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What everyone thinks the Russian Empire was like.

Tsarist Russia was this superstitious land of icons and cockroaches with Cossacks on thot patrol with nagaikas in hand – and it was absolutely horrific!” – Liberals, Marxists.

Tsarist Russia was this superstitious land of icons and cockroaches with Cossacks on thot patrol with nagaikas in hand – and it was absolutely great!” – Neoreactionaries.

Reality: It was in many respects socially liberal even by the standards of Western Europe.


Yes, Stolypin’s neckties and all that. What Communist propagandists don’t like to mention as much is that just during the three years 1904-1907 some 4,500 Tsarist officials were murdered by what would today be classified as Far Left terrorist groups. In contrast, there were just 6,321 executions from 1825 to 1917. This is basically a rounding error by the standards of the Bolsheviks’ multicultural Coalition of the Fringes, including during their “progressive” Trotskyist phase that Western leftist academics and journalists love to laud so much. It doesn’t even compare unfavorably with the 16,000 or so executions in the US since 1700.

The Okhrana secret policy only numbered one thousand in 1900 in an empire of 150 million – it was a little baby relative to the Cheka. Exiles to Siberia essentially took the form of holidays that the “inmates” could cancel at will. Dzhugashvili (Stalin) “escaped” from Siberia around seven or nine times.


Stalin enjoying the Siberian sunshine.

All forms of corporal punishment were abolished in 1904, ahead of the UK and the US. Despite modern Russia’s 70 year legacy of official atheism, the irony is that Pussy Riot would have spent a maximum of three months in jail under blasphemy laws in the Russian Empire (had they gone to prison at all).

Really, if anything, the Russian Empire had become too progressive, too liberal, too humane for its own good. It was doomed by its own kindness and decency to aspiring Pol Pots. A few contemporary equivalents of free helicopter rides or just stronger enforcement of normal treason laws would have done so much good in 1917.

Social Progressivism

Access to higher education was actually more meritocratic in the late Empire than in contemporary Germany or France by a factor of 2-3x.

Women constituted about a third of Russia’s total numbers of university students, a far larger percentage than in any other European country – and Russia by 1913 had the largest number of university students in Europe (127,000 to 80,000 in Germany, around 40,000 in France and Austria each). Likewise, they constituted an absolute majority in grammar schools, many decades ahead most of the rest of Europe. In 1915, restrictions on co-ed education were dropped across a range of Russian universities by decision of the Tsar and his Council of Ministers.


British suffragettes? Russia raises you a Women’s Batallion of Death.


Fully half of the four mosques in Moscow were constructed under late Tsarism (including the biggest one that nationalist critics of Putin like to harp on about; he merely restored it). The other Moscow mosques include the historical Old Mosque (constructed in 1823), the Moscow Memorial Mosque (more of a war monument than a place of worship), and one that is part of a complex of religious buildings that also includes a Buddhist stuppa (so not really so much of a mosque as a political monument).

Of Saint-Petersburg’s three mosques, by far the most impressive, with capacity for 5,000 worshippers, was opened in 1913. One of them is actually more of a room than a mosque, being part of the Dagestan Cultural Center.


The Russian bobos and aristos of the late Empire loved their tattoes.


Here’s Nicky’s.

Here’s a Russian conservative in 1909 lamenting Social Decline (TM) in the Vekhi:

The vast majority of our children enter university having lost their virginity. Who of us doesn’t know that in the senior classes of the gymnasiums there is hardly a boy to be a found who has yet to be acquainted with a maid, or a brothel

Even in France, which is associated in our minds with all sorts of sexual degeneracies, even there, in that land of the southern sun and frivolous literature, there isn’t this prevalence of “fast-ripening fruits” as in cold, northern Russia.

According to a survey of 967 students, of those who clarified their age at first sexual contact, 61% said not later than 17 years, and of them, 53 boys started it before 12 years, 152 – before 14 years.

This was reflected in the high culture of the late Empire: The Russian avant-garde, the first major penetration of post-modernism into traditional art.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring causes a scandalous sensation in Paris, not in Moscow or Saint-Petersburg.

Scriabin, the consummate bohémienne.


The Shukhov Tower.



He painted his stupid black square in 1915.

Really at this point one can almost sympathize with Mayakovsky:

“Eat your pineapples. Chew your grouse. Your last day is coming. You bourgeois louse.”

It need also be hardly pointed put at this point that the extreme social liberalism – legalization of homosexuality, abortion – and SJWism – abolition of university extrance exams – of the 1920s didn’t come out of a complete void. To the contrary, all this enjoyed the approval of some significant percentage of the Russian intelligentsia.

Stalin of course reversed this, and not only made university exams competitive again but reintroduced tuition fees. After murdering some significant percentage of the professors, and blanketing the country in a stiffling ideological orthodoxy for decades ahead that annulled any meaningful freedom of speech and relegated Russia to the margins of global culture to this day.

Russian Empire 2017

What would Russian culture have been like without the Communist occupation?

Probably a great deal more liberal, actually.

That said, one has to make allowance for the fact that the liberal-leftist strain in Russian cultural life was balanced by liberal-conservative and even a certain conservative-libertarian trend.

For instance, gun rights were very strong in the Russian Empire, unlike in the Soviet Union and its successor the Russian Federation.


Fin de siècle Chelyabinsk gunshop – remove the Cyrillic, and it might as well be in the Wild West.

There were also no shortage of conservative and nationalist pundits, who under a normal 20th century trajectory might have developed into US-style conservative talk radio.

Moreover, there are always cycles of social liberalism and social conservatism. To take the example of the US, you had liberalism in the 1920s, conservatism in the 1950s, liberalism in the 1970s, conservatism in the 1980s, liberalism again now – Russia was evidently in a liberal phase during the waning years of the Empire and the 1920s, but this doesn’t mean it would have stayed that way indefinitely. A moderate correction would have been expected by analogy with any other country on a normal development trajectory.

One would also have to account for there being less American influence – Russian (and European) culture would itself have been far stronger, not having undergone a ruinous World War and the stiffling effects of the twin totalitarianisms of Nazism and Stalinism. For that matter, Nazism itself is a significant – if not altogether crucial – component in Europe’s guilt complex, that would have been exceedingly unlikely to arise in the absence of the Red Menace in the early 1930s.

So overall, it doesn’t seem unlikely that Russia would have been in the European mainstream in terms of social attitudes – but that that same European mainstream would be far less “cucked” than it is today.

One undoubtedly negative aspect of the Russian Empire (from a conservative/traditionalist viewpoint) would have been the likely absence of a propiska system regulating internal migration within a surviving Russian Empire, so we can expect there to have been far more Central Asian immigrants to the Russian heartlands – especially since Russia would have been far wealthier without central planning (though their percentage of the population would have been diluted by the Russification of Belorussia and most of Ukraine, as well as a ~30% larger total ethnic Slavic population).

However, it’s not very clear that even this “silver lining” from the Soviet period is of any value. The Putin regime has in recent years made it increasingly clear that it sees Russia’s future in tight integration with Central Asia; just the other day, a Kremlin-linked think-tank released a report advocating an increase in pro-immigration propaganda and the introduction of administrative liability for politicians and bureaucrats who “feed false numbers to the media about immigrants” and “mention ethnic crime.”

So in all likelihood Russia will end up getting the worst of both worlds anyway.

• Category: History • Tags: Feminism, History, Liberalism, Tsarist Russia 
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In a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center, Leonid Brezhnev was revealed to be Russians’ favorite ruler of the 20th century. Do you see his era as a Golden Age, or as a zastoi?

Russian Attitudes to Former Heads of State


(Republished from Russian Spectrum by permission of author or representative)
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In one of the most scandalous op-eds of the year, KP’s Ulyana Skoybeda takes the liberal Leonid Gozman to task for equating SMERSH with the SS. The original byline was later toned down, and the author offered a partial – and some insist, halfhearted – apology.

The Politician Leonid Gozman Says: “A Nice Uniform is the Sole Difference between the SS and SMERSH.”

At times, one regrets that the Nazis didn’t make lampshades out of the ancestors of today’s liberals – there’d be fewer problems. Liberals are revising history so as to knock the rug out from under our country’s feet.

“The federal channels are releasing a new serial about the war. On the roles of the SS. Our heroes aren’t the butchers of Auschwitz; they are not sadists or rapists… In the terrible meat-grinder of war, they honestly fight the enemy, performing deeds of great bravery, and self-sacrifice on behalf of their comrades. Many of them die, but they die with honor…

I made all this up, of course. Sorry. A film like that will never be shown on our screens. Likewise in Germany – even those Germans born many years after that nightmare are still ashamed of the SS uniform.

But in the past few days of Victory celebration, our screens have played host to a serial about SMERSH. They did not have handsome uniforms, but that is their only significant distinction from the SS.”

This post was published yesterday by the prominent liberal Leonid Gozman at his blog on the radio station Echo of Moscow’s website. He surely chose the appropriate time to compare a combat unit of Soviet military counterintelligence with the armed guardians of fascist concentration camps. Not just to compare them, in fact, but to equate them.

He must have waited for the moment, in all likelihood. So as to make it sting all the more.

You can just about imagine what started going down in the Internet.

Heated arguments and fights at Echo of Moscow and dozens of other sites. Blood, dirt, the gnashing of teeth.

I will advance one of the most representative discussions.

“SMERSH’s task was to catch saboteurs,” say a few outraged commentators. “The SS, on the other hand, was the chief organizer of terror and the destruction of peoples on racial criteria. How could you possible compare them?”

Then a liberal – not Gozman, but close enough – entered the discussion, and started bloviating. That during the war years, military tribunals convicted more than 994,000 Soviet soldiers, out of whom 157,500 were shot – that’s twenty times higher than the Nazi figure. That SMERSH operatives put soldiers up against the wall just for picking German propaganda leaflets off the ground, praising Germany weaponry, or phrases of the following sort, “No, we can never seize this hill, we’ll get destroyed by machine gun fire,” which were equated to spreading panic. That SMERSH and the NKVD were, for all intents and purposes, also killing squads just like the SS.

At which point the other commentators exclaimed, “Don’t compare them! The SS was an occult, anti-human organization. We personally know people, who exhumed corpses with skulls that had been drilled into; the SS had been searching for a “third eye” there, or something…”

The liberal: “Calm down, the NKVD also carried out medical experiments on people, and was also an anti-human organization, if not an occult one. Besides, it’s not like ordinary Waffen-SS soldiers did occultism or drilled into skulls, did they? Were they not, like, defending the Vaterland?”

The other users groaned, “Sure, they defended the Vaterland – at Smolensk?!” and proceeded to state the obvious: That the SS were enemy troops who had attacked us, and we were defending ourselves. And that is the essence of the difference!

The liberal: “You consider a soldier to be a criminal just because he’s participating in an unjust war of conquest? If so, then Soviet soldiers were criminals too. If not, then German soldiers weren’t criminals either. Russians were defenders in 1941, but aggressors in 1939 – not to mention interventionists in 1968, and once again aggressors in 1979.”

And moreover, it’s not like we can have any pretensions to military honor; everybody knows that we began the war allied with Hitler. And didn’t we steal the Brest Fortress, which we defended so heroically in June 1941, from the Poles?

“Ah…” rebutted the commentators, laying out their last, and ostensibly rock-solid, argument, “Wasn’t the SS recognized as a criminal organization in the Nuremberg Trials? And the NKVD – wasn’t!”

“The NKVD is a criminal, terrorist organization,” the liberal ambushed them. “The Nuremberg Trials were illegitimate, because it was a case of the victors judging the defeated…”

Well, how do you like that, hum? Beautiful, no? The liberal, crushingly victorious…

So here’s the liberal ditty, from the emigre Mikhail Berg to Leonid Gozman: Stalin is equal to Hitler, maybe even worse (he killed more people); Communism is equal to fascism, SMERSH – to the Waffen-SS. There is nothing to celebrate, and nothing to be proud of. The Nuremberg Trials were illegitimate. It would have been better if the Germans had won (the last claim, by the way, was proudly made by Berg, an ethnic Jew).

But I have an answer for the liberals. The Soviet Union was not equivalent to Hitler’s Germany by simple right of conquest. However the war started, and however it was fought, the fact remains that we won – and that will establish our own rules. We established them in 1945, to be precise. They do not require any revisions.

The main question concerns something else. Why do the liberals require historical revisions? Why do they insist on knocking the rug out from under our country’s feet? Why do they reevaluate and spit on everything tied to the war – that is, the most sacred thing remaining to people who lived past the collapse of the Soviet Union? Why do the Gozmans wish to lead us away from Victory into loserhood, worthlessness, and inferiority?

This question was best answered by the publicist Olga Tukhanina. “You know how the psychologist Levi put it? Nobody ever just walks up to you in an alley and suddenly starts beating you. The victim should first be put into the role of a victim. Hence, questions of the type, “Hey, can I borrow a fag? What’s the time?” And now we’re getting asked the same question: “Hey, what are we celebrating? How many died?”

Russia is being put into the role of a victim.

And you know, that means the activities of these liberals are nothing short of… subversion. Sabotage.

What are our intelligence services waiting for? They don’t want to recall SMERSH’s experience?

Reader comments

Правдоруб: The beginning is good… promising. I’m talking of the lampshades and “problems” – I haven’t bothered reading any further yet. But, knowing Skoybeda, I feel she won’t disappoint. Skoybeda, you are a nasty bitch, if you wrote this… It’s a pity that the Red Commissars, butchering the denizens of Ukrainian villagers, didn’t also butcher your ancestors. Maybe today’s journalism then would be a bit less repulsive than it actually is.

Константин Калинин: The liberals are losing and they are beginning to show their rotten, wolfish nature. Every liberal is a potential traitor to the Motherland, because they place individual interests above that of social interests. For them, their understanding of the Motherland is abstract; they are cosmopolitans by nature. As far as they are concerned, their Motherland is where they can more easily get fed, where they have access to more sorts of sausage. For them the interests of sexual minorities is higher than family values. As for Russia’s victory in 1941-45 this makes them totally mad and they are prepared to do all they can to smear this victory.

You can’t say it any better than Dostoevsky already did: “Russian liberalism is not an attack upon the existing order of things, but an attack upon the very essence of things themselves – indeed, on the things themselves; not an attack on the Russian order of things, but on Russia itself… Every misfortune and mishap of the country fills him with mirth, and even with ecstasy. He hates national customs, Russian history, everything… This hatred for Russia has been mistaken by some of our ‘Russian liberals’ for sincere love of their country, and they boast that they see better than their neighbors what real love of one’s country should consist in. But of late they have grown, more candid and are ashamed of the expression ‘love of country,’ and have annihilated the very spirit of the words as something injurious and petty and undignified.”

As far as I’m concerned, a liberal is worse and more dangerous than an SS man, because it’s clear that the latter is an enemy, and how to fight him. But the liberals act slyly. But as a result of their activities, Russia in the past 25 years has suffered twice as many losses as in the Great Patriotic War – both economic, and demographic, losses.

Alexey Peshemorehodov (replying to above): All this is banal, unoriginal. Along the lines of, “Today he listens to jazz, and tomorrow he will sell his country!” We’ve been through all this before…

Вадим Гасенко: I support Ulyana! Gozman, why don’t you go get lost somewhere?

(Republished from Russian Spectrum by permission of author or representative)
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Hard as it is to believe, but in the wake of the Boston Bombings, many Western commentators actively trying to find the roots of the Tsarnaev brothers’ rage in Russia’s “aggression” or even “genocide” of Chechnya.

This is not to deny that Chechens did not have an exceptionally hard time of it in the 1990s. That said, what strikes one is the pathological one-sidedness of some of the commentary, such as this vomit-inducing screed by Thor Halvorssen, a self-imagined human rights promoter from Norway. In their world, it is a simple morality tale of small, plucky Chechnya being repeatedly ravaged by the big, bad Russian imperialist – and it is one that many people, conditioned in appropriate ways for two decades by the Western media, swallow hook, line, and sinker.

It’s not that simple. But rather than (re)dredging up many words and sources, let’s just suffice with one of the most telling graphs on the matter: The population graph of Chechnya since 1989.


Some people are certainly getting ethnically cleansed there alright, but it’s not who you might think it is. So this, essentially, is what the Russian “genocide” of Chechens boils down to: 715,306 Chechens & 269,130 Russians in 1989; 1,206,551 Chechens & 24,382 Russians in 2010. Russians almost entirely gone from there, even though the lands north of the Terek River – that is, about a third of Chechnya – were first settled by Cossacks during the 16th century and had never been Chechen until the 20th century. Those Russians (and other minority ethnicities) were terrorized out of Chechnya during the rule of “moderate nationalists” Maskhadov and Zakayev, whom the likes of Halvorssen describe as the “legitimate government of Chechnya,” with several thousand of them murdered outright. This ethnic cleansing continued unimpeded into the 2000s with the complicit silence of the “nationalist” Putin regime.

I really wish all the (non-Chechen) “Free Chechnya!” people could be reborn as minorities in 1990′s Chechnya in their next lives so that the likes of Halvorssen can experience firsthand the extent to which Chechens “share the democratic values of a Western civilization.”

