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It’s live here:

/r/russia is one of the best forums on the Internet for people interested in Russia.

You can reply in either English or Russian.

Most of the people there are basically Russian patriots, though considerably more socially liberal and better acquainted with the West than the Russian average. However, there are plenty of Communists, nationalists, and liberals there as well.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Interviews, The AK 
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Not even a week in Moscow, and I get contacted by a Zvezda TV journalist requesting an interview about life in America and why I returned to Russia. In a deserted billiards room, I began talking about my theory that there is a civility-friendliness spectrum, with Britain on one end of it, Russia on the other, and America in between. However, I rather embarassingly botched it. I kept saying that while Britons are more civil and polite, Russians tended to be more open and genial, at least once you broke the ice with them. The problem is that my brain hadn’t fully adjusted from English to Russian, and so one of the key words I kept using, “genial,” didn’t actually mean what I thought it meant in Russian – in effect, I have been arguing that Russians were more ingenious than the Anglo-Saxons (they are not). But it was only at the end of the interview that I suddenly recalled that genialnost’ is not genialness. The quizzical looks my interviewer and the cameraman had given me at the start of the interview also suddenly made sense.

I explained what had happened to them, and suggested they cut that part since it made no sense. Relieved that I was in fact sane, they agreed. Unfortunately, my little joke about the only polite Russians being the Polite People would also have to go into the trashbin. But no matter – that episode only accounted for 10% of the entire interview, with almost everything else being about the burning political topic of the day in Moscow right now: Donald Trump. Is the Establishment trying to organize a Maidan against Trump? (Sort of. But in such a lame-assed way that more electors abandoned HRC than Trump himself). Would Trump be a friend to Russia? (Consult Palmerstone and Alexander III. So, most likely, not. But as a successful businessman and a non-ideological “America First” nationalist, it would be easier to make deals with him). What do you make of his apparent hostility towards China? (Let the Eagle and the Dragon claw at each other. Why we worry?).


My friend Artem Zagorodnov, whom I met in London, presented a talk in Juneau, Alaska deconstructing some of the major Western myths about Russia – that is, the sort of material I have written a lot about.

You can watch it here: Putin and Russia’s Evolving Image in the United States.


In more mundane news, I continue renovating my apartment, enjoying the cold dry climate, and making observations of potential interest.

In contrast to just a decade yore, it is now quite safe to use zebra crossings. (Two decades ago, you couldn’t even say that of a pedestrian crossing at a green traffic light). You should still look round, but then the same applies to London, and New York might even be marginally worse. Even as civility in Russia has risen, it has been falling in both Britain and America, so that we are steadily seeing a sort of ironic convergence between the two.

Possibly related: I see a few people with face masks everyday. I approve of this East Asian tradition. If you really have to go out while ill, at least make an effort to avoid transmitting it.


Shopping is a mixed experience. Many security guards. Low efficiency – took me three times longer to order a piece of furniture than it would have in the US or Britain. But I don’t suppose it matters that much right now – the shopping centers were surprisingly empty, especially for this time of year. Russia might be climbing out of the recession according to the latest indicators, but it’s clear that it is not yet being reflected in consumer confidence on the ground.

That said, the quality of service is now very good. At my local El Dorado, the staff were very helpful in explaining the different products on sale and speeding up access to out of stock items. Thanks to the devaluation, Russian made products in most categories of electronic goods are competitive. Online ordering also works smoothly, at least in Moscow. There is no central super-vendor like Amazon in the US, but shipping is fast and and you have the option of paying in cash on delivery.

Hauling large pieces of furnitures up the stairs can be relatiely expensive. But you can hire a couple of Tajiks to do it for much cheaper. No formal agreements, just pluck them off the streets, where the municipality pays them by the hour, and they are grateful for the couple hundred extra rubles while on the taxpayer’s dime. Still probably not a good reason to allow hundreds of thousands of them in, but since they’re here anyway, why not make mutually beneficial deals?


There are two sorts of item which were traditionally cheap in Russia, but are no longer so.

The first such items are books. The time when you could get high quality hardbacks for a few dollars appear to be long gone. This is especially surprising since Russian book publishing takes place in Russia, and as such should have benefited from the devaluation. But apparently not. For instance, I was planning on acquiring a hardback copy of “Twenty Years to the Great War,” a recent published magisterial 1,000 page study of late Tsarist industrialization by the historian Mikhail Davydov, but at $50 it will have to wait.

