

The Military

Americans view their military very positively; in fact, the Armed Forces are the single most trusted institution in US life. To its fiscal woe, cutting the military budget – in nominal terms, almost as big as the rest of the world’s combined – is as unthinkable for Democrats as it is for conservative Republicans. This is despite the fact that military procurement is one of the most inefficient (and probably corrupt) sectors of the US economy. Seemingly innocuous gestures, such as arguing for cuts to the military, or questioning whether the US is over-reliant on military power in its dealings with the rest of the world, can get one labeled as unpatriotic; suggesting that the US may be repeating the mistakes of the USSR, which massively over-invested in military spending to the detriment of its civilian economy, can bring on apoplexy.

The British view their military positively, but without the overbearing reverence more typical of Americans. This means that defense cuts are politically feasible, and are indeed now being carried out by the Conservatives (if in a rather slapdash and incompetent way, as with most of their other policies). Their end result is that within a decade, the UK will cease to be a leading military Power. Instead, more resources are planned to be allocated to foreign aid for unstable countries such as Pakistan; it is clear that the plan is to put more emphasis on “soft power”.

I have already covered Russians’ views on the military in the first part of the series, in which I talked about conscription. As with the US and the UK, though the military is viewed positively, opinions are split about the desirability of conscription and there is some doubt about its ability to defend the country. This is in part a result of two decades of degradation, of both the military and the military-industrial complex, after the fall of the Soviet Union. There is a huge rearmament plan in the works for the 2011-2020 period that the Kremlin hopes will decisively reverse these negative trends, and assuming oil prices stay high, it should be affordable too.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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In a recent post at Streetwise Professor, in reply to a Russophobe commentator, democracy activist* and net-buddy Mark Sleboda compiled a damning indictment of the real state of Western freedom. Newsflash: for the world’s (self-appointed) moral arbitrators, it’s nothing to write home about! It’s well worth reading, which is why I’m reprinting it here with his permission.

… Andrew you cherry-picked the one single example of Western pre-emptive arrests of protesters out of those that I have previously provided where the police in the UK have at least gone to the trouble of making false accusations and spread misinformation in order to provide justification for their crackdowns on peaceful protesters (UK, EU, USA 1, 2).

Here is an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, discussing such manufactured police false-flag operations against peaceful climate change protests (1). The police harassment and false statements about peaceful climate protesters in the UK has been well documented. Here is the “equipment” that the police confiscated and were using as false justification for harassment and arrests of climate protesters at the Kingsnorth protest previously mentioned (2, 3). And here is the damages the police were eventually forced to pay for their harassment a in a rare victory in the courts (4).

However, even where police violence against protesters has resulted in deaths, like Ian Tomlinson, the police have routinely used internal tribunals to “investigate themselves” and thereby gotten away without any punishment or cost. The system and society look the other way

This unfortunately has become standard practice in the UK where the police system has redefined all protesters as “domestic extremists”, as the political consensus over climate change caused by consumer capitalism is starting to collapse. This follows a discernable trend in the West where protests involving the Western conception of liberal rights is usually tolerated, but any protests that challenge the dominant socio-economic paradigm (such as climate change protests) or question capitalism and its externalities (such as the G-8/G-20/WTO protests) is often harassed or brutally suppressed (5, 6).

Police have even established units for routine police spying and infiltration of environmental protest groups. Britain has become an Orwellian police state with Big Brother video surveillance on every corner, and where all political dissent against the socio-economic status quo is suppressed. Much like the US that has established a police state that spies on peace groups that dare to protest against America’s aggressive imperialist wars (7, 8, 9).

Police brutality towards peaceful climate and ant-capitalist protesters has become the standard in the UK. You can watch for yourself (10, 11). The same is evident in the US (12). In Canada police have even been repeatedly caught infiltrating peaceful protest groups with agents acting as provocateurs to start violence and riots in order to provide justification for cracking down on protests (13). Even during protests against the Olympics! But even when official ethics investigations are conducted nothing is done and the mainstream media largely ignores it.

That is because in the West we have constructed a false and comforting narrative about “freedom” and “democracy” in our societies. We have come to believe this myth at all levels of our society from the government to the media and the general public, so that even in the face of direct contradiction the totalitarianism becomes self-propagating.

*** If you watch one piece of evidence I have provided here to justify my accusations about rhetorical hypocrisy of the West towards the orchestrated Strategy 31 protests in Russia – watch this one. This video shows the true face of protests and “freedom of assembly” in the West – at the Copenhagen Climate Conference of which all of the world’s leaders attended. I can attest because I was there – as an official delegate inside the conference, and then when it became obvious that the world’s leaders would do nothing except presenting a desperate face-saving measure instead of taking any substantive action to change our unsustainable consumption-based capitalist economies that are destroying our planet in a hurry – I and many other delegates walked out and joined the protesters on the street. This is what we saw – and as cynical as I am, I was shocked and mortified at the level of stormtrooper-like violence used by Western police against peacefully protesting youth in order to enforce the existing political and economic consensus. ***

This is a personal concern for me as I have been an occasional protester in the US, UK, EU, Canada, and Russia, mostly concerning climate change issues and I can tell you that the country with the most civil treatment towards legal and peaceful protesters is, surprisingly, Russia. The police in Russia are doing nothing of this sort of sustained and systematic brutality against peaceful protesters. If they were – it would be all over the world’s press in an instant. But when it happens in our own Western countries – the mainstream media looks the other way and ignores it. It is a double standard in a Self/Other dialectic defining Russians as the Other for the purposes of continuing our self-deception about the nature of our societies and governments.

The police violence and harassment at the protests that I have shown – including the last one at Copenhagen was at legally sanctioned and registered protests. The Strategy 31 protests were civilly broken up by police because they were protesting illegally without permit. They were issued permits to protest at other locations in downtown Moscow every time – but they refuse them. Why? It is because protesting is not their aim. Provocation is. Their acts are not directed at Russian society where they have no support (The Russian liberals have an ill-disguised loathing for the Russian people as a whole because they are not “Western” enough for them) but at the Western press.

That is why the protests draw a hundred or two hundred protests at most – and twice as many foreign journalists and camera’s to cover it and observe the Russian police arresting the liberal celebrity ringleaders. There is no “torture” involved against protesters in Russia. This is an utterly false accusation without any evidence to back it up. The liberals would be crying all over the Western press in a second if it were so. The Strategy 31 protests in Russia are a staged spectacle – and those that they have detained have been released every time after only a couple of hours and been home safe in bed in time for milk and cookies.

There is also the fact that the handful of perennial liberals in Russia, now rebranded as Strategy 31, are protesting for some senseless reason alongside Eduard Limonov – presumably because the National Bolsheviks are capable of drawing more support and protesters (no matter how miniscule that is) onto the streets than themselves. The National Bolsheviks are a very real violent terrorist and anarchist group; Limonov having done prison time for admittedly trying to start a Nationalist Russian military insurrection in Kazakhstan. The National Bolshevik anarchists have been responsible for repeated violent and destructive actions. So in Russia, the police actually have reason to be cautious with Strategy 31 as long as the National Bolsheviks are involved.

* EDIT: An accidental misrepresentation on my part: see Mark’s comment on his political convictions.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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.