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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It’s no real secret that many Russians have a positive impression of Stalin; it was 49% in February 2013, insignificantly down from 53% in 2003. (This is not a view that I share). There are probably a few big reasons for this: (1) The mistaken notion that without him Russia would have remained in the age of plows, not rockets; (2) The relatively low corruption and perceived social justice in that time; (3) His role in securing victory in WW2, the latter of which carried away far, far more Russian lives than Stalinist repressions; (4) Last but not least, the liberal-promoted defamation of Stalin and associated efforts to equalize the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany; this is deeply repugnant to the majority of Russians – especially as while the majority did have someone die or go MIA in their families during 1941-45, many fewer had relatives sent to the Gulag for political crimes let alone shot – and as such there was a regrettable but entirely understandable angry reaction to such slanders in the 2000s.

What it is almost certainly not, however, is part and parcel of some “neo-Soviet revanchism” that seeks to forcibly reincorporate former territories into Russia (Russian nationalism today is primarily of the contemporary European kind that seeks to limit immigration in its moderate form, and expel ethnic minorities in its radical form). It’s certainly not because of some Putin imposed blackout on discussions of Stalin’s crimes; only retards who read neocon media would believe that. Nor is it something that is specific to Russians and the long-abused meme of their “yearning for a strong hand“. Because according to Levada polls, pro-Stalin sentiment in “democratic Georgia” is actually substantially higher than in Russia.

Russia Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia
Positive emotions 28 21 30 49
Negative emotions 23 37 35 19
+/- Ratio 1.2 0.57 0.86 2.6
Indifferent emotions 50 43 36 33

The table above shows the sum of positive emotions (adulation, respect, sympathy), negative emotions (dislike, fear, repugnance, hatred), and indifferent emotions (don’t know who was Stalin – 1% in Russia, 4% in Georgia, a remarkable 20% in Azerbaijan, refuse to answer) towards Stalin. Georgians have by far the most positive opinions towards him in net terms, and are also the least indifferent to him; while pro-Stalinists slightly outnumber anti-Stalinists in Russia, it also has the highest percentage of people who are indifferent to him.


“Stalin was a wise leader, who brought the USSR to greatness and prosperity” – 47% of Russians agree, 38% disagree; 69% of Georgians agree, 16% disagree.


“Stalin was a cruel and inhumane tyrant, guilty of the annihilation of millions of innocent people” – 66% of Russians agree, 20% disagree; 51% of Georgians agree, 26% disagree.


The strong hand theory: “Our people could never cope without a leader of Stalin’s calibre, who would come and restore order” – 30% of Russians agree, 52% disagree; 29% of Georgians agree, 47% disagree.


“Would you personally like to live and work under a national leader like Stalin?” – 18% of Russians want to, 67% don’t; 27% of Georgians want to, 60% don’t.


“Are the losses sustained by the Soviet peoples under Stalin justified by the great aims and results that were achieved in a short time period?” – 25% of Russians agree, 60% disagree; 28% of Georgians agree, 45% disagree.


Finally, a poll on how Ukrainians view Stalin: “Stalin was a great leader.” Not directly comparable with the polls in Russia and the Caucasus countries, but still, if you believe that Stalin was unequivocal ruin and evil, you are unlikely to say that he was a “great leader”; at the least, a positive answer implies some level of ambiguity. And as we can see a majority of Ukrainians in the east and south view him positively. Even from those from the center, who suffered most from the collectivization famines, more say he was a great leader than not. The only part of the country which definitely says he was not a “great leader” is the far west but of course it too has its own historical cockroaches.

Of course I have to stress that I don’t condemn Georgians for loving Stalin; the aim of this post is just to clear up some misconceptions that idiot Westerners have about how Russian Stalinophilia is somehow “exceptional” in the post-Soviet context and worthy of endless harping in the media. If I was a Georgian I too would probably love a countryman who administratively expanded the borders of Sakartvelo and subjugated those one hundred million Russkies up north under his heel. But it does also show the hilarious hypocrisy of Saakashvili who used to rant on about how Georgians are inherently more democratic-minded and historically responsible than Russians.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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My latest for the US-Russia Experts Panel and VoR.

In this latest Panel, Vlad Sobell asks us supposed Russia “experts” whether Freedom House’s “alarmist stance” towards Russia is justified. Well, what do YOU think? I don’t think you need to be an expert to answer this; it’s an elementary issue of common sense and face validity. Consider the following:

Freedom House gives Russia a 5.5/7 on its “freedom” score, in which 7 is totalitarianism (e.g. North Korea) and 1 is complete freedom (e.g. the post-NDAA US).

This would make Putin’s Russia about as “unfree” as the following polities, as we learn from Freedom House:

  • The United Arab Emirates, a “federation of seven absolute dynastic monarchs whose appointees make all legislative and executive decisions”… where there are “no political parties” and court rulings are “subject to review by the political leadership” (quoting Daniel Treisman and Freedom House itself);
  • Bahrain, which recently shot up a ton of Shia demonstrators, and indefinitely arrested doctors for having the temerity to follow the Hippocratic oath and treat wounded protesters;
  • Any of the 1980’s “death-squad democracies” of Central America, in which tens of thousands of Communist sympathizers or just democracy supporters were forcibly disappeared;
  • The Argentinian junta, which “disappeared” tens of thousands of undesirables, some of whom were dropped from planes over the Atlantic Ocean;
  • Yemen, which lives under a strict interpretation of sharia law and where the sole candidate to the Presidency was elected with 100% of the vote in 2012 (which Hillary Clinton described as “another important step forward in their democratic transition process”).

Putin’s Russia is also, we are to believe, a lot more repressive than these polities:

  • South Korea in the 1980’s, a military dictatorship which carried out a massacre in Gwangju on the same scale as that of Tiananmen Square, for which China would be endlessly condemned;
  • Turkey, which bans YouTube from time to time, and today carries the dubious distinction of hosting more imprisoned journalists – 49 of them, according to the CPJ – than any other country, including Syria, Iran, and China. (Russia imprisons none).
  • Mexico under the PRI, which falsified elections throughout the years of its dominance to at least the same extent as United Russia.
  • Singapore, whose parliament makes the Duma look like a vibrant multiparty democracy and uses libel law to sue political opponents into bankruptcy. (In the meantime, Nemtsov is free to continue writing his screeds about Putin’s yachts and Swiss bank accounts).
  • Kuwait, where women only got the vote in 2005.

I’d say it’s pretty obvious that Freedom House has a definite bias which looks something like this: +1 points for being friendly with the West, -1 if not, and -2 if you also happen to have oil, and are thus in special urgent need of a color revolution. Then again, some call me a Kremlin troll, so you might be wiser to trust an organization that was until recently chaired by a former director of the CIA, an avowed neocon given to ranting about Russia’s backsliding into “fascism” among other things. If that’s the case you’re probably also the type who believes Iraq was 45 minutes away from launching WMD’s and that Islamist terrorists “hate us for our freedom.”

PS. If you want a reasonably accurate and well-researched political freedoms rating, check out the Polity IV series. Unfortunately, while it’s a thousand times better than Freedom House, it’s also about a thousand times less well-known.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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One of the standard memes about Russia’s demographic trajectory was the “Russian Cross.” While at the literal level it described the shape of the country’s birth rate and death rate trajectories, a major reason why it entered the discourse was surely because it also evoked the foreboding of the grave.


But this period now appears to have come to a definitive end. Russia’s population ceased falling around at about 2009; in the past year, it has increased by over 400,000 thanks to net immigration.

Meanwhile, against all general expectations, the birth rates and death rates have essentially equalized. Whereas in 2011 natural decrease was still at a substantial 131,000, preliminary figures indicate that it has subsided to a mere 2,573 for this year. It could just as easily turn positive once the figures are revised. For all intents and purposes, the “Russian Cross” has become the “Russian Hexagon.”


This is a momentous landmark in many ways.

(1) More than anything else, Russia’s demographic crisis during the past two decades has been advanced as a quintessential element of its decline. Phrases such as the aforementioned “Russian cross”, the “demographic death spiral”, and “”the dying bear” proliferated in respectable journals and books. Until a few years ago, some entirely serious demographic projections had Russia’s population falling to as low as 130 million by 2015. This “deathbed demography” imagery was in turn exploited by many journalists to implicit condemn the rottenness of the Russian state in general and Putin in particular. Will they now rush to trumpet Russia’s demographic recovery, which was only possible through directed state intervention to improve the population’s health, cut down on the alcohol epidemic, and provide generous benefits for families with second children? For some reason I suspect the amount of ink that will be spilt on this will be but a tiny, minuscule fraction of that used to herald Russia’s demographic apocalypse. They will predictably move on to other failures and inadequacies – both real or perceived.

(2) For many years there has existed the notion among some demographers that once a society’s total fertility falls to a “lowest-low” level, there can be no return. It was theorized that the social values of childlessness and small families would spread, and that the resultant rapid aging would make it impossible for young families to have many children anyway. Russia’s total fertility rate fell to a record low of 1.16 children per woman in 1999, but rose above 1.30 in 2006, reached 1.61 in 2011, and rose further to an estimated 1.70 in 2012. It is thus so far the biggest and most important exception to this “lowest-low fertility trap hypothesis.” In reality, what was actually happening was that many Russian women were postponing the formation of families – a process common to most nations that reach a certain level of development. This in turn laid the foundations for the mini-baby boom that were are now seeing.

(3) There was likewise widespread pessimism that Russia’s life expectancy would ever significantly improve for the better. In the best case, it was assumed it would creep upwards, reaching 70 years or so in another few decades. However, the experience of other regions with Russia’s mortality profile, such as North Karelia in the 1980′s or the Baltic states in the 2000′s – very high death rates among middle aged men who drank too much – suggested that rapid improvements are possible with the right mix of policy interventions. This has happened. Russia’s life expectancy in 2012 was about 71 years, still nothing to write home about; however, it was higher than it ever was in the USSR, where it reached a peak of 70.0 years at the height of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign in 1987, and equal to Estonia’s in 2002, Hungary’s in 1998, and Finland’s in 1973. If it were now to follow in Estonia’s mortality trajectory – and this is not an unreasonable supposition, considering Russia is now passing the tough anti-alcohol and anti-smoking taxes and regulations typical of developed countries – it would be on track to reach a life expectancy of 75 years by 2020 (Putin’s goal of 2018 is however probably too optimistic).


In particular, it should be noted that the worst types of deaths – those from external causes – have been cut down the most radically. Though they only account for a small proportion of total deaths, they tend to happen at earlier ages and thus have a significant impact on the workforce and overall life expectancy out of proportion to their actual prevalence. A calculation from 2005 showed that the effect of a 40% decline in deaths from external causes would be as good as a 20% decline in deaths from all circulatory diseases at extending male life expectancy. This has been achieved; as of 2012 it was at 125/100,000, down from an average of about 250/100,000 during the “demographic crisis” period but still far, far short of the 40/100,000 rates more typical of developed countries with no alcoholism epidemics. But as I’ve said before and will say again, while Russia’s “hypermortality” crisis isn’t anywhere near as severe as it once was, it is nothing to write home about; a great deal remains to be done. But the trend-lines are pointing firmly down, and the economic crisis of 2009 had zero effect on the underlying processes. This is extremely encouraging, as it implies that Russia has now become a “normal country” in which improvements in health and mortality steadily advance regardless of economic fluctuations.

I have anticipated many of these developments, and indeed, ventured forth with projections of my own. Here are some predictions made on the basis of my research and analysis from 2008:

  1. Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest. CHECK.
  2. Natural population increase will occur starting from 2013 at the latest. CHECK.
  3. Russia’s total life expectancy will exceed 68 years by 2010 and reach 75 years by 2020. Looks increasingly LIKELY.

There is no need for false modesty. I put my neck on the line and came out best against most of the established expert opinion.

But this is no time to rest on laurels and reminsce on past glories. The 2010 Census is out. Demographic data up till 2012 is available. It’s been a long four years since I wrote that model. It is high time to update it. I’ve been planning to do that for my book anyway, but now that I think about it, why not publish a paper at the same time? I have long been a fan of open access anyway, especially as regards academia.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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My latest contribution to the Expert Discussion Panel this one focusing on whether the West foregoes “incalculable benefits” by continuing the Cold War. Unlike previous Panels, on which I aimed for balance, here I make no apologies at pointing a finger straight to where I believe the blame belongs:

I recently began reading Martin Malia’s Russia under Western Eyes. One of the key points he makes early on is that the Western view of Russia has rarely corresponded well with its objective strength or the actual threat it posed. To the contrary, it is when “institutions and culture” converge that the West’s “evaluation of Russia tends toward the positive”; when they diverge, the reverse. So by that theory, relations should be pleasant: After all, not only is it no longer a military threat, but in terms of political systems and values, the West and Russia are far closer now than they have even been in history.

This makes it all the more puzzling that half the US foreign policy establishment remains entrenched in Cold War thinking. Romney belongs to them. A man who now has a 39% chance of becoming President, according to Intrade, declared Russia to be a “our number one geopolitical foe.” But unlike the case in the Cold War, it is a divergence that now most afflicts the US and its satellites – namely, the idée fixe that it is globally “exceptional”, and thus called forth to express global “leadership.” This translates into the belief that it can dictate its terms – from support for the Iraq War to the pursuit of Wikileaks – to other powers without negotiation (anything else is appeasement!), and woe unto the VIRUS’s that oppose it (a cute neocon acronym standing for Venezuela, Iran, Russia).

Needless to say, such attitudes make mockeries of any genuine democracy promotion. As long as you pay the requisite cultural tribute, you get off scot free – “Bahrain’s bosses understand modern symbolism about minorities so well that the Arab kingdom’s ambassador to Washington is a Jewish woman.” They might not understand the Hippocratic Oath near so well, imprisoning doctors for treating wounded protesters, but that is of little consequence next to anti-Iranian orientations and the US naval base there. Meanwhile, Venezuela is demonized by the Cold Warriors for daring to elect a socialist to power in Latin America, even though it has some of the structurally freest and fairest elections in the world. Their hatred of Russia ultimately boils down to the same roots: It resists.

There are three ways this impasse can end. The first, and most incredible way, would be for the residual Cold Warriors to stop thinking of the world in Manichean terms, with themselves playing God’s role. The second would be for Russia to become a client state of the US. This is not going to happen short of the likes of Gary Kasparov and Lilia Shevtsova coming to power.

The third possibility is by far the likeliest, as it is already occurring. Back in the 1990’s, Western Diktat politics in relation to Russia typically worked because it was in crisis, and had no other powers to work with. They believe this is still the case, and not only the neocons: In 2009, Biden said Russia had a “shrinking population base… a withering economy”, and a banking system unlikely to “withstand the next 15 years.”). This would presumably give Russia no choice but to fall in line. They are wrong. In real terms, the Chinese economy may have overtaken the US as early as in 2010; a constellation of other sovereign, non-Western powers such as Brazil, Turkey, India, and South Africa are attaining new prominence. With the EU in permaslump, the US and Japan under accumulating mountains of debt, and oil futures now permanently sloped upwards, a new world is arising in which modernization is no longer synonymous with Westernization. Russia is one of its key players, just like the other BRIC’s.

One can’t resist gravity forever. Once the requisite relative political, economic, and cultural mass is no longer there, ideological Cold Wars will become as unsustainable as Western hegemony itself.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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The latest Expert Discussion Panel focused on an assessment of Putin’s historical legacy, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Here I try to answer whether history will see Putin as the “founder of a modern and successful Russia”, or as a tragic figure who threw away his chance of greatness to the “delusion of indispensability”:

While there are several criticisms one can make of Putin’s practice of democracy, his prolonged stay in power isn’t one of them.

As Evgeny Minchenko pointed out, there are many Western examples of very long, but non-authoritarian rule. Canadian PM Jean Chrétien ruled for 20 years, the Federal Chancellor of the FRG Helmut Kohl – for 16 years. Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has been in power from 1996 to the present day (nobody even bothered challenging him in 2000 and 2008). Charles de Gaulle, one of the figures Putin quotes as his inspiration, ruled for 11 years; the student protests against him in 1968, ironically, only ended up increasing support for him. Another of Putin’s heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was US President from 1933 until his death in 1945, and remains a political colossus in the American imagination.

Nor is there anything particularly anti-Constitutional about what Putin did. Unlike in Georgia, where Saakashvili planned to retain power by moving powers to the Prime Ministership (but was foiled in this by an oligarchic coup), or for that matter in the “new democracy” of Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz Party headed by Viktor Orbán recently rewrote electoral law to cement its dominance for what may be many decades to come, Putin has strictly abided by the letter of the Constitution. United Russia did not use its Constitutional majority to extend the number of allowed Presidential terms, transform Russia into a parliamentary republic, or tweaking electoral law away from proportional representation towards majoritarianism (this would have a far bigger effect in consolidating United Russia’s power than low-level electoral fraud – and be much less politically damaging besides).

While one might argue that Putin went against the “spirit of the Constitution” by seeking a third term, that is an inescapably vague and ambiguous concept, one suited only for rhetoric. If we are going to consider the “spirit” of things, would it not then be against the “spirit of democracy” to condemn Putin for returning to the Presidency when he remains by far Russia’s most popular politician, enjoying a 10% lead over Medvedev even during the latter’s heyday?