Incidentally, local bookshops are a favorite haunt of mine, since they – especially their politics and history sections – reflect the ideas of the intelligentsia, or at least the sorts of ideas the elites want their intelligentsia to have. For instance, in a Waterstones in London, Richard Shirreff’s “War with Russia” was very prominently featured. In this poorly written Red Storm Rising remake, the “self-obssessed nutter” and “ruthless predatory bastard” Putler launches a brutal war of aggression against the West. The undertone is crystal clear – Four legs good, two legs bad, and we must never falter in our faith (and funding for) NATO!

The history section of my local bookshop is a decidedly more lowkey affair. The books most prominently featured in that section were Ian Morris’ “Why the West Rules – For Now,” Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization”, and the first two volumes of Boris Akunin’s ongoing project “The History of the Russian State.” Respectively, these books represent: An ideologically neutral study of big history and social evolution from a quantitative perspective; populist dreck based on a lame catchphrase transparently designed to appeal to the Intellectual Yet Idiot crowd; ahistorical dreck from a popular detective fiction writer with a severe animus against the state he is chronicling.

So the next time you encounter a Western hack claiming that Russian bookshops are brimming with ultra-nationalist fantasies and xenophobic tracts, recognize it for what it probably is: Projection.


The second item that was more expensive than you might expect in Russia was vodka. This was not surprising to me personally, since over the years I have written a lot about Russia’s mortality crisis, how it is primarily vodka bingeing that is to blame for it, and how Putin has been successfully tackling the problem by raising excise taxes on alcohol, amongst other measures. Still, it was good to see the effects of those policies in person – the cheapest 0.5 liter bottle was 219 rubles, while the average bottle cost 350 rubles. These prices are not far from American ones in absolute terms and far higher relative to Russian salaries.

The flip side is that this encourages “left” production – the fatal poisoning of 74 people in Irkutsk due to a bad batch of alcohol extracted from bath oil has been at the top of the news this past week. And everytime something like this happens, populists inevitably demand the government lower vodka prices, even though every ruble decrease in vodka prices would result in far more aggregate deaths than the odd Boyaryshnik poisoning now and then.


Thanks to g2k for the Amtsa recommendation – it is indeed the best adjika I have tried to date. Still can’t say I’m a fan, I would prefer any standard Mexican salsa, but I can imagine buying it again.

As I said previously, Russia isn’t the best country for spicy food. As far as I can gather the hottest pepper widely available here is something called “Ogonek,” which I think is similar to jalapeno on the Scoville scale. Most Russians regard it as excruciatingly hot.

I did manage to finally find a cheap, drinkable dry red wine – the Agora bastardo from Crimea. Very far from the best, rather too sour for my taste, but at least I won’t have to become a teetotaller in Russia for lack of options.

I am looking forwards to trying out the Lefkadia/Likuria wines recommended by JL.

That said, I don’t want to give off the impression that Russia, or at least Moscow, is a consumer hellscape. Far from it. While the wine and spice departments are subpar relative to what an American or Briton might be used to, the local teashop has about thirty sorts of Chinese teas on sale, some of them remarkably rare, but all of them at rather reasonable prices. In London, you’d probably have to go to something like the venerable Algerian Coffee Store to find a similar Chinese tea collection.


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Robert Stark has just released his latest podcast in which we discussed all sorts of topics including My American Decade along with co-host “PillEater.”

Robert Stark is a journalist who specializes in interviewing various interesting figures from the Alt fringes. So you could I suppose view him as The Unz Review on podcasts.

Here are some of my previous episodes with him:

Some notes/highlights:

  • My thesis from American Decade that American society has been “Europeanizing” this past decade.
  • The fragmentation of the US political spectrum: “Clinton democrats, Sanders socialists, Rubio/Bush etablishment conservatives, Cruz Bible-bashers, and Trump nationalists.”
  • A big chunk of US income inequality (relative to Europe) disappears once you adjust for race.
  • My political views: “Fairly socially liberal (except for rejecting political correctness, and radical feminism), economically centrist, and closest to Rabbit’s AltLeft.” (The main reason I don’t overtly identify as Alt Left is that I am probably considerably to the right of most of them on economics).
  • The SJW problem – today’s campus Pink Guards will be future elites in 20-30 years.
  • The Bay Area and its remarkably high density of interesting people.
  • The first global warming models were constructed by the Swede Svante Arrhenius, who was also – in what will surely blow the minds of Kochservatives – a eugenicist.
  • Amtrak as a little-known national treasure of America.