In 2004, Putin said, “Our aims are absolutely clear: They are a high living standard in the country and a secure, free and comfortable life.” This is not the place to cite reams of statistics, but on practically any socio-economic indicator one cares to mention – economic, demographic, crime, etc. – the Russia of 2012 is unrecognizable from the Russia of 1999. It’s simply another world. To find historical precedents, one needs to look far, far back. To another Putin hero, Stolypin? But the saplings he planted didn’t survive the Bolshevik winter. Both Peter the Great and Stalin transformed Russia, but in ways that were many orders of magnitude crueller and more bloodthirsty than all but the most deranged of Putin’s critics would accuse him of. Alien ideologies were impressed on Russia in these “revolutions from above”, leading to social stresses and upheaval; Putin, to the contrary, is profoundly a-ideological (and that is surely for the better, no matter the hand-wringing by some over Russia’s no longer having a “national idea” – fact of the matter is, “national ideas” have rarely led it to anywhere good).

Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is to Catherine the Great, who expanded Russia’s borders, made legal reforms, and removed internal barriers to trade. But serfdom was also further entrenched, and Russia kept slipping backwards relative to the developed world; in contrast, under Putin, Russia has gone from being the poor man of Europe to being a country where salaries and personal consumption are now converging with those of the poorer (original) EU members like Greece or Portugal. Maybe his true predecessor is none other than Yaroslavl the Wise, under whom Kievan Rus’ became unified, established links with Western Europe (which is today East Asia), formally codified Russian laws, and ushered in a golden age of culture and civilization. Although one should be careful of making parallels with developments a millennium ago, there are undeniable similarities between Yaroslavl’s achievements and Putin’s project: Consolidating the state, and now moving towards a Eurasian Union; legal reforms that supplanted late-Soviet “understandings” and Yeltsinite chaos; and the ongoing (re)integration into the world economy.

Regardless of the historians’ final verdict, it is now hard to see what Putin can possible do now to compromise the “father of the nation” status he has already gained in the popular consciousness – a status that should survive, based on comparable figures like De Gaulle or Park Chung-hee, even as the “dissatisfied urbanites” and “hamsters” – much like the Parisian student protesters against De Gaulle in 1968 – are relegated to the margins of history. The “democratic journalists” and other Putin Derangement Syndrome sufferers who portray this Goethe-quoting patriot and conservative restorer as a mafiosi thug or neo-Stalinist dictator will be in for endless disappointments as future Russians, just as today’s Russians, will continue to reject their bleak, screed-like denunciations of Putin’s legacy.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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As I reported in my post unveiling, there are going to be weekly discussion panels moderated by Vlad Sobell. This is the first one I participated in. It is on the topic of US-Russia Relations Against the Backdrop of Word-wide Muslim Protests. Is this a clash of civilizations? Should the US patch up ties with Russia and forget about New Cold War in order to free resources for the greater challenge from radical Islamists?

I think I will be reposting my contributions to these Panels on this blog for the foreseeable future, with a time delay of a few days so that maxes out on traffic. Here is my first contribution:

The American democratization agenda for the Middle East appears to be based around two premises: (1) The Arabs want the strongmen out; (2) They desire a Western-style liberal democracy. Consequently, aggressively supporting the transition should ease the US into the Arabs’ good graces – with all its attendant, oily benefits.

The first point is largely true. The second is not. Although large majorities of Arabs support concepts such as “democracy” and “free speech” in opinion polls, they should not be taken at face value. That is because similar majorities also support stoning for adultery and the death penalty for apostasy. In these circumstances the very idea of a “liberal democracy” is a contradiction in terms. To paraphrase a relevant sentence from the Tsarist-era book Vekhi, “Thank God for the prisons and bayonets, which protect us from the people’s fury!”

This is because the “clash of civilizations” isn’t something that is “fomented” by radical Islamists (or Western Islamophobes, for that matter). It is an actually existing state of affairs and “democratization” will only fully disrobe it, not make it go away.

The Europeanized liberals who were the motor of the protests in Egypt only constitute about 5% of that country’s population. While removing the dictator – be he a relatively benign one like Mubarak, or a bloodthirsty one like Gaddafi – liberates not only the intelligentsia, but also the (far more numerous) Islamist opposition. Of the foreign jihadists fighting in Iraq, it was rumored that Benghazi – focal point of resistance against the Jamahiriya – contributed the most per capita. Now Libya is a chaotic jumble of heavily armed gangs and militias, many of them with Islamist sympathies. Despite promises not to field a Presidential candidate, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did precisely that and won the elections; since then, the old-regime generals have been replaced and the Brotherhood has consolidated its political dominance over the country. In the meantime, the economy has ground to a standstill.

Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad, Ben Ali, etc. may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but they did foster an adequate, if non-stellar pace of development; protected the rights of minorities such as the Coptic Christians; and typically maintained non-hostile, constructive relations with the West, Russia, and even Israel. It is unclear whether any of this will be preserved in the years ahead. They will certainly become more “democratic” – Iran, after all, is far more democratic now that it was under the Shah – but to what extent they will (or can) truly respect freedom of speech or worship is another question entirely. As strikingly shown in the past few days, there are problems even with honoring basic international norms like diplomatic immunity – and these are not without precedent (Chris Stephen’s ancestor by fate is Alexander Griboyedov, the poet diplomat killed and mutilated by a mullah-provoked Tehran mob in 1829).

But you can’t turn the clock back; we will have to learn to live with the new regimes emerging out of the Middle East unrest. One can hope for two things. First, that the West realizes that in terms of civilizational values, Russia and even China (all part of the “Functioning Core”, to borrow from Thomas P.M. Barnett) are far closer to it than most of the Muslim world, and adjusts policy accordingly. Second, that it takes a more balanced and realistic view towards these developments in the Arab world. For instance, it could recognize the Syrian conflict as a civil war, as opposed to a universal uprising against the dark lord Assad (and as such stop making unrealistic demands for him to step down as a precondition for talks).

Realistically, however, I suspect it will be a winter’s day in hell before the West’s infatuation with the Arab Spring is over.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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This guy isn’t as clear-headed as Eric Kraus, is he? But does have company in the form of Andrew Miller, Jeffrey Tailer, “Streetwise Professor”, and Ed Lucas. H/t Mark Adomanis.

—– Original Message —–
Dmitry Alimov
Friday, September 12, 2003 11:28 PM
Conversation with Jim Rogers – HILARIOUS

Jim Rogers, a famous international investor and writer attended HBS this Wednesday. In his speech, he badmouthed Russia (in his usual style) and quoted several “facts” that were completely bogus. As you would expect, I could not let him get away with lying about our country and publicly disputed his factual claims. He basically told me I was a moron and left. In response, I sent an email to him with facts and references disputing his claims (sending a copy to my HBS classmates). What ensued is quite amazing – read attached emails. Start with the first email and read from the end (my original email), then read his response and finally my rebuttal in the second email. This will be worth your time I promise. This has already been circulated all over HBS, several other universities and in the investment community in New York. Since this is already in public domain, feel free to forward on.


Dear Mr. Rogers: I am the “lad” who disputed your factual claims with regard to Russia today. First of all, I would like to thank you for speaking to us at the Harvard Business School. I think I speak for my fellow HBS students when I say that we enjoyed your original views and interesting stories today. However, I must address the unfortunate reality that your facts about Russia are plain wrong. You made three principal inaccurate claims today – I will deal with all of them in sequence.

Claim #1. People are leaving Russia

Wrong. In fact, according to Financial Times, your favorite newspaper, Russia turns out to be the second largest recipient of immigrants after the US (see attached FT article). Oops. While it is true that Russia’s population is declining but the reasons for that have nothing to do with people leaving the country, it is things like low birth rate (only 1.2 per woman), which is an issue that confronts many European states.

Claim #2. Russia’s production of oil is declining, oil companies do not reinvest in production

Wrong and wrong. Russian oil production has increased for the fifth year in a row (see attached Reuters article), and Russian oil majors are reinvesting in production (many of them have US GAAP accounts audited by Big Four firms you could easily have access to if you chose to look).

Claim #3. Investors are leaving Russia

Wrong again. Equity indexes (US Dollar denominated) are trading around their all time highs (see attached Barrons article), Russian bond yields are at historical lows. As an experienced investor, surely you will recognize these as pretty convincing signs of investor confidence.

Overall state of the economy

Finally, I would like to quote World Bank’s recent report on Russia: “The Russian Federation has made remarkable progress in tackling crisis and moving towards sustainable development between 1999 and 2002. With a much more stable political environment, the government has been able to build on experience gained in the 1990s and implement a sound reform agenda, in addition to maintaining macro-economic stability. Since 1999, assisted by high commodity prices, the economy has recorded strong growth, business confidence has revived, and poverty has declined. Russia’s sovereign credit rating has improved, although it has yet to reach investment grade. The speed and extent of recovery has taken most observers by surprise. Between early 1999 and end 2001, GDP grew by 21 percent, inflation fell from 86 percent to 18 percent, the fiscal situation turned around from a deficit of 5 percent of GDP to a surplus of 3 percent of GDP, and barter and arrears largely disappeared.”

Source: GDP growth of 21%? Hardly a picture of total collapse, don’t you think?

Conclusion I believe the facts speak for themselves. I have no time or desire to try to convince you to invest in Russia. However, I do kindly ask you to abstain from spreading inaccurate information. You are a public figure and many people including future leaders at Harvard Business School listen to you; it would be very unfortunate if they were misled by your inaccurate statements. Finally, if nothing else, it is not good for your own public image.

Kind regards,

Dmitry Alimov, CFA MBA Class of 2004
Harvard | Business | School
Ph 617.491.7332

P.S. I took the liberty of sending a copy of this email to my fellow students so that we can set the record straight.____________________________________________________

Thank you for coming and for writing.

I rarely suffer fools gladly and even more rarely bother with chauvinistic know nothings, but since you sent this ludicrous canard:

[1] My goodness. Not only do you have no idea about what you are speaking, we now know you cannot read. The “immigration study” you mention was a bunch of estimates for the years 1970 to 1995. What the hell does that have to do with Russia in the past 8 years? Many were forced to go into Russia from the Soviet Republics under the Communists, but that was hardly free immigration as in the other countries. Even if people were going into Russia in the early 1990s, they were Russians being forced to leave the old USSR republics as the USSR dissolved in the early 1990s and those Russians fled back into Russia.

You have demonstrated you cannot read nor analyze nor have any concept of what is happening in Russia today, but do you not at least know a little Russian history?

[2] Oh my. You really should have kept your mouth shut and stopped long ago. This is not from “Reuters”. It is from the Russian government – the same group which claims to have had a balance of trade surplus for the last 9 years. The same group of bureaucrats and charlatans who became a laughing stock with their “facts” under the USSR. The same who say that the Russian balance of trade in that period has been among the largest in the world. I did not think even B school students fell for that claptrap any more. But then you are the one who says the ruble is a good buy and that “it is a strong currency”. I suggest you check your facts on what has happened to the ruble in those 9 years when Russia “had the strongest balance of trade surplus in the world”. And that was a period when huge sums were also flowing in from the World Bank, IMF, etc, etc. “Inflows from the strongest balance of trade in the world and billions from the World Bank, etc” yet the currency kept declining. I and most others find that extremely strange.

Somehow or another the currency kept falling since most of us realized the same old bureaucrats were spewing out the same old garbage. I guess you were buying rubles all that time. No wonder you are in school rather than making it in the real world. You must have gone broke buying all those rubles.

And if Russian oil production is really up so much, why is the price of oil still so high? So you are indeed a gullible lad, but fortunately the market knows a lot more than you and your wailing into the wind.

You might read the section of my book about Russia’s reported figures – especially the trade figures. Or get some one to read it to you and explain it to you.

I know you said you have driven across Russia from the Pacific to Europe, but I’d like to know your route and which border crossings you used and who you found out there counting all this stuff.

[3] You really should have kept your mouth shut, but since you opened it: What balderdash. Now we know you have no understanding of markets in addition to being unable to read or comprehend. The Russian “market” is tiny and is insignificant compared to GNP so it is meaningless. Even your article points out that the few big hydrocarbon companies account for 70% of the stock market. [a] The price of oil more than doubled in the period the article discusses and [b] those stocks went up because of that and because of the manipulation by the oligarchs. Perhaps you did not notice your article mentioned the “murky” dealings in Russia?

I hardly consider 2 mutual funds and 4 or 5 manipulated oil stocks “as pretty convincing signs of investor confidence”.

But if you really believe all this codswallop, why are you in business school? Why aren’t you there making your fortune?

I presume you are long the Russian stock market?

For what it is worth, I was short the ruble and the Russian market in the summer of 1998 and back in the earlier bubble in the mid 1990s when Russia and its bureaucrats were going on and on with the same absurdity. Go back and look up what happened both times. Or perhaps you were long then too and got wiped out which is why you had to go to b school.

[4] “Overall state of the economy”: Now we are getting really embarrassed for you! The World Bank also praised Russia in 1998 just before the last collapse and in the mid 1990s just in time for that collapse. They also wrote in rapturous terms about all the Asia Tigers in mid 1997 just in time for the Asian Crisis [I was short Hong Kong back then too right into the World Bank’s rapture.] And the World Bank could not give Argentina enough money in the summer and fall of 2001 because of “its progress” when I was getting all my money out. [All this is very much on the public record so you do not need to fret about my image.]

Need I go on? No one has ever stayed solvent much less made money listening to the World Bank [except business school professors who “consult” for them].

Oh dear, you get your information from the Russian government and the World Bank!? Are you mad? I know you say you have driven across Russia, but who do you really think is out there in those 11 time zones and tens of thousands on kilometers of Russia collecting all this “reliable data”?

And thanks for your advice about my analysis, facts and my “public image”. If you had done your homework, you’d know the public was and is extremely aware that I had shorted the ruble in 1998 and back in the mid 1990s [when I guess you were long]. It was the same kind if misinformation back then too that gullible souls like you swallowed.

And the public is extremely aware of my record of investing in many markets all over the world for many years. You might read John Train’s Money Masters of Our Timeor one of several other books. I do not worry about it, but you should worry about yours.

But as for public image and inaccurate statements, you have demonstrated quite publicly and vocally that you can neither read nor comprehend what you read nor can you analyze anything in front of you and that you fall for anything someone tells you and that you have absolutely no knowledge of even recent Russian history. I was terribly embarrassed for you when you stood there babbling on in front of the others about the strong ruble – a currency which has been nothing but a catastrophe for a decade [despite your painfully absurd statements], but now you have shouted your hopelessness from the roof tops for all to see.

I hope your classmates will pull you aside and pass on this word of advice: It is better to remain silent and have people wonder if you are an idiot rather than to open your mouth and prove to everyone in sight that you are an idiot beyond all doubt. And one should never, ever go shouting from the rooftops when one is a total idiot because then the entire school knows it.


Mr. Rogers:

I see that you prefer the language of personal insults instead of informed polite discussion. Well, this is your choice and I hope this is not consistent with your sense of style – you are a successful individual (as you mentioned many times) and it would be a shame to tarnish that with this sort of attitude. Also, apologies for getting you a little riled, I didn’t mean to, nor did I expect you to. I am enjoying the discussion and would like to just rebut some of your remarks.

Thank you for coming and for writing. I rarely suffer fools gladly and even more rarely bother with chauvinistic know nothings, but since you sent this ludicrous canard:

[1] [immigration] My goodness. Not only do you have no idea about what you are speaking, we now know you cannot read. The “immigration study” you mention was a bunch of estimates for the years 1970 to 1995. What the hell does that have to do with Russia in the past 8 years? Many were forced to go into Russia from the Soviet Republics under the Communists, but that was hardly free immigration as in the other countries. Even if people were going into Russia in the early 1990s, they were Russians being forced to leave the old USSR republics as the USSR dissolved in the early 1990s and those Russians fled back into Russia.
You have demonstrated you cannot read nor analyze nor have any concept of what is happening in Russia today, but do you not at least know a little Russian history?

For your viewing pleasure, below are the actual numbers of net migration (immigration less emigration) through 2001. As you can see, there is a net inflow in every single year for the past two decades. This does not even include an estimated 1-1.5 million of illegal immigrants to Russia.

Net Migration and Natural Increase in Russia, 1980–2001


Source: State Committee of the Russian Federation on Statistics, Goskomstat Rossii

As you correctly point out, much of the immigration comes from the states of the former Soviet Union (although a very large part of the immigrants are Ukrainians and other CIS nationals). However, the fact remains that before and after 1995, immigration to Russia far exceeded emigration from Russia, which is the opposite of your original claim.

[2] [oil production] Oh my. You really should have kept your mouth shut and stopped long ago. This is not from “Reuters”. It is from the Russian government – the same group which claims to have had a balance of trade surplus for the last 9 years. The same group of bureaucrats and charlatans who

The quote below is taken directly from US Department of Energy website (I hope you at least believe your own government):

“A turnaround in Russian oil output began in 1999, which many analysts have attributed to rising world oil prices during this period (oil prices tripled between January 1999 and September 2000), as well as a number of after-effects of the 1998 financial crisis and subsequent devaluation of the ruble in August. Today, Russian oil fields are maintained using modern technologies from around the world, and many of the old command economy institutions have been streamlined. The rebound in Russian oil production has continued since 1999, resulting in 2002 total liquids production of 7.65 million bbl/d (7.4 million bbl/d of which was crude oil)–a 26% increase over the 1998 level. Accordingly, Russia is now the world’s second largest crude oil producer behind only Saudi Arabia.



Or do you think the US government is also lying?

became a laughing stock with their “facts” under the USSR. The same who say that the Russian balance of trade in that period has been among the largest in the world. I did not think even B school students fell for that claptrap any more.

I don’t think my fellow students deserve this condescending treatment. You should also know that my other Russian speaking HBS classmates were appalled by your comments in and after class. In addition to misstating the facts, you also characterized the country in an offensive manner. We are all rational people and are prepared to discuss the Russian economy and culture on merits (clearly, there are many negative things, particularly in the recent past) but it’s a very different matter when someone starts insulting a nation.

But then you are the one who says the ruble is a good buy and that “it is a strong currency”.

This is not quite the statement I made, but nice try at remembering. What I said was that this year, Russian currency appreciated and I stand by my statement. From 31.7 rubles/US$ at the end of 2002 it appreciated to 30.7 rubles/US$ now. I did
not say it is a strong currency and I certainly don’t think that any currency is a good investment given that currencies are not interest bearing.

I suggest you check your facts on what has happened to the ruble in those 9 years when Russia “had the strongest balance of trade surplus in the world”. And that was a period when huge sums were also flowing in from the World Bank, IMF, etc, etc. “Inflows from the strongest balance of trade in the world and billions from the World Bank, etc” yet the currency kept declining. I and most others find that extremely strange. Somehow or another the currency kept falling since most of us realized the same old bureaucrats were spewing out the same old garbage. I guess you were buying rubles all that time. No wonder you are in school rather than making it in the real world. You must have gone broke buying all those rubles.

And if Russian oil production is really up so much, why is the price of oil still so high? So you are indeed a gullible lad, but fortunately the market knows a lot more than you and your wailing into the wind.

I find it amusing that you would ask this question. Surely you know that market prices are determined by many factors including demand (which, as you correctly pointed out in your speech, is on a secular upward trend), supply by other players (think Latin American and Middle East supply problems). Russia is one of the global energy suppliers and certainly cannot by itself control world energy prices. Surely you must know this?

You might read the section of my book about Russia’s reported figures – especially the trade figures. Or get some one to read it to you and explain it to you. I know you said you have driven across Russia from the Pacific to Europe, but I’d like to know your route and which border crossings you used and who you found out there counting all this stuff.

[3] You really should have kept your mouth shut, but since you opened it: What balderdash. Now we know you have no understanding of markets in addition to being unable to read or comprehend. The Russian “market” is tiny and is insignificant compared to GNP so it is meaningless. Even your article points out that the few big hydrocarbon companies account for 70% of the stock market. [a] The price of oil more than doubled in the period the article discusses and [b] those stocks went up because of that and because of the manipulation by the oligarchs. Perhaps you did not notice your article mentioned the “murky” dealings in Russia?
I hardly consider 2 mutual funds and 4 or 5 manipulated oil stocks “as pretty convincing signs of investor confidence”.

If the stock
and bond market three year rally is not sufficient evidence for you, what about the fact that scores of major Western companies made significant capital commitments to Russia in the past few years? Here is just a sample of recent investments:

Pepsi $1 bn
Coca Cola $750 mln

Metro (Germany) €1 bn

United Technologies Corp. $400 mln

Mars LLC $500 mln

Procter & Gamble $150 mln

Boeing $1.3 bn

ExxonMobil $1.4 bn

BP $3 bn

If this is not a reliable sign of investor confidence, I don’t know what is. But you probably think these companies are lying, too? Or are they also being manipulated by evil oligarchs?

But if you really believe all this codswallop, why are you in business school? Why aren’t you there making your fortune?

Let me know if you desire to see my bank statements and resume, I’ll email them to you. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, maybe even compare them to yours when you were my tender age, for a real awakening. Maybe we can do the same when I am your age now, and we can revisit this cute discussion.

Rest assured, I certainly plan on continuing my career in Russia because I love the place, I am good at what I do and I will have a positive impact on the country. Surely, there are challenges and problems (name a place in the world that does not have a set of problems to deal with) but the opportunities are amazing. I find it extremely satisfying to be able to effect real change in the largest country in the world.

I presume you are long the Russian stock market? That’s correct.

For what it is worth, I was short the ruble and the Russian market in the summer of 1998 and back in the earlier bubble in the mid 1990s when Russia and its bureaucrats were going on and on with the same absurdity. Go back and look up what happened both times. Or perhaps you were long then too and got wiped out which is why you had to go to b school.

[4] “Overall state of the economy”: Now we are getting really embarrassed for you! The World Bank also praised Russia in 1998 just before the last collapse and in the mid 1990s just in time for that collapse. They also wrote in rapturous terms about all the Asia Tigers in mid 1997 just in time for the Asian Crisis [I was short Hong Kong back then too right into the World Bank’s rapture.] And the World Bank could not give Argentina enough money in the summer and fall of 2001 because of “its progress” when I was getting all my money out. [All this is very much on the public record so you do not need to fret about my image.]

While one may or may not agree with the World Bank’s adjectives and characterizations, there are objective facts and figures that speak for themselves. Do you think that 21% real GDP growth is a sign of total collapse of the economy or do you think that the government and international finance organizations are lying about the figures?

Need I go on? No one has ever stayed solvent much less made money listening to the World Bank [except business school professors who “consult” for them]. Oh dear, you get your information from the Russian government and the World Bank!? Are you mad? I know you say you have driven across Russia, but who do you really think is out there in those 11 time zones and tens of thousands on kilometers of Russia collecting all this “reliable data”?

And thanks for your advice about my analysis, facts and my “public image”. If you had done your homework, you’d know the public was and is extremely aware that I had shorted the ruble in 1998 and back in the mid 1990s [when I guess you were long]. It was the same kind if misinformation back then too that gullible souls like you swallowed.

Every “babushka” shorted ruble during that time period; it was a highly inflationary currency.

And the public is extremely aware of my record of investing in many markets all over the world for many years. You might read John Train’s Money Masters of Our Timeor one of several other books. I do not worry about it, but you should worry about yours.

But as for public image and inaccurate statements, you have demonstrated quite publicly and vocally that you can neither read nor comprehend what you read nor can you analyze anything in front of you and that you fall for anything someone tells you and that you have absolutely no knowledge of even recent Russian history. I was terribly embarrassed for you when you stood there babbling on in front of the others about the strong ruble – a currency which has been nothing but a catastrophe for a decade [despite your painfully absurd statements], but now you have shouted your hopelessness from the roof tops for all to see.

I hope your classmates will pull you aside and pass on this word of advice: It is better to remain silent and have people wonder if you are an idiot rather than to open your mouth and prove to everyone in sight that you are an idiot beyond all doubt. And one should never, ever go shouting from the rooftops when one is a total idiot because then the entire school knows it.

I will leave it up to my classmates to make characterizations in this case. Again, I will not dignify your insulting comments with a response. If you are interested in what impression your email made on my classmates, please read this sample email – one of many similar emails I received today:

“Dmitry, I was shocked by the letter that Jim wrote you. I am sorry that you had to read that. It was totally ridiculous. I thought you wrote him a respectful and well argued letter and for some reason he decided to tear into you. I am not sure who is on the right side of the facts, but I do know that I talked to the top guy at Morgan Stanley Private Client last week and he said that Russia is one of their top picks going forward. All the best, John”(name is changed for privacy reasons)

Respectfully yours,

Dmitry Alimov, CFA MBA Class of 2004
Harvard | Business | School
Ph 617.491.7332


The funny thing is that Jim Rogers is now an adviser to an agricultural fund run by Russian state-owned banking group VTB.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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Just to hammer down the myth of Russian impoverishment one more time (with the help of graphs from Sergey Zhuravlev’s blog)…

In the past few years, in terms of basic necessities (food, clothing, housing) Russia has basically (re)converged to where the Soviet Union left off. Here is a graph of food consumption via Zhuravlev. At the bottom, the dark blue line is represents meat; the yellow, milk; the blue line, vegetables; the pink line, fish; the cyan line, fruits and berries; and azure line, sugar and sweets. At the top, the purple line are bread products, and the dark blue/green line are potatoes.

Meat consumption has essentially recovered to late Soviet levels, although it still lags considerably behind Poland, Germany, and other more prosperous carnivorous cultures. Milk fell and hasn’t recovered, but that is surely because it was displaced in part by fruit juices and soft drinks (which isn’t to say that’s a good thing – but not indicative of poverty either), and the fall in sugar consumption is surely a reflection of the near doubling of fruit consumption. We also see that bread and potato consumption peaked in the 1990′s, especially in the two periods of greatest crisis – the early 1990′s, and 1998. This is what we might expect of inferior goods like bread and potatoes.

There is a broadly similar story in housing construction. The chart left shows the annual area (in m2) constructed by 1,000 people. As we can see, after holding steady from the mid 1950′s to the late 1980′s, it more than halved by the late 1990′s; since then, however, construction has recovered almost to Soviet levels, the recent crisis barely making a dint.

Note that during the Soviet period, however, there were tons of peasants migrating into the cities, whereas today the urban population is more or less stable (after having declined by about 5 million). In general, mass housing construction once it got started in the 1950′s was one of the overlooked but significant achievements of the Soviet era – this, along with population migration controls, allowed urban Russia to avoid the slums you see even in relatively rich Third World places like Mexico or Thailand today. Nonetheless, apartments were cramped, and there were long waiting lines; while prices might be high today, the rationing in the Soviet period was just as real – it just took the form of scarcity and long queues. Today a big chunk of the new construction involves knocking down and replacing the Soviet-era housing stock with better buildings.

As shown in the graph above, also compiled by Sergey Zhuravlev, Russian consumption of food products, meat, fish, milk, and fruit was by 2008 essentially equal to US and West European levels. (Consumption of tobacco and alcohol is unfortunately significantly higher). But spending on clothing, housing, furniture, healthcare, transport, holidays, and restaurants is below 50% of US levels, even after accounting for price differences. (The situation vis-a-vis Western Europe is slightly better). On the one hand, this means that whereas Russians now have full bellies, the country still lags on life’s perks and luxuries – most especially on restaurants and holidays. On the other hand, it may well presage strong growth in the years to come.

The final graph shows the housing area constructed in 2012 per 1,000 people (red, upper axis), and the total number of apartments built per 1,000 residents (green, lower axis). Much maligned Belarus emerges as the star performer, building more housing than any other country listed. Whatever one’s thoughts on Lukashenko’s rule but this along with its (surprisingly good) overall relative economic performance should give one pause before insisting on privatization and deregulation as a sine qua non of socio-economic development. Russia is second after Belarus, followed by Kazakhstan; Poland; Slovakia; Denmark; Uzbekistan (also a socialist economy albeit a very poor one); Azerbaijan; Ukraine; Hungary; Estonia; Latvia; Armenia; Bulgaria; Lithuania; Moldova; Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan.

This is part of a long list of basic indicators on which Russia in the past few years on which Russia has either caught up with (e.g. life expectancy) or far exceeded (e.g. automobile ownership) Soviet levels.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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Two weeks back, the distinguished Estonian poet and linguist Jaan Kaplinski in a comment on this blog linked to his article in the Russian-Estonian paper День за Днем lamenting the state of Estonian – Russian relations, especially as they were apparently really good back in the Tsarist days. In that article from От противостояния к примирению (From Confrontation to Reconciliation), which is translated below, Jaan argues that it is long past time to bury the hatchet.

In my view, it is a very good article as it avoids the moral preening and victimization complexes typical of Baltic nationalists while also decisively calling out hardcore Russian Stalinists for their lies and mendacity. I also note with approval that he uses the historically correct term “annexation” to describe the coercive incorporation of the Baltics into the USSR as opposed to the propagandistic term “occupation”.

From Confrontation to Reconciliation

Jaan Kaplinski

I know of no Estonian who defected to the Germans during the First World War. On the other hand, I do know the names of many senior Estonian officers, who fought valiantly against the Germans in the ranks of the Tsar’s troops.

Later many of them became commanders in the newborn Estonian Army. Without their knowledge, acquired in the Imperial Nicholas Military Academy and other higher military schools, Estonia’s victory against the Red Army and the German Landeswehr would have hardly been possible.

I remember a conversation long ago with an old man, who participated in the Liberation War. He told me that when it came time for Estonian guys like him to fight against the Reds on Pskov territory, they did so without enthusiasm, and sometimes even expressing discontent: It had nothing to do with them, fighting Russians in Russia. At that time there was no Russophobia among Estonians. There was however an age-old hatred towards the German landlords, about which, by the way, one can read aplenty in the memoirs of the Estonian-Finnish writer Hella Wuolijoki. This hate flared up in 1905, when Estonian peasants burned down many German myzy [AK: Gutshof, or manor houses, specific to the Baltic region].

“The manors are burning, the Germans are dying”

Memories of these events were still very fresh in 1919, when Estonian formations clashed with Landeswehr elements formed from local Germans and “soldiers of fortune” from Germany. Some historians believe that these clashes began spontaneously, against the wishes of the Estonian high command: The Estonian soldiers couldn’t wait to open fire and wreck vengeance on the “barons”. And as these soldiers routed the German troops, they sang, “The manors are burning, the Germans are dying, the forests and lands will be ours…”

There was no anti-Russian sentiment, let alone pro-German, on the home front either. My mother, then a schoolgirl at the erstwhile Pushkin Gymnasium in Tartu, told me the girls in her class corresponded with Russian frontline soldiers, knitted them woolen socks, and visited the wounded in Tartu’s infirmaries to sing them Russian songs and read poems. When I was a child, she too sang to me the “Cossack lullaby” in Russian on some of the evenings. How then could I not get mad at the words of the current President of Estonia, who says that Russian is the language of the occupation!?

Summing up these examples, which are far from singular, one begins to appreciate that pre-revolutionary relations between Estonians and Russians, and in fact all the way up to Estonia’s annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940, were friendly, and that Estonian attitudes to the Russian Empire were loyal. And the Estonians had perfectly good reasons to be loyal subjects: The reforms of Alexander III greatly reduced the power of the German nobility here, and the introduction of Russian language instruction made it possible for Estonian youth to have a career, learn, and get good jobs in Russia, where, in contrast to the Baltics, there were no racial prejudices against them. Not a few prominent members of the nascent Estonian intelligentsia were educated in St.-Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev, where they often lived and worked.

Forgotten parallels

It’s clear that since then a lot of things have changed in Russian – Estonian relations, and not for the better. These changes continue to strongly influence bilateral relations. How and why did this happen?

From a historical point of view, the mail culprit behind the current tensions is, of course, the “brilliant” policies of Stalin, as a result of which for many Estonians the Germans went from being hated oppressors and invaders to liberators from the Bolshevik nightmare. For before that time, even as conservative a politician as Jaan Tõnisson was trying to query Soviet diplomats on whether Estonia could get military aid from Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany…

In 1940-41, the Estonians received confirmation of what Russian writers such as Ivan Bunin, Ivan Shmelev, and Lev Gumilev were already convinced of, not to mention the mutinying Kronstadt sailors, the Tambov peasants, and the Izhevsk workers: Russia was ruled by a gang of fanatics and terrorists. Almost everything that came after flowed on from this.

In my opinion, there are a lot more commonalities in our history, than many politicians and journalists in both Estonia and Russia want to admit. In both those information spaces there are too many myths, distortions, and attempts to artificially create enemies. Few write about the parallels in our histories, and sometimes, they do not even know about them.

True, many Estonians fought in the German SS. But the vast majority of them were conscripts, and they found themselves in the SS because only German citizens could serve in the Wehrmacht. And on this note: How many Russians and Ukrainians fought in the ranks of the German troops? About 200,000 men, and they all voluntarily entered the ranks of the Russian Liberation Army and other similar units. Yet during the First World War, there were no Russian formations fighting under the German banners, just as there were no Estonians or Latvians. On the other hand, there was a Polish Legion and Finnish Riflemen [AK: fighting for the Whites]…

One conclusion we can draw: The Stalinist regime, as opposed to the Tsar’s reign, itself very much contributed to what was considered treason in Soviet times. There is a lot of food for thought here. And people do think – as in Estonia, so too in Russia, where one can also hear voices saying that perhaps the Vlasovites too were fighters for a free Russia…

They also write about the Estonian “forest brothers” – most often portraying them simply as bandits, stymieing the restoration of civil life after the war. This so-called banditism is considered justification for the deportation and exile of 10,000′s of peaceful citizens into Siberia. The deportation is called “resettlement”. I dare ask, were the Tambov peasants who rose up against the Bolsheviks also bandits? Were the families of Russian kulaks likewise “resettled” on the empty banks of some big Siberian river, where they had to live – and often, die – without food and shelter?

Reconciliation is impossible without knowledge

Nonetheless, despite all these distortions, Estonia’s portrayal in the Russian media isn’t anywhere near as simplified and tendentious as Russia’s image in the Estonian media. Among those Estonian readers unable to read Russian websites and newspapers – unfortunately, the level of our Russian language skills is constantly decreasing – there appears this impression that there is no freedom of speech and systematic killings of journalists in Russia (that is, “Putin’s Russia”), which it is claimed is ruled by some kind of neo-Stalinist clique.