This didn’t make it into the podcast due to time constraints, but we also had a little discussion about the ideas of Michael Hudson, an economist (and UR columnist) who criticizes the financialization of the US economy. I am not actually convinced the problem is especially acute in the US – according to the statistics I’ve looked at, the financial sector’s assets relative to GDP are higher in the EU than in the US, and twice as large in the UK. That said, it is surely a pretty big misallocation of cognitive resources at the global level. The people now eking out a few more percentage points in greater economic efficiency (=a couple of years of normal growth) could instead be designing nuclear powered spaceships.

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robert-stark Robert Stark is a journalist who specializes in interviewing various interesting figures from the Alt fringes. So you could I suppose view him as The Unz Review but on radio.

This is my second interview with him. Here is a link to the first.

Robert Stark interviews Anatoly Karlin.

Topics were my standard fare:

Basically, stuff that you’ve probably heard here before.

That said, we did veer into two fairly idiosyncratic tangents.

(1) The Alt Right should embrace Transhumanism

Yes, I know, they are sort of dorky and even SJWish at times. But technology has ideological load, as Michael Anissimov put it (in an article I can’t find), and it just so happens that transhuman techs are perfectly in line with Alt Right, NRx, Identitarian, and even White Nationalist agendas.

  • Raising IQs via genetic editing will arrest the dysgenic trends increasingly affected all peoples on the planet. Degenerating into a global idiocracy serves absolutely no-one’s interest: Not of Europeans, nor Asians, nor Africans.
  • Automation will (hopefully) redistribute resources from the NAM-pandering welfare systems of today to something more fair and equitable. It will also probably help even the gap between indigenous and immigrant fertility rates in Europe and the US.
  • Radical life extension will help preserve White majorities in Europe. The reason that they are declining isn’t just a matter of birth rates, but also of death rates; Europeans are simply much older than your typical immigrant “youth.” Plummeting mortality and morbidity rates – apart from their general desirability – will from an ethnic perspective overwhelmingly benefit Whites and help Europeans maintain majorities in their historic homelands.

Ultimately, this is the future, and ideologies that fail to grapple and engage with it will fall by the wayside.

(2) The Alt Left needs to become a thing

I completely agree with Robert Lindsay on this.

Do you think I should start an Alternative Left movement? People are calling me the Alternative Left. Alternative Left would be something like:

Economically Leftist or liberal (left on economics)
Socially Conservative or at least sane (right on social issues)

It would be something like a leftwing mirror of the Alternative Right.

Do you think it would go over? I am really getting sick of this Left/Right bullshit. Everyone has to decide if they are “conservative” or “liberal.” What bullshit. What if you are a little of both?

Just because I don’t want to engage in SJW faggotry – the sort of ideology that Lenin would have called an infantile disorder, and which Friedrich Engels correctly identified as serving the reaction – doesn’t necessarily mean I want to lick oligarch ass either.

There is no left or right, only nationalists and globalists.” – Marine Le Pen

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Alt Left, Alt Right, Ideology, Interviews, SJWs, Transhumanism 
"British Society Needs A Single Culture, Not The Failed Policy Of Multiculturalism"
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matthew-atkins-ukip The UK will be holding its general elections on May 7th, potentially – probably, if the opinion polls are anything to go by – bringing to an end the past five years of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Neither the Conservatives, nor Labour – the UK’s two main parties – are projected to get anywhere near a majority of the seats. Its “first past the post” electoral system means that the Scottish Nationalist Party is poised for a sweep of Scotland’s 59 constituencies, crippling Labour’s chances of a national majority.