In our press you will not find positive information about Russia with a torch in broad daylight. Our readers would be shocked to find out that Russian schoolchildren study Solzhenitsyn, Bunin, and Ivan Shmelev’s “The Sun of the Dead”, with its no holds barred depictions of the ruthlessness of the Red Terror in the Crimea. Medvedev’s speech, in which he said that Stalin’s crimes have no justification, was not covered in our press, even though the speech was recognized and honored with an award from the Unitas Foundation, which was founded by Mart Laar.

Attempts to reevaluate the White movement and their leaders (Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel), undertaken in the interests of national reconciliation, are either unknown to our public or interpreted as a manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism. When I watched a documentary film by Nikita Mikhalkov about Kolchak, I could not help but recall that, according to family lore, my great-uncle too fought against the Bolsheviks under the command of the Admiral…

Whether we like it or not, our history is closely intertwined with Russia’s, and it would be reasonable to learn from this, and perhaps, participate in the process of transition from confrontation to reconciliation – as between Estonians and Russians, so too between our two countries. Reconciliation is impossible without knowledge, and knowledge is incompatible with the stereotypes and myth-making that should have long since been rejected.


A few translations of select comments from readers:

ближе к делу: An excursion into ancient history, from the Tsars to the First Republic and the Stalinist period, distracts us from more important issues – the history of the past twenty years and the essence of the current regime and its ideology.

тартуский обыватель (in reply to above): … And do you not think, that this is exactly what the authoritarian powers seek from you: Do not study your past, it is enough to know it in its simplified form from official ideologues: From Mart Laar in Estonia, to multiple Filippovs in Russia? [AK: Filippov is the author of a textbook on modern Russian history, whose controversial "pro-Stalinist" chapter I translated here]

ближе к делу [in reply to above]: You didn’t catch my point. I’m not against studying history. But I am against treating Stalinist crimes as if they occurred just yesterday, and treating those crimes, which occurred yesterday and are still occurring today, being considered fine and dandy. I do not think there should be a difference in attitudes towards the repressed kulak, and the repressed Gray Passporter. [AK: i.e., alien]

12 баллов (in reply to above): Oi-oi, what have we got here, a “victim of repressions”. I’ll cry any minute now! They were so cruelly repressed: Freed from military service, given the opportunity of visa free travel all over the world. Oh, bloodthirsty Ansip, you are so cruel!

ближе к делу (in reply to above): A job in government (in fact,, almost the only place of work that offers decent pay and stability in modern Estonia)? And what visa-free travel prior to accession into Schengen are you talking about? In the 90′s a great many countries flat out refused to give visas to Gray Passporters (due to documents status). Apart from that, if its so good having a Gray Passport, why did you Estonians personally not take it, and that same Ansip? If that were the case then your story, about how we live so well, would be a bit more convincing.

т.о (in reply to ближе к делу, a few comments later): Listen, when we are talking of millions of lives destroyed because of differing views, origins, faith, and nationality, and equating it with restrictions on Russian language instruction – only a person who principally refuses to know his own history would do this. Furthermore, what Stalin didn’t finish, his successors attempted to. Recall, what was implied in the realization of the concept of the “one Soviet people”. Thank God oil prices fell, otherwise they’d have brought this into fruition. In that case, to your satisfaction, there would be no questions about the status of Russian language education in Estonia whatsoever. Is that so? Or am I still misunderstanding you?

ближе к делу (in reply to above): … The concept of “one Soviet people” didn’t envision remaking Estonians into Russians, neither did it envision the destruction of higher education in the Estonian language or the transition of middle school education to 60% in Russian neither by 1980, not 2000, nor 2020, nor any other year. Not a single Estonian became Russian and rejected his language. The mergence of nations was envisioned in the far future, under Communism, that is after 500 years. That is a theoretical construct, no practical measures to this end were envisioned. Therefore, to equate this with Estonian neo-Nazism (in which the destruction of education really was embodied) is impossible.

бла-бла-бла: Russians never made Estonians second-class citizens. But the Estonians do this to Russians – AND CONTINUE TO INSIST ON THIS. Is it really that this holds no significance for the “thinker” Kaplinski?

вениамин: So what’s the issue about. All these wars are long ended. But Estonian agitprop still hasn’t died down, they still haven’t realized, that we fought and made up, and it’s time to go forwards. Again they start ranting on about their integration… What a bunch of vomit.

Hayduk (in reply to above): True, in that case integrate with the Tajiks, Chechens, if Estonians make you vomit. [AK: I.e., go back to Russia]

….: On the matter of kulak families. Does the author know what the Bolsheviks did to the kulaks? Complete dekulakization, and either shootings, or exile to Siberia! Russians suffered a lot more at the hands of the Georgian mafia of schizophrenics. No need to make oneself out to be the most downtrodden and miserable victims!

villi: Respect.

бабарашка: Why isn’t this article in the Estonian press? Why in the Estonian language press we can only find the “pearls” of Anchutka Iegokodla?

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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This guy Andrew Miller used to be The Economist’s Moscow correspondent. This is his prediction from 2000. I also imagine he’d get on splendidly with K.F./Keif. No further comment is necessary. (h/t Patrick Armstrong)

JRL 4331
From: “andrew miller”
Subject: The Gathering Storm
Date: Sun, 28 May 2000

Topic: The Gathering Storm

Title: The Oblast of Russia?

… New predictions: Vladimir Putin will not leave power in 2004 or 2008 no matter the results of any election. He will die in office like Brezhnev unless he is ousted like Krushchev in favor of someone like Brezhnev. Within five years, there will be no independent media in Russia (as if there is any now, but according to a recent New York Times editorial in the JRL, there is, so I guess there must be; just wish The Times had told me which kiosk to look in…) Within five years, Russia will absorb Belarus and Georgia (a revised constitution will eliminate the two-term limit for presidents; even if this is not done, Russians will reelect, as that term will come to be defined, Putin as many times as he likes notwithstanding the constitution). Russia will not allow Ukraine to join NATO or the EU and may, within 10 years, forcibly reincorporate Ukraine into the Russia fold if it can substantially improve its military during that time, which it will be able to do only should Western or Asian nations resume lending it piles of cash. In any case, it will do anything it can to prevent such a thing.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a ptitsa! It’s a MiG! No, it’s supergubernator! Within five years, the new supergovernors will have consolidated their power and obliterated the existing concept of federalsim. Within ten years, the supergovernors will have themselves been consolidated into a single new oblast, called Russia. Putin, of course, had been planning to implement his super-governor regime for quite some time (or at least one hopes it was not spontaneous). Yet, he did not mention it during his campaign for president. Conveniently, nobody asked him about it then, and nobody is saying anything now.

According to what passes for logic in the Kremlin now, telling the people what you plan for the future, debates, political advertising, these are all dirty aspects of what might be called capitalist propaganda in politics, aspects which from which Putin has bravely managed to free a grateful nation.

Within twenty years, Russia will make Yugoslavia today look like paradise lost…

Andrew Miller
St. Petersburg, Russia

Well, I guess he’s still marginally better than our other star from The Economist, our good friend Edward Lucas, who in 1998 predicted that “Russian rouble would collapse to 10,000/$, the economy would contract by at least 25%,the Communist hordes would sweep through Moscow taking the Kremlin, as the RussianFederation – held together with string and sticky-tape – broke up into four nuclear-armed, mutually antagonistic sovereign mini-states.” When that didn’t pan out he started writing fantasy short stories about the Dark Lord Putin and Mordor-Russia.

Now I may not have been the best Russia forecaster in the past 5 years, notching up failures (Putin 2012) as well as successes (everything on demography). Nonetheless I have yet to be as wildly, maniacally wrong as The Economist’s two star Russia journalists and would like to think that if I ever am I will at least have the integrity to give up on this whole Russia watching thing.

Then again unlike most Western journalists I don’t live by the motto, “Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it is true.”

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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Really now?

Apart from direct falsifications, which were extensively discussed here, the other really big criticism of the Russian elections process is that it isn’t a level playing field. As said by an OSCE bureaucrat, “The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia.”

Well wait a second. First, uncertainty isn’t the point of an election at all; otherwise, why not make it into a lottery? It’s to get the person who most represents the people into power. Second, there is no country where each candidate gets equal airtime, ad money, debating invites, etc. Cases in point: Ron Paul, Nader, Marine Le Pen, generic Green Parties and Pirate Parties, etc. Perhaps one day we will live in Internet democracies where anyone can nominate oneself and debates are won and lost via webcasts on Facebook but for now level playing fields are a fiction everywhere.

One can write a whole article on comparisons, but why bother when the Russian political scientist Evgeny Minchenko has already done an excellent job of picking apart these questionable assertions about how elections in Russia are much less free and competitive than in the West in his article Seven Myths about the Russian Elections? I translate his effort below. H/t @lindsey_bn for the link via Twitter.

Seven Myths About The Russian Elections

Evgeny Minchenko

Myth 1 – A prolonged stay in power can be the basis for proclaiming the government illegitimate. Here we can look at the examples of Canadian PM Jean Chrétien – 20 years, Federal Chancellor of the FRG Helmut Kohl – 16 years. Ólafur Grímsson is the President of Iceland since 1996, and in 2000 his term of office was extended without elections as there was nobody willing to compete with him, he won the elections in 2004, he once again had his term extended in 2008 with no elections, and he does not exclude participating in the upcoming 2012 elections. There is a similar history with Chrétien and Kohl, although one has to note that it’s a slightly different state of affairs in parliamentary democracies.

Myth 2 – Elite collusion, in our context the Putin – Medvedev “castling”, can be a basis for proclaiming the government illegitimate. Unfortunately, politics is structured in such a way that elite collusion does happen. A striking example is the history of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. When they were nominating a candidate for Prime Minister, they agreed that Blair would go first, and then Brown. Vladimir Putin gave this very example: When Tony Blair stepped down after a scandal, there were no elections. Gordon Brown carried on for another three years as Prime Minister, with no elections, even though when the British voted for New Labour at the polls they were voting for Tony Blair as Prime Minister. On the other hand, when they finally did hold elections, Labour was crushed. In my opinion, this demonstrates that the public does have the opportunity to express their attitudes towards this kind of collusion. Our reaction was Bolotnaya Square and Prospekt Sakharova.

Myth 3 – Harsh screening and disqualification of undesirable candidates in the Russian Federation. True, we have our Grigory Yavlinsky with his 1.5% rating who couldn’t take part in the elections, but I want to draw attention to what is now happening in the Presidential campaign in France. They have a very specific system in that the candidate must enlist the support of at least 500 mayors or elected local officials. Despite there being 50,000 such officials in France, Marine Le Pen – who has a 17% approval rating – has yet been unable to collect these signatures. And this isn’t Yavlinsky, with his 1.5%, this is a person, who has a real chance of reaching the second round. I hope that Marine Le Pen will be able to solve her problem, as did her father Jean-Marie Le Pen; the ruling authorities were forced to command signatures to be gathered on his behalf after public pressure. There are various technologies for filtering out undesirable candidates. A striking example is the impeachment of Rolandas Paksas in Lithuania: Only after he left did it emerge that the court had pronounced him innocent, but by then he could not return to the Presidency. Another example – the story of Strauss-Kahn, who had a leading position among the French Presidential candidates, but who for reasons unknown to us could not take part in the elections. Bidzina Ivanishvili lost his Georgian citizenship, and is not allowed into the Presidential election.

Myth 4 – The dominance of one party or one candidate in the mass media. I think this problem with access to media resources exists everywhere. It’s obvious that in the US candidates from the two key parties dominate over all others. On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that the benefits which Mikhail Prokhorov enjoyed on Russian TV channels in the last elections were for a long time enjoyed by no other candidate.

Myth 5 – Vladimir Putin declined to participate in the debates, so the elections were illegitimate – the voters didn’t have an opportunity to assess him. Let’s take a look at other countries. There were 23 candidates in the last US elections. For instance, Ralph Nader was registered in 48 states out of 51, but the elected Obama debated exclusively with McCain. Having a minimum of 15% in opinion polls is a condition for participating in US debates. Or what about France, 2002 – Chirac vs. Le Pen. As a rule, there are no debates prior to the first round in France. The tradition of holding debates only applies to the period between the first round and the second round. Mikhail Saakashvili, who is frequently portrayed as a great democrat, has never debated anyone in his two Presidential elections.

Myth 6 (very common) – Russian legislation creates comfortable conditions for electoral falsifications. The suggested solution – rewrite the laws so that they match those of normal “democratic countries.” But the problems aren’t in the laws. As a matter of fact, ours are very stringent. They say, “Let’s abolish early voting!” But in the US, typically up to 30% of voters cast their ballots early. As for procedures on allowing observers into polling stations in other countries, in France you have to be a member of the Electoral Commission to observe the voting, and in the US observers are frequently denied access, especially foreign ones. In terms of observer access to polling stations, Russia is actually one of the world’s more liberal states.

Myth 7 – Big protest actions are a cause for a revision of the election results. One striking example – the attempted “Cactus Revolution” in Mexico in 2006. Compared to our modest turnouts, in Mexico up to a million people took to the streets. At the same time, there appeared the following phenomenon: “And I don’t know why this candidate was elected, none of my acquaintances voted for him.” The specific cause of this lay in López Obrador being Mayor of Mexico City, and dominant in the capital and the adjoining southern regions, where many people genuinely didn’t know anyone who voted for Calderón. Nonetheless, all those protests came to naught.

What is to be done?

For the elections to be more honest and transparent, we need to have an independent judiciary, and opposition representation in parliament and the regions. I think that if there were to be elections for governors, they would enable them to reallocate administrative resources between the various parties. Inter-elite conflicts, a stable tradition of political competition – which we still have to work out, as it unfortunately isn’t double within 20 years – independent media, true federalism, and so those proposals that were made by Medvedev are, in my opinion, adequate: The liberalization of political party registration, and the transition to direct elections of governors.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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“Despite it being a sad and fearful prospect, in my opinion a totalitarian reversion for a certain period of time is possible. But the danger lies not in the law enforcement agencies, the power organs, and not even the Army, but in our own mentalities – our people’s, our population’s, in ourselves. It all seems to us – and I admit it, at times it seems that way to me as well – that if we restore order with a firm hand then our lives will become better, more comfortable, and more secure. In fact, this sense of comfort will pass by quickly, because that same firm hand will soon start to strangle us. We will feel it on ourselves and on our families. It is only under a democratic system that officers from the law enforcement agencies – whether they are the KGB, MVD, NKVD, or go by some other name – know that tomorrow could see a replacement of the political leadership in their country, region, or city, and that they would have to answer this question: “Did you comply with the laws of your country? How did you treat the citizens under your power?” – Vladimir Putin, 1996.


“When Russia has no Tsar, there appears a Time of Troubles. When the supreme power weakens, civil war flares up. You understand, the precise name – Tsar, President, General Secretary, Chairman of the Supreme Council – has no relevance whatsoever. There has to be a strong power, a strong executive. If there is no strong power – there will be no united Russia, but constant wheeling-dealings, violence and reprisals.” – Boris Nemtsov, 1997.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Russia has a long and proud drinking culture; according to the chronicle of its founding, the main reason it chose Christianity over Islam was the latter’s prohibition of booze. Vodka has been distilled there since at least the 12th century. As of the time of writing, it is the world’s largest spirits market by volume – 2.4 billion liters in 2009, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), of which more than 80% accrues to domestic vodka brands. Whiskey’s share is only 0.5%; but it is growing at explosive rates, and whiskey now account for two thirds of all spirits imports. Indigenous distilleries are sprouting up and conditions appear favorable for this growth to continue.

In the Soviet period, the only spirits available to most citizens were vodka and cognac from the Caucasus – a point illustrated by Erkin Tuzmukhamedov, one of Russia’s leading sommeliers and author of whiskey books, who got his first taste of Scotch by taking sips on the sly from the bottles his diplomat father brought home from abroad. This changed with the opening up of markets in the early 1990’s. Whiskey consumption has seen tremendous growth; the SWA says exports to Russia have risen from £5m to £31m in the past decade.

Though starting from a low base in comparison with the biggest Scotch markets, such as the US’ £499m, growth is expected to remain double-digit well into the future for three main reasons. First, rising incomes means Russians can afford to develop more refined tastes. Second, the growing segment of female drinkers favors spirits that can be sipped. Third, the government plans to quadruple the currently low excise duties on spirits by 2014, thus narrowing the cost differential between vodkas and whiskeys. All this implies growth for blends, which dominate the Russian whiskey market – for a time, Tuzmukhamedov was Dewar’s chief promoter in Russia – and very strong growth for single malts.

Reactions to inquiries about indigenous Russian producers was dismissive, their current presence being described as “fairly negligible.” There are some distilleries that have laid down their own malts, but are currently maturing and won’t be ready for years. One example is Viski Kizlyarskoe, a Daghestan-based brand that in 2008 laid down test run trials of all major types of whiskey – malt, grain, and blended – and is building a $7m distillery.

Praskoveysky distillery

Praskoveysky distillery

Another is the Praskoveysky distillery based in Stavropol, which has been producing wine and cognac since 1898. In 2008, it expanded into whiskey, starting up production in oak barrels on Irish technology. The factory manager, Boris Pakhunov, claims that it has a better nose than the Jameson that inspired his brand, and the honey tones are sharper.

The first samples from both are coming to market just now, and once in mass production prices are expected to range 300 to 400 rubles ($11-15) – an economy class alternative to vodka and the most popular imported brands in this category, such as White Horse or Famous Grouse.

Later, in May 2010, the Urzhum spirits distillery announced the launch of its own line, headed by “Officer’s Club.” Another increasingly popular approach is to just import whiskeys from abroad and bottle one’s own blends, as done by the Kaliningrad-based distiller Alliance 1892 in February of this year. It’s product, “Seven Yards”, went on sale this May, costing $18 per bottle.

So it’s a beginning of sorts, if not an overly impressive one thus far. Nonetheless, as whiskey’s following grows, this could change. According to Tuzmukhamedov, there are whiskey appreciation societies in the biggest cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg: “I’ve met ordinary guys who save their money to go on holiday to Islay – that’s not affectation, that’s appreciation of the drink.” He should know, as he runs Dewar’s new whiskey academy in Moscow, whose one month courses have become very popular with restaurateurs.

Whither now? Tuzmukhamedov is very skeptical that whiskey will ever displace vodka as Russia’s national drink, because vodka has the weight of tradition behind it and goes much better with the staples of the Russian diet. Though there is a lot of room for growth remaining, he expects it to eventually level off. Russian whiskeys are likely to become more prevalent on the Russian market, and some may even be exported. There is an antecedent for this in Baltika beer, which began brewing in 1990 on foreign techniques and can now be found in Western supermarkets.

That said, there is still a long way to go. According to Tamerlan Paragulgov, the director of an alcohol standards agency, many of the fledgling Russian whiskey makers still have fairly obsolete marketing standards; case in point, the Praskoveysky winery and cognac distillery is still run in a leisurely and paternalistic fashion as a Soviet-style enterprise. Another problem, according to Tuzmukhamedov, is that it is very hard for a small producer like Praskoveysky to establish itself in competition against the big names.

The experiments of today’s Russian whiskey producers may garner interest among whiskey circles in Russia, but they will have to get more serious about marketing and raising capital if their products are to break out into the wider market.

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(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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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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Next in our line of Watching the Russia Watchers interviews is Mark Chapman, the fiery Canadian sailor who’s been blazing a path of destruction through the fetid Russophobe ranks since July 2010. That was when he first set up The Kremlin Stooge, after being blocked from La Russophobe, who couldn’t withstand his powerful arguments without resorting to Stalinist tactics. The blog’s name, as he explains below, was bestowed by one of LR’s commentators (“Soviet Goon Boy” was considered, but rejected). Since then, he has expanded his coverage well beyond exposing La Russophobe and now goes from strength to strength: humiliating the self-appointed experts, drawing guest posts, being regularly translated by InoSMI, praised by La Russophobe, and making first place in S/O’s own list of the Top 10 Russia blogs in 2011. Without any further ado, I present you Mark Chapman the Kremlin Stooge, the Rambo of the Russophile blogosphere!

The Kremlin Stooge: In His Own Words…

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

As I’ve mentioned before in various exchanges with commenters, I was invited – hell, the whole world has been invited – to start my own blog by La Russophobe. Most have noticed “she” doesn’t care for dissent or for having her own blog rules used to regulate her conduct, and a common response is “why don’t you go and start your own blog, and see who reads it”. So I did. Of course, the invitation is based on the presupposition that it will be a grim failure which will teach you what a useless worm you really are.

I stumbled upon the La Russophobe blog during a search for early souvenirs of the Olympic Games in Sochi – I was looking for a backpack as a present for my wife. La Russophobe ran a post mocking the Russian souvenirs at the Olympics then in progress in Vancouver, because they were allegedly tacky and cheap. An exchange took place between us, and eventually I was banned from commenting. I invented a new ID – snooty Englishman Francis Smyth-Beresford (so as to have the initials FSB, and it was amazing how quickly otherwise-clodlike Ukrainian/Australian La Russophobe devotee Bohdan caught on). I tried hard to keep the criticism subtle, but eventually I was banned under that name as well. After that, I started The Kremlin Stooge, adopting the name from one of Bohdan’s favourite insults.

Prior to the initial accidental visit to La Russophobe, I was quite honestly unaware of that brand of barking mad Russophobia. I understood, of course, that bias against Russia existed, but there’s some degree of bias against almost everybody, and I rationalized that some had good reasons to dislike Russia while others just thought they did. But there’s a gulf of difference between reasoned disapproval and slobbering hate. I enjoyed challenging that hate, and exchanges with commenters who took a more reasoned approach while backing up their opinions with solid references taught me a great deal. Starting a blog seemed enormously daunting because I’m not that computer-savvy. However, for anyone who’s thinking it over, it’s dead easy and I encourage you not to wait if that’s what’s holding you back.

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

The best was probably the first time a post was picked up by inoSMI; it was one I had done on Georgia and Saakashvili, about 6 weeks after I started the blog. I thought something had gone wrong with my stats counter, because I got more hits in one day than I’d accumulated to that time in total, I think – 1,146 where my total for all of July, the month I started, was only a pitiful 854. Also great is any time I get a comment from one of the blogging greats I admire, like Eugene Ivanov, Leos Tomicek, yourself, Sean Guillory or Kevin Rothrock.

The worst is whenever I get my ass handed to me because I failed to research something properly. A good example was the post, “Are Slavs Stupid?” At the time I’d had a running argument going for some time with a commenter who appeared to be a borderline white supremacist, and we’d gone the rounds of blacks being criminals because they were black to Mexicans being lazy because they were Mexicans, to Slavic peoples being genetically less intelligent because of their nationality. I kept pecking away at the post until quite late, and hit upon some killer references that totally vaporized his arguments by demonstrating that Estonians had an extremely high incidence of apparently uniform academic excellence. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the crucial step of ensuring Estonians were Slavs – which, by and large, they’re not. I just assumed they were. I was too tired to take the extra 5 minutes it would have required to check my main argument, and as a direct result the whole thing fell apart. The larger point that Slavs are no stupider than any other group and that research supporting “genetic intelligence” has been broadly discredited was lost in the triumphant mockery, which of course I richly deserved for my laziness. I’d like to say it taught me a lesson, but still every now and then a dodgy bit of research or some shortcutting has resulted in me getting my legs kicked out from under me. Live and learn, they say.

What are the best blogs about Russia? What are the worst?

That’s hard to answer, because there are so many good ones and not really any bad ones. All serve a purpose. I really like “Russia: Other Points of View”, especially those entries contributed by Patrick Armstrong – the blog strikes just the right tone of reproachful correction of errors or misconceptions without a lot of screeching histrionics. But it’s dull because there are hardly ever any comments or argument, and I’d love to learn from a really good bare-knuckle fight at that elevated level of discourse. “Truth and Beauty” is another really good one. I did a review of the Russia blogs right after we rolled through 100,000, but it left out all the brilliant ones I haven’t discovered yet. Mark Galeotti’s, “In Moscow’s Shadows” has had some fascinating discussion of Russian legal and constitutional reform and Caucasian politics, but it’s not updated very often and the comment format is awkward.

Even blogs like La Russophobe serve a purpose – they’re really funny, not only because of the over-the-top exaggeration, fabrication and deliberate attempts to mischaracterize actual reports, but because of the breathless arrogance, swollen ego and holier-than-thou self-stylings of its author or authors. It used to motivate me to argue, but now it more often makes me laugh on the rare occasions I read it, and I’ve kind of gotten away from using it for inspiration. I remember in his interview AGT singled out Catherine Fitzpatrick as well, for generally long-winded blather, and there has been a good deal of speculation that she actually is La Russophobe. While her writing often runs to lengthy rants and she does seem to fall into that Soviet expat Russia-is-the-root-of-all-the-world’s-problems pigeonhole, she comes across as intelligent and well-educated, and you can sometimes reason with her a little (both of which argue against her being La Russophobe, if anyone cares). I don’t think those kind of blogs are responsible for too many attitude changes, so they’re mostly harmless.

What is your favorite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I’m not well-traveled in Russia at all, and have never been outside the Primorsky Krai. I love Vladivostok, and was greatly encouraged the last time I was there to see ongoing efforts to restore and properly maintain some of its old buildings, with their beautiful architectural detail. There are so very many places I’ve never been, but I tend to favour places with a lot of history and large areas where the “old city” is preserved. For that reason, I’m especially interested in St Petersburg. Although Moscow seems to me like a grey, anonymous city that could be anywhere, there are probably fabulous attractions there as well that I’d love to see. I enjoyed visiting a lot of small villages around the Primorsky region – usually just passing through – and would like to spend more time there as well. Generally, I’m less interested in going someplace I already know everything about, and more interested in discovering a place I know nothing about.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West”, by Oleg Kalugin [AK: Click to buy]. I imagine you were thinking more of a book that reveals the true Russian soul, or reflects a defining phase of the nation’s history. Doubtless such works exist, but I’m not an academic and I haven’t read them; besides, I’m not convinced my assessment of what constitutes the key to the Russian soul or a significant historical moment would have much value. Kalugin’s book was compelling because it revealed so much about the inner workings of the KGB, including how influential it was on all aspects of state policy. It was instructive in its substantiation that the best intelligence assets simply walk in off the street rather than being wooed by “honey traps” like you see in the movies, and that they are nearly always motivated by money. Kalugin was one of American spy John Walker’s handlers, and the most senior KGB operative to write about the organization he had been an influential part of. He also revealed that for many years they had a very highly-placed source in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Security Service (which eventually became our version of the American CIA, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)); something I never knew.

For what it’s worth, I asked my family – all Russians (my Father-in-Law, Mother-in-Law and wife) – the same question. Each got a pick, although it inspired much anguish and a comment from Sveta that it was like asking a mother of ten to choose her favourite child. They came up with Nikolai Gogol’s “Taras Bulba” , Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, and Tolstoy again with “War and Peace”. I’m not trying to cheat and recommend four books for a question that asked for just one, but to point out that the essential character of Russia means different things to different people.

If you could invite three Russians, past or present, to a dinner party, who would they be?

Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Revva and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Mr. Putin because his leadership of Russia fascinates me, Aleksandr Revva in case the mood got too somber because everything he does and says is hilarious, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in case I had to do the cooking myself. I learned from “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that he’s not a fussy eater, and would likely make anything look tasty. Aleksandr Revva might not count, because he was born a Ukrainian, but he’s been a staple feature of Russian comedy for a long time.

Do you think the average Russian lives better today than in 2000? What about 1988? Are they richer, freer or happier than before?

All of those, I think, but I don’t have any firsthand knowledge and am basing that assessment simply on statistics. There will always be people who are dirt-poor no matter how good the economy becomes, because they don’t know how to manage their money and won’t ask for help. But the opportunities to be richer and freer are certainly present to a greater degree, as are those to be well-informed and connected. The entire category of what constitutes the “average Russian” has changed since 1988.

Who knows what makes people happy? Russians are no different than anyone else in that respect, and some people everywhere are happy regardless of the conditions that define their lives. But I believe Russians feel much more self-determinant and in control of their own lives now. If that’s happiness, then yes.

To what extent is there a difference between Putin and Medvedev, and who do you think offers the better vision for Russia’s future?

Medvedev is a dreamer and Putin is a pragmatist. Medvedev seems out of his depth trying to actually run a country – it’s quite a bit different from running a company – and there seem to be too many variables for him to grasp, while Putin knows as much about running a country as anyone in Russia. Medvedev would be gobbled up in nothing flat without Putin behind him, while Putin demonstrably could survive quite well without Medvedev. For all of that, Medvedev has a better vision for Russia’s future, because he’s a dreamer and he wants things that will only come true – in the short term – in dreams. I don’t doubt he wants what’s best for Russia, but the opportunities for him to fall into a pit on the way are legion. Putin is considerably more a realist and his ideas for reform are generally more achievable as a consequence of his worldview. Together they make a pretty good team, and would be even better as Medvedev gains a little political experience and learns when saying nothing is better than saying something stupid.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

National image management. Even though resistance is strong to any attempts by Russia to put itself in a positive light on…well, just about anything you care to name, it’s just a skill like any other, and you get out of it what you put into it. Look at Israel – legendary lobbying skills. The USA is very, very good at it as well. Russia, frankly, stinks out loud at it. Past time for a makeover.

This came up awhile ago, in a couple of places. One was at Eugene Ivanov’s blog, where he proposed – half-jokingly – in the comments section of an excellent post on the odious Jackson-Vanik Amendment that Alina Kabaeva be deputized as the “new face” of United Russia. Of course she doesn’t have any real qualifications for the job except that she couldn’t possibly be as stupid as Sarah Palin is, she’s beautiful and has eye-magnetizing cleavage. But the implication that Russia needs to get away from arm-waving “Commie” stereotypes who are too easy to mock and move in the direction of suave, personable diplomats who have been groomed all their working lives for their assignments is spot-on.

Another was at Denise Martin’s blog, where we were discussing the late-50’s-era novel, “The Ugly American”. Although it was a work of fiction, it bore down fairly strongly on American foreign policy vis-à-vis Asia and the fictional nation featured was often said to mirror real-life South Vietnam; it was tremendously influential on JFK’s revamped and revitalized foreign policy, and instrumental to the creation of the Peace Corps. In the novel, American diplomats are clumsy, ignorant and uncaring, speak the native language poorly or not at all and are plainly uninterested in learning. Their Soviet (at the time) counterparts are sophisticated and urbane, firmly in touch with the culture and traditions of their hosts and speak the language like natives. Consequently, their influence is viewed in a much more positive light than that of the United States.

Take a memo, Russia. Stop staffing your diplomatic corps with bad copies of Boris and Natasha from “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” and start recruiting people foreigners will want to listen to.

HARD Talk with The Kremlin Stooge

Now you often come off as a big Canadian patriot (in a good way), but you also respect Russia’s assertive foreign policy of recent years. But what happens should the two collide? They have conflicting claims in the Arctic, due to overlapping continental shelf extensions. In recent years, Ottawa has criticized Russia for planting flags at the North Pole and flying bombers near its airspace. Both countries are expanding their military forces in the High North. Whose claims are the most valid? Who is most to blame for the intemperate rhetoric? Is this just political grandstanding, or is there a risk of an escalating cold war?

I don’t see any risk at all of it escalating beyond the decision of a UN Commission, if it even goes that far. After all, in accordance with the Illulissat Declaration, all nations with skin in the game are resolved to settle the issue by bilateral agreement. Russia’s current claims do not extend into the existing coastal boundaries (EEZ’s) of any Arctic coastal claimant, although opinions differ on overlapping claims beyond those, as you say. From what I can see, although I certainly am not a geologist, the Lomonosov Ridge is just as likely to originate on the Canadian side as the Russian side, and that’s the subject of intense research, but it’s like trying to determine which end of the Golden Gate Bridge is its origin after everyone who built it is dead and there are no plans.

In truth, I would have to say Canadian rhetoric I have read on this specific issue has had more of the ring of challenge about it, while Russia’s position appears more conciliatory. However, our government – especially when it is a conservative government as it is now, often echoes the concerns of its more powerful neighbour without thinking too much about whether the issue actually threatens us. About 85% of our trade goes south to the USA, and any “misunderstanding” that might imperil that relationship is to be avoided. To be honest, any government would do the same in the same circumstances, because any hiccup would have immediate impact on our economy. And the USA is the only nation that has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted overwhelmingly to send it to the Senate for a vote 5 years ago. The USA seems to be waiting for new developments before committing itself, and the potential for an open Northwest Passage is likely a big part of that reluctance. I see Canadian rhetoric on this issue as mostly strutting for the benefit of our partners to show them we are keeping their concerns in mind. The offshore patrol vessels currently in the imaginative design phase for the Canadian Arctic are unlikely to have any serious offensive capability, and surely are not intended to fight a war for the high north.

As far as flying bombers “near” another nation’s airspace goes, when did that become illegal? As the agreement cited above specifies, all Arctic coastal states share responsibility for and stewardship of the Arctic. And almost all Russian aircraft designed and crewed for long onstation patrol functions are military.

My first loyalty is always to my own country; but I see no need for bellicose posturing and swaggering and believe it serves no purpose other than to make you look an ass when you are probably not. I’m in agreement with U.S. Senator John Quincy Adams – “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

You’ve praised A Good Treaty, and he rewards you by telling La Russophobe that “you guys really deserve each other.” Ouch! Have anything to say to that?

I’m glad you brought that up, because I was really hurt. I threw up my supper, stumbled to my room, buried my face in my pillow, drummed my feet on the bed and screamed, “Fuck you!!! Fuck you!!! What do you know, anyway??” Now that I’ve had time to cool down a little, I demand satisfaction – let’s settle this like men. We’ll fight. Since it was my idea, I get to choose the weapons, and I pick can openers in six feet of water (I hope he’s a short little bastard). Meet me in Shreveport, Louisiana on July 16th (my birthday), MoFo, and only one of us will walk away.

Seriously, I doubt Kevin thinks very much about my blog, although he’s kind enough to leave it on his blogroll and I get a lot of referrals from AGT. But I believe Kevin sees himself as a Serious Blogger, while seeing me as a Fundamentally Unserious Halfwit. He announced at his first blogging anniversary that he was going to hang up the tilting-at-windmills stuff and try for serious analysis. Maybe there’s just not as much room in his life for silliness any more, or he’s lost his patience for it. Also, he has a new baby in the house – must be just about time for some teeth – and maybe he was just tired.