Fortunately for Labour, the Conservatives are getting undermined by the rising star on the bloc, the populist, anti-EU UK Independence Party headed by the colorful Nigel Farage. As a result, many constituencies that were previously Tory fiefdoms will now go to Labour (like third party candidates in the US, sizable parties like UKIP and the Greens can act as spoilers on the dominant parties, but they cannot win many seats themselves). The “hollowing out” of Tory support by the UKIP is driven by rising popular disillusionment with the Conservatives for their perceived elitism and failure to stem mass immigration, which is inflicting pain on the British working class. As for the other parties, the Liberal Democrats have seen their approval ratings collapse due to their volte face on university tuition hikes in 2010, and as a consequence have returned to their old status of political mediocrity; it is now the SNP, not the LibDems, who are likely to be the kingmakers in any coalition arrangement. The end result of this electoral shift, ironically, is that some kind of Labour-SNP-Green coalition is now a very real possibility.

I have lived in the UK for some time. One of my friends there, Matthew Atkins, has become UKIP’s candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood, a region in north-west England that is known for being one of the focal points of the industrial revolution. In an attempt to understand the new forces that are sweeping aside the old structures of British politics, I conducted an email interview with him in which I solicited his thoughts and opinions on where Britain is going and what role UKIP is going to play in this. The French journalist and intellectual Craig Willy, whom I also interviewed a few years back, joined me in the interrogations.

Personally, I think Atkins has provided some excellent and thought provoking answers to what are some difficult and even politically awkward questions. I thank Atkins for his time and energy; it is especially appreciated given that the interview took place very close to the elections date, when campaining is, presumably, at its most intense. I also thank Craig Willy for contributing his own carefully considered questions on EU and foreign policy issues.


Anatoly Karlin vs. Matthew Atkins

AK: Please tell us a bit about yourself, why you joined UKIP, why you chose to stand as its candidate in Lancaster and Fleetwood, and which of its policies are dearest to you and which ones you have some issues with (surely there are at least one or two?).

MA: I was born in Dundee in Scotland and moved to the Lancaster area when I was 14. After school I went away to university in Oxford and worked for a couple of years in London. After that I came back to Lancaster and studied at the university for a Masters and I am currently doing a Phd (all in Law). I am standing in Lancaster because I feel like it is my home town, even though I actually live just over the constituency boundary (we have strange constituency borders which don’t reflect community ties in our area).

My support for UKIP began because I drifted away from the Conservative party in a lot of ways and eventually realised I actually believed in what UKIP were saying not the Tories. To list a few factors:

  • As a grammar school boy (single-sex, selective, state funded education), I support grammar schools, only UKIP still back them.
  • The coalition government’s changes to student tuition fees are sheer madness, and will result in unpaid debts of £300Bn or so by the middle of the century.
  • I did not agree with the Conservative planning policy that led to the spread of wind turbines which I think are expensive and don’t really work. I do not believe Britain belongs in the European Union, because we do not believe in political union and we have a different social and economic outlook to continental Europe. I also think it holds us back from engaging properly with the rest of the work and creates unnecessary bureaucracy.
  • Additionally, a spell volunteering with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, local community advice centres, probably moved my politics a bit to the left on the economy. I think I saw more first hand how right wing economics can adversely impact on poorer communities unless policy transition is managed very carefully, even though I still fundamentally am an economic conservative.

However, the catalyst which actually got me actively involved in politics and caused me to join UKIP was the Redefinition of Marriage Act. As a person of strong faith, this was an unacceptable betrayal by the Conservative party of a large section of their vote, as it was done without a mandate, without a proper debate and without consideration of the consequences for people of faith. UKIP were the only major party to recognise the importance of Christian values to the history and social fabric of Britain, as well as the implications of the Act for Christians and other people of faith, and so I became a member and active supporter of the party. Once in the party I engaged properly with the debate on immigration for the first time because it had never affected me personally before. I immediately began to see the massive groundswell of public opinion on the subject was not just ignorance and bigotry but actually reflected huge social and economic changes that were going on in parts of the UK as a result of uncontrolled economic migration to the UK, particularly in traditionally working class communities.

Therefore the policies which are closest to me personally are not necessarily those which are the most important to the party, though I am obviously still strongly behind the UKIP line on those areas. The party has 5 main pledges: Leave the EU, Control our borders and cut immigration, Cut foreign aid (which is now a very bloated budget in the UK), Put £3Bn more into doctors and nurses in the NHS and Take minimum wage earners out of taxation (for efficiency reasons as well as to help low earners make ends meet). Personally, the UKIP stance on freedom of conscience, protection of religious freedom and the importance of Christian values is one of the most important policy areas. I believe freedom of conscience legislation is now urgently needed to protect Christians in the teaching profession, churches and religious organisation and in the workplace more widely from the encroachment of equalities legislation on traditional moral values. Also close to my heart is the policy to essentially scrap tuition fees for STEMM subjects, I think we need to go back down the road of fewer students but free places urgently or our university system will rapidly be in a mess.

Policy areas of UKIP I am less keen on are things like limiting child benefit to 2 children for new claimants, but that is because I am from a big family (one of four). There tends to be a pretty stark split between those from families with lots of kids and those with fewer kids on this issue. I also recognise that it may be arguably a fairer approach than at present. Ironically, given the fact the first past the post system is a huge disadvantage to UKIP, I am not that much of a fan of voting reform. We had a recent referendum rejecting AV, and I dislike AV because I think your first vote should be your only vote, it means much more. PR I think is a step in the wrong direction because I think candidates need to be more accountable to local constituents not less so, but I know there are many systems, some of which retain an element of local representation. However, these are minor quibbles, in general I think we have an excellent manifesto in almost every policy area (I am about 97% UKIP on whoshouldIvotefor type websites :P ).

AK: UKIP is the closest the UK has to what might be a traditionalist party, and I appreciate that this is why you as a man of Christian faith were drawn to them. However, it appears to me that Farage has been yoyoing on these issues of late, especially when it comes to gay marriage. First he was against it, then dithered, then changed his tack completely and said that it would be “grossly unfair and unethical to ‘un-marry’ loving couples or restrict further marriages.” It seems that he has conceded the culture war has been lost and is merely trying to salvage whatever he can, such as allowing churches to opt out. Perhaps it is simply inevitable, with even 54% of UKIP voters supporting gay marriage. Surely it is electorally prudent. But considering Robert Conquest’s Second Law of Politics – that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing” – is it consistent with a longterm commitment to social conservatism and traditional British values?

MA: I don’t really dispute that you are bang on right about most of this. UKIP is a libertarian party not a Christian one, it is not proposing to repeal same-same marriage, and even I accept that for that to happen there would have to be a significant cultural shift back to faith in the UK, which may not be likely to happen so I will not be actively fighting for the repeal of same-sex marriage, but I do want to push for the cultural shift back to the Christian faith, for a lot of reasons, not just this particular issue. However, UKIPs policy is not merely an opt out for churches, it is proper protection of conscience legislation, to modify equality legislation. This would not to allow you to refuse someone a job or anything, but would make it clear that Christians can be sure they will not be sacked or prosecuted for openly expressing their faith and even acting on it in regards this issue. Aside from that UKIP and Nigel Farage have said that the UK should be more “muscular” in expressing its Christian values. UKIP were also the only party to oppose the change in the law on marriage in the first place, for which I still give them significant credit. I know Nigel Farage is not overly concerned about this, nor are many voters, however I would equally suspect we lose very, very few votes from our stance as a party on this point and we gain quite a lot.

The key point for me is that UKIP is a party where I can still genuinely be an open Christian and a politician. In the Conservative party for example, Nicki Morgan has famously U-turned completely on this issue in order to be given a ministerial job. Labour actively whipped candidates to vote against protection of conscience amendments to the Bill and as we all know “don’t do God”. Both parties are aggressively secularist, the Greens and the Lib Dems are openly aggressively secularist. Some people may like that, but many do not. It will never be party policy in UKIP to be actively Christian, though notice it is party policy to promote Christian values, but at the moment it is not incompatible with party policy for me to stand for that on a personal level. That is as good as I am going to get at present, and I intend to make use of the opportunity that provides me.

AK: I am aware that this will not be a popular argument here, but I do think it’s a legitimate one. There are some schools of thought that, properly targetted, foreign aid can actually help stem immigration from Third World countries by reducing their fertility rates and improving domestic conditions, thus providing less incentives to hazard the perilous and expensive sea routes to Europe. It could even provide more “bang for the buck” in reducing immigration relative to more obvious and expensive solutions such as higher spending on border control. As an added bonus, it’s also a great deal more humane. Furthermore, spending on foreign aid is actually very small as a percentage of GDP – less than 1% in all countries but Norway or Sweden – even though this does go against popular perceptions and popular rhetoric. Do you think aid spending is something that the UK could productively work on with the EU and/or other European countries?