Anyway, I really didn’t take any offense, because he’s right – we do deserve each other. There wouldn’t be any Kremlin Stooge without La Russophobe, and although I don’t use her articles for inspiration as often as I once intended, it’s great blogs like his that coaxed my interest in Russia beyond the panting fury on show at her nutblog. I guess he’s entitled to a little criticism. And I’m pretty sure there’s still plenty of room in the Russia-watching blogosphere for Serious Bloggers and Fundamentally Unserious Halfwits.

In the previous section, you said that Medvedev was a “dreamer.” Could you please elaborate? Because some would say that he has been very active at implementing reform. He has fired far more senior bureaucrats and regional bigwigs than Putin ever did, e.g. in the course of the police reforms a third of the most senior officers were recently dismissed. To give a range of other examples, in the past year Medvedev ordered state officials to leave the boards of state companies, signed a law that eliminates prison terms as mandatory punishment for white-collar crimes, promoted the privatization of state assets, and asked the government to draft a program for the support of education of Russian students in leading international universities. So is your attitude not, in fact, a “presumption of failure” in Eugene Ivanov’s words?

Actually, I kind of wish I had read that post before I responded. The comments as well; especially Patrick Armstrong’s, in which he pointed out that the attitude toward reform in Russia – from a typical western perspective – is that it’s immediately a complete success or else it’s another dismal failure. But it probably wouldn’t have changed my response much. Still, you’re right – as is Eugene – that Medvedev has achieved a good deal that he’s received little or no credit for, and perhaps that’s deliberate although it’s difficult to reconcile a west that wants to see Medvedev in the big chair rather than Putin with a west that never says anything good about Medvedev.

No, what I meant to infer when I said Medvedev was “a dreamer” was not so much Medvedev’s/Putin’s actual accomplishments (and admittedly, the list of Medvedev’s accomplishments is more impressive than I would have thought) as Medvedev’s hopes that these accomplishments are going to win over the west and inspire a renewed rapprochement with it. Putin, whom I described in the same question as “a realist”, knows there will be no such rapprochement unless the west has no other alternative, and that the international game of musical chairs in which the west tries to inch closer and closer with encircling military bases will continue long after the music stops. In this comparison, Medvedev looks like Charlie Brown; unable to stop himself from taking another run at the football, even though on some level he understands the probability it will be yanked away just as he commits.

However, if you suggested that’s uncharitable, and that someone who really wished Russia success insofar as her interests do not trample on those of someone else’s rights, you’d be correct. The thing to do would be to get behind Medvedev’s plans, and amplify his successes as they deserve to be. I humbly so resolve. And although I remain unconvinced he’s the strong leader Russia needs to consolidate and progress its gains achieved over the past decade, I apologize for my lack of faith in his ability to achieve anything constructive. If for no other reason, because anything that appears to put Lilia Shevtsova and I on the same side cannot go on unresolved.

When Putin came to power he promised to “eliminate the oligarchs as a class”, but as of last year there were 114 billionaires – an order of magnitude greater than under Yeltsin. Putin’s judo buddies and Ozero friends have done particularly well; e.g., to quote Daniel Treisman, “During his second term, control over valuable Gazprom assets began to pass into the hands of one of [Putin’s] old friends, Yury Kovalchuk… After Gazprom bought the oil company Sibneft from the oligarch Roman Abramovich, much of its oil was sold by another old Putin acquaintance, Gennady Timchenko.” (I’d also note the latter was sold the Port of Murmansk for $250 million this year with no public bidding). All this isn’t exactly out of character for Putin either; back in 1999, when the Prosecutor-General Skuratov insisted on investigating corruption in Yeltsin’s Family, Putin helped discredit him with a sex video and pressed him to resign. Even if we accept your arguments that Putin isn’t personally corrupt, isn’t it undeniable that he broke his promise and far from eliminating the oligarchs he has ensconced their power? And given the favors he’s dispensed to his friends, will he not be able to cash in on them with interest once he leaves the Presidency and thus enter the oligarchy himself?

First, what’s the direct relationship between numbers of billionaires and oligarchs? I’m afraid I don’t see a natural correlation between oligarchs and billionaires – if you are one, are you, ipso facto, the other as well? Is T. Boone Pickens an oligarch? If everyone in Russia is a little bit better off financially than they were under Yeltsin – and they are unless they are making a conscious effort to not be – are they incrementally more corrupt?

Although FT often goes out of its way to spin every news item that concerns Russia in an unfavourable light, this reference is at pains to point out that one of these oligarchs is Mikhail Prokhorov. Back in 2007, Prokhorov was allegedly forced by Putin to sell his 26% stake in Norilsk Nickel. This, according to the New York Times, suggests the Kremlin flexing its muscles and punishing Prokhorov. Bouncing back to your reference, we learn that the Kremlin actually did him a huge favour, since when markets collapsed, Prokhorov was “the only oligarch with any cash to spare.” If the Kremlin was able to foresee the market collapse a year before it happened, why didn’t every sugar-daddy make out like a bandit? There’s a disconnect here, in which (according to the NYT) “…under Mr. Putin, the Russian government is establishing vast, state-owned holding companies in automobile and aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding, nuclear power, diamonds, titanium and other industries. His economic model is sometimes compared with the state-owned, “national champion” industries in France under Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s. The policy of forcing owners of strategic assets to sell their holdings has also been compared to recent nationalizations in Venezuela and other Latin American nations. “Yet while Putin reinvents the Soviet Union – and, according to Irina Yasina, “In Russia today, no serious deal can be made without approval from the Kremlin” – despite the fact that there were no oligarchs until Yeltsin sold off state assets at fire-sale prices, somehow Putin is consolidating everything under the state’s iron grip, while a burgeoning bumper crop of oligarchs is getting rich. How? How can these two conditions coexist? A new Soviet Union and a simultaneous flabbergasting spike in private wealth? Come on, guys – get your narrative nailed down.

FT also points out that the surge in personal wealth by the wealthy it persists in referring to as “oligarchs” originates with a 20% increase in value in the Russian stock market in 2010, and increasing demand for raw materials from China. It’s a bit of a stretch to maintain that Putin personally controls the Russian stock market and is shunting sweet deals to his friends – when would he find the time to do that, and how could he have been such a dink as to let it crash in 2009, wiping out billions in his pals’ money? – but anyone who means to suggest Putin is behind Chinese economic growth is asking to be laughed out of the room. Maybe some of those wealthy businessmen gained their original oligarch spurs during the privatization giveaway (under Yeltsin); but if you make more money in straight business deals using that money, are you still an oligarch? When does that stop – ever? Is the west as unforgiving of the source of personal fortunes in the west?

It simply stands to reason that if the economy of the whole country is picking up, the rich will get richer and new rich will join their ranks. It’s astonishing how many places that happens, and the risks are demonstrably greater in Russia along with the rewards.

How has Putin “ensconced the oligarchs’ power” when Prokhorov is the first to dip a toe into politics since Khodorkovsky, and allegedly on the Kremlin’s side at that? As to the other part of the question, is it unusual for national leaders to be connected to the rich? Does this presuppose Putin will become a rich oligarch when he leaves politics? Maybe, but as someone who has not flaunted conspicuous wealth all his life as many similarly-connected western leaders have, it would not simply be a return to type. There’s no denying the opportunity is there. But a Putin no longer in a position to “dispense favours” might not be an advantage worth the price.

As a follow-up to the last question, don’t you think that the only reason Khodorkovsky was singled out by the regime for prosecution was because he funded the opposition and called for transparency? After all, plenty of other oligarchs who misappropriated Russia’s wealth in the 1990’s were allowed to enjoy their riches – or get even richer with the Kremlin’s help.

No, I don’t. Only a fool would argue everyone who deserves to be in jail in Russia is in jail, any more than that state of affairs prevails anywhere else. It was indeed unconscionable to make a deal with the oligarchs in the terms it’s been described – stay out of politics, and yer can keep the swag, ahrrrr. However, once again, was it effective? The country has prospered, the remaining oligarchs have indeed stayed out of politics or moved abroad to protect their wealth (have a look at the numbers of wealthy Americans moving abroad to avoid what they say are crippling taxes), and the chances of success for a policy that would have seen Putin pitting himself against the accumulated wealth of Russia’s richest and all the influence they could muster would have been, I submit, dim. Perhaps Mr. Putin viewed it as a necessary deal to move the country forward without opposition. Again, there’s no evidence to suggest he did it to enrich himself.

There certainly is a sizable segment of society that would like to believe Khodorkovsky is guilty only of funding the opposition and advocating transparency. However, despite YUKOS’s reputation for transparency in business dealings, company records are no such thing and Khodorkovsky is defiantly unrepentant for defrauding Russia of legal tax revenue in order to increase his profit. I believe he funded the opposition mostly to put stumbling-blocks in the government’s way and keep them occupied while he increased his personal control over Russian affairs, and that he had no interest in running the country himself as a political leader because it would have limited his opportunities to enrich himself further, provided he still wanted to court western support. I further believe he was sandbagged disproportionately hard for tax evasion because the government could not get anyone to testify against him for more serious crimes, although there is considerable circumstantial evidence those crimes occurred. Unfortunately, the government’s star witness – the former mayor of Nefteyugansk – is dead, and Mr. Khodorkovsky’s former chief of security is in jail for it.

In September 2000, central Russia was wracked by a series of apartment bomb blasts. As you probably know, many questions about it remain unanswered. There was the bizarre Ryazan incident, the materials on which the Duma voted to seal for 75 years. There was Duma Speaker Seleznyov telling the deputies about a bombing in Vologda, accurate in all respects but one – it occurred three days after his announcement. And those who tried to carry out independent investigations tended to see a drop in their life expectancies; one by one, they were assassinated (e.g. Yushenkov, Schekochikhin, Litvinenko). Is it possible that, directly or indirectly, Putin’s sky-rocketing popularity in late 2000 – and consequently, his Presidency – was built on the blood of innocents blown up by the FSB?

Well, of course it’s possible. However, every story has two sides, and in a disagreement regarding an event for which no direct evidence has been produced, much goes to the credibility of the defenders of each respective viewpoint. So, let’s take a look at who said what. On the “Putin did it” side, David Satter – former Moscow correspondent for FT Russia, then columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Yury Felshtinsky, co-author (with dead Alexander Litvinenko) of “Blowing Up Russia”, sponsored by Boris Berezovsky, in which Felshtinsky accuses Putin of masterminding the bombings to achieve political power. Supposedly the target of a 3-man FSB assassination team, which had arrived in Boston in 2007 to kill him, Felshtinsky is unaccountably (and embarrassingly) still alive 4 years later – perhaps they’re tied up in customs at Logan International (What? Poison gas-tipped umbrellas are illegal???). Boris Berezovsky himself, former oligarch who high-sided it to the UK with his money and forecast in 2001 that Putin would be gone by the end of the year, while blathering on as an authority on what constitutes corruption although the source of his fortune is generally acknowledged to have devolved from his connections with the Yeltsin “family”. The reference also helpfully notes that Berezovsky broke with Putin when he “moved to rein in the oligarchs”. Boris Kagarlitsky, editor-in-chief of Levaya Politika and democracy activist. Vladimir Pribylovski, another co-author with still-not-dead Felshtinsky, and another admittedly biased opposition supporter through his political website On the “That’s just bullshit” side, Gordon Bennett of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a former component of the Defence Academy of the UK and present component of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group. Robert Ware, noted expert on the North Caucasus. Henry Plater-Zyberk, former analyst for the British Foreign Office, specialist in Russia and Central Asia and senior analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Centre. Simon Saradzhyan, security and foreign policy expert, former editor of the Moscow Times and research fellow at Harvard. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, and recognized expert in Russian and Eastern European politics. Who has more invested in the “Putin blew up his own people” story being true?

None of the people mentioned were present when the bombings took place. Although there’s been a lot of talk about “evidence”, there apparently has been none brought forward, and those who supplied testimony are more or less disposed to lie depending on who’s telling the story. Novaya Gazeta reported the testimony of one Private Pinyaev, for example, who supposedly was party to a group who made tea with some “sugar” which was actually Hexogen and which “tasted terrible”, although RDX derivatives like Hexogen are a poison that is toxic even if inhaled or absorbed through the skin and can lead to seizures. That’d be hard to forget.

There are indeed inconsistencies in the case that are difficult to explain. However, the actions supposedly undertaken by the FSB seem so clownishly verifiable that it’s hard to imagine they would so obviously incriminate themselves. The side that argues for it being a false-flag operation consists mostly of political dissidents and democracy activists, while the side that argues against that explanation consists largely of respected academics with a good deal of experience. And if the FSB are all liars, well, it’d be worth remembering where Litvinenko came from.

I noticed that in the original discussion that drew you to La Russophobe (and blogging), you made the following bet with commentator Felix: “The Sochi Winter Games will go ahead as scheduled, and the positive reviews will far outnumber the negatives.” Are you still confident about that given the rate of embezzlement corroding that project? (For instance, one road was found to cost $8 billion; it would have been cheaper to pave it with black caviar). And if you’re wrong do you still intend to send Felix his beer?

I’m still confident Sochi will be rated a success, even though many English-language sources will be disposed to look for negatives. I believe that case of Stella is as good as mine, but of course a bet is a bet and I will pay up if I’m wrong. Note, though, that Felix defined the terms very narrowly, and it does not even need to be a roaring success for me to win – Russia merely has to hold to full completion more than 20 medal-winning events (20 is proposed to be a tie; less, and I lose), and as Felix points out, that’s less than half the events held in Vancouver. Money for jam, as the British used to say.

In that post I also got away with arguing that Boris Nemtsov was not from Sochi, which was Ding! Ding! Ding! incorrect. I didn’t know any better then. Of course, I do now.

As far as the road to Sochi goes – come on, Anatoly. You blew that one to pieces yourself, here. I quote: “Intended to be completed within 3 years in an area with a poorly developed infrastructure, this so-called “road” also includes a high-speed railway, more than 50 bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous, ecologically-fragile terrain!” Once you consider that, you told us, “things begin to make a lot more sense.” That kind of construction ain’t cheap. Although doubtless corruption has inflated the overall expense, this is commonplace with government projects in many countries, few of whom are sufficiently pure to cast aspersions; let’s not inflate it to “Congo-like proportions”. Say, did you notice it’s only Russophobes who counsel using caviar as an alternative – and economically competitive – road surface? I beg to differ: it has serious durability issues compared with asphalt, and in summer! Well, I don’t have to tell you what a caviar road would begin to smell like.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where their mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Russia will be a full member of the WTO by the end of 2012. Joint Asian financial institutions will form which will channel tremendous direct investment into Russia, and ties between Russia and China particularly will strengthen. New spheres of influence will form, and China and Russia will hold annual large-scale joint military exercises. Russia will permit a much greater degree of foreign ownership in state assets. The new Japanese government will formally forswear all claims to the Kuriles, and Russo-Japanese relations will dramatically improve.

That last one is really going out on a limb, as if any such initiative does look likely there will be intense lobbying from the USA to discourage it, and the USA is likely to remain strongly influential in the formation of Japanese foreign policy. But I feel good about it nonetheless.

And specifically, could you make any predictions on who will be the President from 2012?

Whoa – too close to call. I still think it’ll be Putin, and that’s what I’d like to see, but the list of Medvedev’s accomplishments you reeled off earlier makes me think he’s a better bet than I had at first supposed. Either of them could win easily, so I could just say, “The United Russia candidate”. But that’d be facetious.

I think it would be better for Russia if Putin won, for reasons I stated earlier. He’s less easy to seduce with saccharine promises of western cooperation, which is not going to be forthcoming unless whoever wins swears to run the country according to western diktat. However, Medvedev is the more likely of the two to push for liberal reforms that will benefit Russia long-term.

What are your plans for The Kremlin Stooge?

As long as I’m having fun, I plan to keep on keepin’ on. If I can encourage some more of my lazy commenters to put their opinions where my posts are, I plan to have more guest work. Confusion to our enemies, and death to Russophobia!!!

Thanks to The Kremlin Stooge for an excellent interview!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Over at his Foreign Policy Russia blog, and (provocatively?) a few days before Russia’s Unity Day, Vadim Nikitin penned the post Khodorkovsky = Kurils in which he argued for their mutual liberation from the Russian state. Whereas in their time both the conquest of the Kurils and the destruction of robber oligarch Khodorkovsky had been “effective metaphors for Russia’s resurgence”, they now constitute “an impediment for Russia’s modernization”. That’s because “you’re not supposed to know the outcome of a trial in advance” in a modern state, while internationally “what matters today is the volume of trade, not landmass; economic, not territorial, growth.”

Let’s start with the Kurils. Nikitin has an implausibly liberal conception of international relations, relying on the extremely fuzzy logic that unilateral Russian concessions to Japan will promote goodwill and more trade between them. There are immediate problems that any realist could identify. The most important factor is that this is a profoundly unequal exchange: Russia offers a sure and immediate concession, denying itself fishing grounds and barring its Pacific Navy from free strategic access to the ocean, in exchange for… well, nothing. Not even promises of reciprocal concessions from Japan. This strategy paid great dividends in the 1990′s, didn’t it?