MA: I accept that in limited cases that argument may be true, and again it was not until I joined UKIP and examined the facts that I became committed to a cut in the UK foreign aid budget. I am also not saying it is right for every country to cut foreign aid. For me the foreign aid debate in the UK boils down to one thing though – the number £12Bn (and rising). I don’t know how many people you think it would take to effectively spend £12Bn every year on an issue as complicated as international poverty and development, I think it would take an awful lot. Many thousands. I do not support creating a massive organisation to ensure our foreign aid is well spent, at present all the evidence is that large chunks of it are badly spent. I think that issue is essentially intractable. The budget has increased £4Bn in 5 years on the basis of pure ideology, with no evidence of its effectiveness. In fact last year the responsible department spent £1Bn in 8 weeks just to meet its spending targets. Badly spent aid has enormous potential to entrench corrupt regimes and build vanity projects that will fall apart without on going maintenance, with significant environmental and economic costs. The figure of 0.7% of GDP was agreed internationally in the 1970s and few countries have ever met it. Inflation has rendered the figure outdated. The sums involved are too large to be effectively utilised unless we can trust the government in target countries to spend well, which we can’t. I looked at the spending figures and if we met every international spending obligation we have at present and maintained every bi-lateral budget allocation we have in the foreign aid budget on health, education, disaster relief and water aid, we would still have spent well under half the budget. Maybe the cut we are proposing, down to 0.2% of GDP which is what America spends, the most generous country in the world, is too great, but at least half the budget simply cannot be justified on current figures. As Nigel Farage has said, it is a moral crutch to assuage our consciences for the trade barriers we put in place that prevent the African agricultural economy from developing and the FDI practices our companies use to exploit the resources in LEDCs. If we really want to change world poverty there are things we can do to help, at least half our foreign aid budget is not currently one of them.

Therefore in UKIP we would not just cut the spending, we would increase and make fairer the trade we have with developing countries. Then we would spend the money to remedy some of the appalling shortfalls in care in the UK. For example in mental health and elderly social care. It is also worth noting that many of our top military personnel think it is madness to be cutting defense spending as we are, especially on personnel, while raising foreign aid. The contribution that our armed forced make to humanitarian efforts and peace-keeping is a far better way to spend the money in promoting development than the foreign aid budget itself.

AK: Since the last elections, the once marginal UKIP raised its profile so much that it has now displaced the Liberal Democrats as the third party of British politics according to the opinion polls. This is a very impressive achievement. But it is only projected to get a few seats – as much as ten times fewer than the SNP, which only contests seats in Scotland, a region that has less than 10% of the UK’s population. That doesn’t sound very fair! Is it time to get rid of the first past the post system? If so, how do you/UKIP intend to go about it?

MA: I think I actually answered this a little bit in the question before. UKIP now propose “electoral reform” but we haven’t plumped for a particular system yet. The trick is to find one that doesn’t result in too many Green MPs… I jest but it feels to me like the whole electoral reform debate is like that, how can any political party ever be impartial on this point? Personally, I find lobbying and party funding to be a bigger issue, and the UK system of postal voting. To me the biggest barriers to UKIP winning seats is actually the relative amount of money we have compared to Labour and the Conservatives, and the vast number of essentially unionised “foot-soldiers” Labour have when campaigning. For example, in every constituency (every marginal one anyway), Labour will man every polling station in shifts and will have a fleet of cars taking their voters to vote. In the constituency where I am standing, I have been able to afford (mostly through personal financing or donations from family, friends and local supporters) to send out 1 leaflet to every house-hold, and I have hand delivered a second leaflet to about 5000 houses with the help of about 5 people. Both the main parties have had between themselves and the central office (which gets round spending rules) 8-10 leaflets or communications to every house-hold. Having seen the scale of the industrial machine these parties run (I have not even mentioned the half of it, phone-banks, lists of known voters to contact, targeted visits and leaflets to postal voters…), I would support government-funded, mandatory equal funding of about £5-10k. More than that is really just spam. Even at £10k with 10 candidates per constituency, and I think that could be significantly limited by controls on whether independent candidates qualify, it would only cost about £50 million every 5 years. It would also have the effect of freeing parties from the perceived corrupt clutches of big money donors and unions. I think this would make a significant difference to the ability of new political movements to impact politics. Probably more so than PR. Plus I think it would make our system more democratic, open and transparent. We have had a number of dodgy donor scandals now, in my opinion, it is time for a change. The postal vote problem for smaller party is that no there are no restrictions on who can get a postal vote, when it really should be for the disabled and elderly; as it is, about a quarter to a third of the vote is postal. This means the money problem is exacerbated by the extra expense in targeting the postal vote, and if you don’t do it, big chunks of the vote will have already voted before they hear anything about your campaign. Again it feels like a deliberate tactic by the established parties, particularly the Conservatives with its rural vote, to entrench its support and make it hard for a new party to gain any traction. I would go back to a system where only those who need it can have a postal vote. The problem is of course with declining voter numbers in general, the postal vote increases turnout, so is often seen as a good thing, without proper consideration being given to the unintended democratic consequences.

AK: Personal arbitrary pet peeve of mine – why does UKIP have the pound sign as its logo? Strikes me as a tad too commercialist for what is, after all, a nativist party. Then again, the UK is a pretty commercial civilization – nation of shopkeepers and all that ;) – so I don’t suppose it’s necessarily contradictory. But still. I feel that at least to some extent the immigration/integration crisis has been brought on by (short-term) economic preoccupations. So is it worth retaining the pound sign as UKIP’s symbol, as opposed to, oh I don’t know… a lion, or a bulldog, or a chick with a shield and trident, or something.

MA: The pound symbol is on one level, old branding. It dates back to the big fight over whether Britain would join the Euro currency. See the failed 2001 Conservative campaign of WIlliam Hague and “keep the pound”. However, it remains quite a potent symbol of anti-EU sentiment, and the way in which the UK does not fit into that organisation. I think that is why we keep it. Plus if we were to change it we would have a difficult media fight on our hands not to be accused of “abandoning the pound” or moving away from our core Brexit message. With our core vote being in the older age group as well, it is not always wise to change something which isn’t obviously broken. I think the pound symbol has something reassuringly British to it as well, a symbol of our bygone economic power, influence and stability. Though I agree plenty of other symbols, like those you suggest, could do that job. I think if we get out of the EU, we will have to change the branding, but that will be a time of significant soul searching for the party if it happens in any case.

AK: The UK leaves the EU. You are given a pack of crayons and tasked with designing UKIP’s new logo. What do you draw?

MA: I think I would go with a lion, yellow on purple.

AK: Commenting on the immigration question two weeks ago, UKIP leader Nigel Farage said that Commonwealth immigrants should be privileged over EU immigrants:

I have to confess I do have a slight preference. I do think, naturally, that people from India and Australia are in some ways more likely to speak English, understand common law and have a connection with this country than some people that come perhaps from countries that haven’t fully recovered from being behind the Iron Curtain.

Do you agree with him that an Indian is better suited for life in Britain than a Czech?

MA: I certainly understand what he means. I think British people have a lot of subtle and unspoken cultural norms. The class system might be a sort of example, most British people have a natural feel for class, but it is difficult to express, and tends to be quite mysterious to foreigners. As a result, even though I actually think Britain is one of the least racist places in Europe, one reason alongside economics for the large scale migration, it can feel a very unwelcoming place to outsiders. Even some students I knew from North America could find British people emotionally reserved and distant and so feel a bit lonely here. I think one reason for the successful integration of Indians into our society is that I think the legacy of the Raj (and perhaps some native cultural similarity) has meant more immigrants from the Indian subcontinent fit more naturally into our culture and society. I think it also feels true that from a white, British perspective, less of the Eastern European immigrants speak English than Commonwealth immigrants, but I don’t know if the statistics would bear that out. It may also be that the educational class of immigrant we would get from India is likely to be higher, I think, off the top of my head EU migration is generally higher educated than Non-EU but that will include French, German, Spanish etc. migration. Certainly much of the migration we view as problematic, the migration which is taking low-skill jobs (even if the worker may actually be much more highly qualified) is coming from Eastern Europe and in my experience will often have little to no English language skills, at least at first, and may be highly migratory, coming and going from place to place within the UK and their home country, without settling and integrating. Obviously the comment is a generalisation and there will be some Czechs who will integrate extremely well and it is likely if you took a rural Indian peasant or someone from a New Delhi slum with little education they would not. To me this reinforces the argument for immigration controls, selecting suitable migrants with necessary skills insofar as economic migration is concerned. If someone is an asylum seeker or refugee that is a different matter entirely, and none of these things are as important as providing a safe haven for those fleeing persecution. I think what Nigel Farage meant though holds fairly true in terms of the multi-cultural problem. Cultural barriers can be hard to overcome, if we want to build a happy, well-integrated society, I think we have to recognise that.