Second, nobody sees Russia as a “nice” international player. To the contrary, the prevailing opinion (be it justified or not) is that hard balance of power calculus plays a much bigger role in its conduct than amongst Western countries. Let’s also not forget that in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, Japan had officially forsworn any future claims to the Kurils (and even when repeatedly offered two of the four islands from the 1990′s to 2005 as part of a final settlement, Japan refused to play ball). Consider these two points together, and it emerges that the far likelier outcome of Nikitin’s proposal is that a unilateral Russia giveaway will be interpreted as a sign of weakness (or at best stupidity – which it really would be), and since weakness is contemptible, it will only breed demands for more.

And there surely won’t be any shortage of those. One of the pillars of international stability is that the territorial changes enacted by the victors of World War Two have remained largely permanent and unchallenged by the Great Powers. As Randy McDonald writes in his perceptive post On the foolishness of Japan’s claim to the Kuril Islands: “Italy hasn’t tried to reclaim western Slovenia and the Istrian peninsula, say, or Germany Silesia, or even–pardon the pairing–Finland the Karelian isthmus. Whatever the maritime boundaries between Russia and Japan on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk were before 1945, after 1945 they changed. Japan might almost as well demand the Karafuto–the southern half of Sakhalin island, an entire prefecture in itself–also lost to the Soviet invasion.”

Potentially, it’s not just Japan with territorial pretensions towards Russia. Though I’ve argued before that Russia And China Won’t Fight, the latter’s calculations may shift radically if it observes Russian concessions and interprets them as a loss of will to retain the nation’s territorial integrity on the part of its ruling elites. Even in Germany – a country that has been orders of magnitude more introspective about its dark wartime past than Japan, where many textbooks skim over or deny The Rape of Nanking or the bio-warriors of Unit 731 – the Bavarian party newspaper of the ruling CSU recently offered tourist holidays to “[Russian] occupied East Prussia.” In short, Nikitin’s proposal threatens to open a can of worms that, far from increasing “growth” and “the volume of trade”, will instead undermine both Russian and global security.

Fourth, the vast majority of Russians prefer keeping their country whole. According to the latest poll in 2009, some 82% of Russians were opposed to giving back the Kurils to Japan, while only 8% were in favor (views are even more unambiguous in the Russian Far East where only 4% supported the giveaway in 2005). Vadim Nikitin respects democracy, right? But it gets even better. It turns out that he isn’t the majority even amongst the Russian liberals he presumably identifies with. Some 57% of (liberal) SPS/Yabloko voters said that their attitudes to Medvedev would change for the worse if he gives away the Kurils, barely distinguishable from the all Russian average of 63%.

On November 3rd, I went to a presentation by Denis Alexeev on Russian foreign policy in Berkeley. It was a rather boring and derivative affair, with him simply recycling many of the Western tropes on the subject: that Medvedev is a closet liberal in thrall to Putin’s policy of “confrontation” with the West; that the pro-Kremlin media’s “anti-American rhetoric” was a major cause of poor American-Russia relations from the mid-2000′s to the “Reset”, with no mention whatsoever of the US portrayal of Russia (that is until I pressed him on it during the questions period and he conceded that it was a two-way affair). So rest assured that Alexeev is no “putinoid”, “putztriot”, or “kremlyad” (as per “liberast” terminology). Nonetheless, when during question time one of the participants, an all-out Russophobe who claimed Russia was “just like Saudi Arabia”, condemned Medvedev for visiting the Kuril Islands and called for their return to Japan, even Alexeev tersely responded that the islands are consecrated with the spilled blood of Russian soldiers. That even someone in the deeply liberal minority of the Russian political spectrum would come out with such rhetoric just confirms the suicidal nature of any such endevour for domestic politics. Though Nikitin is free to deconstruct the issue as “symbolic expropriations-as-restitution”, most Russians feel it’s rather more than that.

Fifth (quite a list isn’t it?), frankly speaking – and Japanese assertions to the contrary – Japan needs Russia much more than Russia needs Japan. Japan is disliked in its neighborhood for historical reasons and also has disputes with South Korea and China, whereas few such issues plague Russia’s relations in the Far East. Though Japanese claims on the Kurils are supported by the US, this does not go beyond mere rhetoric, and in any case American influence in East Asia is waning fast. Almost 100% reliant on foreign imports of oil, much of it passing through the Strait of Malacca, Japan is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army Navy and China’s burgeoning network of naval bases (“string of pearls”) around the Middle East to East Asia route. Acquiring a secure alternative supply of energy, i.e. building good relations with Russia, should be one of Japan’s biggest foreign policy priorities. Cajoling from a position of weakness is downright idiotic, for the things Japan can offer Russia – capital and high technologies – can be gotten just as easily from countries like Germany, Italy, even the US.

All this indicates that the Japanese elites are either abjectly short-sighted or just engaged in meaningless political grandstanding. I wouldn’t reject the former. Though they’re in fast decline (economic, demographic, etc), they maintain fractious relations with all their neighbors and have by far the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the industrialized world. On the other hand, Japan’s abstention from any serious measures in response to Medvedev’s Kurils visit – as well as their hurried release of a detained Chinese fishing boat captain in response to China’s threats of cutting off its exports of Rare Earth Metals to Japan – indicates that they know their cards are weak and will fold whenever the other players raise. Whatever the case might be, it’s Japan’s problem, not Russia’s.

Now on to the Khodorkovsky Affair. Now make no mistake. Back in the days before he reinvented himself as a liberal dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a gangster capitalist – and quite possibly worse than “just” a billionaire swindler (e.g. see the list of people from the “White Book of YUKOS” who crossed him and ended up dying untimely deaths). He was hardly exceptional, though – certainly less flamboyant about his wealth than Roman Abramovich, and probably less overly odious than rapist-murderer Alisher Usmanov who continues to prosper to this day. Damning with faint praise! But unfortunately, arguing that you shouldn’t go to jail for thievery just because the guy down the street is an acquitted murderer doesn’t wash in most places.

It is a common view, and one with which I entirely agree, that Khodorkovsky’s main sin was in breaking the deal the oligarchs reached with Putin, in which they got to keep the fortunes they misappropriated in the 1990′s in return for their tribute and political loyalty. Misha thought he was too good for that, bribing Duma deputies to build his own power base and trying to run his own foreign policy through YUKOS (e.g. see Mark Ames’ The Real Reason Why Putin Arrested Yukos Oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky). So the hyena tried to take on the wolf pack that is the Russian state and got his ass handed to him. Smallest violin in the world playing just for him… (BTW, question for Nikitin: if Khodorkovsky “has lost all his money”, as you claim, how come he’s still so prominent? Do his lawyers and PR men work for free?).

Look, I’m not a vindictive person. I don’t support keeping Khodorkovsky locked up just for shits and giggles. But humanitarian arguments don’t hold water. If Khodorkovsky had truly changed, he’d have condemned his own resume and come clean about the whole sordid story. I’m afraid no quantity of self-serving, martyrological op-eds published by his PR men in big Western newspapers qualify. If anything, they just damn him further, because it demonstrates that not only does he produce at least as much bullshit as he attributes to his prosecutors, but that his main goal remains challenging the Russian state – and in particular, sniping at those forces that had rolled back open oligarch domination.

So let’s look at this from a purely pragmatic viewpoint. Vadim Nikitin says that “in a modern, functional state, you’re not supposed to know the outcome of a trial in advance.” Not really. I think we all know the outcome if Osama bin Laden were to be openly captured by the Americans, right? That was too easy.

What about the fact that many businessmen want Khodorkovsky freed, as argued by Timothy Post at Julia Ioffe’s blog? Well, I would certainly hope that isn’t a reason for actually going through with it. Of course people with big private fortunes – especially if they’re made in shadowy and quasi-legal ways, as is still often the case in Russia – don’t approve of the Khodorkovsky precedent. But this is just one of many examples in which business interests don’t coincide with national interests. After all, in August 2008, many Russian financiers were aghast at Russia’s forceful response to the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, valuing their own business and financial interests higher than their country’s murdered peace-keepers and international commitments. They are not to be blamed for that – it is, after all, their job and their nature. But it doesn’t mean the state needs to indulge them.

That is because the dynamics at work here are similar to those in international relations. Remember what I said about unilateral concessions just spurring more demands from predatory Powers? Capitalists are the same. What started out as economic deregulation under Reagan has now mushroomed to a point in which corporations acquire the rights of free citizens (but none of the responsibilities), oil companies can requisition US police forces to detain journalists seeking to report on their own oil spills, the dominant party flat out denies anthropogenic global warming during the hottest year on record, and the state outsources tax collection to private banks and corporations just like the Ancien Régime in France. Again, this is not to argue that the innovation potential of capitalists can’t be utilized for the common good. But letting them off the hook entirely only brings ruin, as seen in 1990′s Russia and increasingly in the United States today.

The final leg of the “Free Khodorkovsky!” argument was made by the commentator mab, against at Julia Ioffe’s blog: “Without making any claims about Russia being better or worse, or three rating points above or below various African countries, Russia DOES have a problem with selective prosecution, rigged courts, and political use of the judicial system. Remember “legal nihilism?” We talk about that over here, and at the highest levels, we condemn it. But then nothing seems to change. So that’s why this trial — where the prosecution’s case is so transparently, so obviously, so clearly we-know-it’s-bogus-and-we-dare-you-to-object — is so important. Everyone is waiting to find out: is it business as usual (ie, legal nihilism prevails) or not?” But the only problem is that mab, actually answers his own question: “It’s not that Mr M and Mr P are feuding, but that the clans backing them are maneuvering and dancing around. Since the dance is going on behind a curtain with only a few shadows visible or the occasional shoe slipping out, it’s hard to say how far the dance has gone. But it might have gone far enough for an acquittal.”

Let me explain. Even if the judge were to acquit Khodorkovsky, IT WOULD NOT BE SEEN AS AN INDEPENDENT JUDICIAL DECISION. Mab himself says as much with his remarks about clan maneuvering influencing the process. In other words, REGARDLESS of the verdict, Russia will remain as “legally nihilist” as before. As established above, the main purpose of Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment is pour encourager les autres, the only result freeing him would have is to nullify that effect – and give a signal to the other oligarchs that perhaps trying to capture the state ain’t so bad no more.

Then there could be one of two scenarios. First, with (the perception of) weakened extra-constitutional checks on oligarch depredation – regrettably, a vital element in a country with institutions as underdeveloped as Russia’s – the hyenas begin running wild again, threatening the climate of political stability that has enabled Russia’s economic (re)growth during the 2000′s. Then, either Russia may begin to go the way of Ukraine, with its permanent oligarchic feuding and much lower long-term growth rates, or the powers that be will be forced to crack down and make examples of over-reaching oligarchs yet again – and more severely than last time, because reestablishing credibility is harder the second time round. Foreign perceptions of Russia, the perceived risk of doing business in the country, and FDI inflows will all be much more negatively impacted than if Khodorkovsky continues to rot in jail.

Now I’m not saying that this will certainly happen. Who knows, perhaps the oligarchs will remain fully cowed and pliant. Perhaps Russia’s institutions have developed to a point where they can independently check oligarch takeover (though obviously none of Khodorkovsky’s defenders have a high opinion of Russian institutions!). But is it worth taking such a big political risk for one scumbag? I very much doubt it, and furthermore, I’m almost certain that “the powers that be” think the same way. My prediction is that Khodorkovsky will remain in jail for a long time to come…

Didn’t really mean to write so much on this, I suppose I was feeling prolific with my keyboard today. So in short – it appears to me that Vadim Nikitin is basically arguing that it is rootless financial elites and the international community (read: Western countries) that should define Russia’s parameters of “modernity and functionality”, regardless of Russian popular opinion and political realities. Yay for democracy! But otherwise, just glad he’s not in charge.

Karlin a la Nikitin.

Karlin a la Nikitin.

UPDATE: Nikitin responded to me in his post The Kurilous Case of Khodorkovsky, for which I thank him, but I remain to be convinced on most issues. A reply to some of the most germane critiques:

Re-Kurils not strategically important: “The strategic aspect is handled by Kamchatka and the fishing volumes can’t possibly be so earth-shattering either.” Though the east coast of Kamchatka does have important secondary bases, the Pacific Fleet’s heart remains Vladivostok. If Japan owned the Kurils it would make Russia’s naval status there nearly analogous to that in the Black Sea.

Re-”So why not use the useless Kurils as a cheap trade for a better image?” But will it create a better image? Magnanimous gestures mean little – who knows or even cares about Russia’s huge debt cancellations in the 2000′s, or it’s amicable resolution of borders with China, Estonia and Norway? In the real world, a good PR machine is the nuts. Ask Saakashvili.

Re-”Anatoly seems to want Russia to play by the same rules as the US: bullying its way around the world, trying people just as the US would hypothetically try bin Laden.” I like to think of it more as fighting fire with fire. ;)

Re-”That means, first of all, dispensing with Russian opinion polls regarding ‘territorial integrity’. Why don’t we also ask ‘the Russian people’ what they think of immigrants, Jews, Georgians and all matter of other gut issues. Or Chechnya.” This is a strawman. While about half of Russians do hold (backward) views that Russia is for Russians, in practice immigrants and minorities have certain legal protections which, though imperfect, do work if the immigration figures are anything to go by (e.g. something like 20% of all Georgians live in Russia). Dismissing Russian popular opinion on territorial integrity in such cavalier fashion is, IMO, unseemly and elitist. Even from a purely practical perspective, I would point out that political capital is a limited resource, and giving away the Kurils will drain much of it for no apparent gain to Russia either social or national. Instead, it may well provide fuel for a nationalist reaction, and make upholding truly fundamental things such as minority rights that much more difficult.

Re-”I mean: what are states nowadays, in the age of neoliberalism? They have offloaded most of their responsibilities towards their citizens, they are increasingly powerless (if, more than anything else, also unwilling) to control financial flows.” Ideologies and international regimes come and pass, but geography remains static. I also think Nikitin overestimates the decline of the state in the age of neoliberal globalism, but that’s another discussion.

Re-”As for Khodorkovksy, I was tempted to pick a fight over language but decided that, as a gifted writer living in 2010 and not 1950, Anatoly was surely only using such Stalin-vintage rhetoric as “conquest of the Kurils”, “destruction of robber-oligarch” and “hyenas trying to take on the wolf pack” ironically to get a rise. I’m equally sure that in identifying me with Russian liberals of the SPS/Yabloko variety, he was just trying to provoke me into writing a response, and does not actually seriously think that I might hold some affinity with the odious Nemtsov-Khakamada brigade.” I plead guilty on both counts.” What’s so Stalinist about “conquest of the Kurils”? It was undoubtedly a conquest and occupation, highly opportunist, but not unjustified (as Nikitin himself agrees). I might have gone beyond respectability on the rhetoric, but I’ve never intended for S/O to be respectable. ;) As for Nikitin’s political views, though I was aware he wasn’t Westernocentric or rightist as are most Russian liberals, I can’t say I’m familiar enough with his political positions to properly classify him on the Russian political spectrum. Question for Nikitin: Who if anyone do you identify with?

Re-”But at least the bad PR will stop, and the investment climate would maybe improve.” Not really. While Khodorkovsky’s people certainly work overtime creating bad PR, it’s not as if they’re the only ones at it. And as Nikitin would surely agree – much of it is actually deserved. But I would argue that this just proves that the main task of the government is to clean up its game, reduce bureaucratic hurdles to doing business (where Russia is currently 123rd in the world), strengthening institutions, informatizing government services. Some of it is already happening but most of it remains unfinished or even unstarted. If Russia succeeds here, then frankly, no-one will care one way or the other about Khodorkovsky. If it fails, no amount of freed Khodorkovsky’s and liberated Kurils will create a positive image.

Re-”But in Russia today, ‘national interests’ are little more than the interests of a small group of people connected to the government, gas/oil wells and strategic enterprises; who use the state mantle as a way of protecting their assets… Anatoly seems to be defending just another clique of hyenas and robber oligarchs, only ones who happen to call themselves the Russian state rather than the ‘liberal opposition’. What’s the point?” Though it’s certainly true that many of the guys who run Russia also benefit from it – as in most other countries – the main question is in terms of degree. Let me explain. Like many others of the leftist persuasion, Obama has been a disillusionment to me (though not an unexpected one). That said, the GOP under Tea Party and corporate influence has become so utterly deranged, ideologically blinkered, and mendacious in their anti-Obama rhetoric that I felt compelled to strongly support Obama in the recent elections nonetheless.

My relation to the “wolf pack” Russian state is roughly analogous. By and large, they are not my ideological soulmates. But… (1) I find the rhetoric and actions of the liberals and “dissident oligarchs” to be so blatantly self-serving and repugnantly worshipful of foreign ways just because they’re foreign that I can’t possibly see how they can be as good as the current regime for both Russia and (ordinary) Russians let alone better, (2) that’s too bad because to be serious contenders even “just as good as” isn’t anywhere near good enough; they have to be “far better than” in order to justify the risks of transition instability and of exchanging the devil you know for the devil you don’t know, and (3) let’s face it – Putin is about 10x cooler than the coolest liberal, whoever he or she is. Hence my qualified defense of it.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

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

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

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

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