AK: As you say, the right selection criteria is key. Certainly there are many Indians who are more qualified than many Eastern Europeans. That is a legitimate enough argument. But many people will surely have issues with this: “If someone is an asylum seeker or refugee that is a different matter entirely, and none of these things are as important as providing a safe haven for those fleeing persecution.” Unfortunately, that is around 10 million people in ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq alone. You see where I’m going with this? That’s a potentially very big contingent of people. Depending on how you define “persecution” – it could run into the tens or even hundreds of millions.

MA: I think at an international level we need to agree how many refugees per year each developed country should take relative to the scale of the problem, and then refugees should be rescued as near to source as possible. Further attempts to illegally enter, like in the Mediterranean should be returned to port of origin, as in Australia. Refugee camps will be with us for a long time sadly. However, if that does not happen, we will just have to do what we can domestically, I agree there is a limit on what we can do, there always is, but without international agreement we are protected by the fact we are an island which is hard to reach, as the problems in Calais prove. The problem with a recent EU proposal to distribute refugees equally was that they were also proposing to do the selection and vetting (or rather not do it) at the international level. It is for national governments to decide on selection criteria and to vet those individuals who are suitable for entry. I do not believe the threat of persecution at home should force us to give shelter to dangerous terrorists or criminals. That is not UKIP policy on the subject it is my personal view. At present we are likely as a party to continue with the existing, rather silly system that if they can get to Britain they can apply for asylum and we will see if they ECHR will let us remove them or not as our main selection criteria for who gets to stay and who doesn’t.

AK: Farage believes handguns should be legalized. I agree! But only 5% of the British people feel likewise, which is the only fact that matters. (A more recent poll by The Telegraph showed majority support for handgun legalization, but it was an online poll and hence useless). What are your opinions, if any, on the matter? Is it worth UKIP even contesting this issue?

MA: Farage is a committed Libertarian, I go with him some of the way but not all of it. I would be prepared to explore options, but in my head I essentially have in mind licensed gun ranges that hold guns for people, behind locked doors, from which the owner is not allowed to remove the weapon. Given the accident rate with home firearm ownership, I don’t see any good reason to allow people to have handguns at home at present. However, I am not a fluffy liberal on the subject, it did not escape my notice how spectacularly unsuccessful the Texas attack on cartoonists was this week compared with those in Paris and Copenhagen, but then, that wasn’t really stopped by private gun ownership. There might still be a point there about gun culture though. If I thought the security situation was getting to the point where people need firearms for self-defense I would consider it, but we are nowhere near that point in the UK. To me the only argument at present is about sport shooting, and as I say I think we could find ways of allowing that in the context of licensed gun ranges which hold the firearms at all times. As you say though, politically it is a very thorny issue. No one in the UK is prepared to tolerate even the possibility of a repeat of what happened in the Dunblane Massacre (facts similar to Sandy Hook, but with handguns).

AK: This question I’m asking on behalf of a close friend, but it’s very germane nonetheless. Tim Aker, the head of UKIP’s policy unit, on being asked about whether he has looked into public sector pensions, said, “I have, and then got very scared and ran away.” Setting the world time record for political flip flops, he followed it up moments later with, “We haven’t looked into it.” I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t exactly inspire faith in UKIP’s economic competence. Could you give us a better answer? Why should pensioners vote for you over Labour or the Lib Dems?

MA: I expect part of the problem in that particular instance is that while Tim Aker might be head of the policy unit he is not the economic spokesman, which is Patrick O’Flynn. Tim may eventually may have arrived at the truth though, we aren’t currently planning any changes to public sector pensions, it remains a fairly intractable problem. They should not be cut any more, that would be unfair, but while they continue to be paid to a lot of worker out of general taxation rather than being saved up into pension funds, they get increasingly unaffordable. I think what will have to happen is gradually more and more new starters will have to go onto less favourable defined contribution schemes rather than the current defined benefit ones. I can’t foresee any negative impacts on current pensioners or those on existing schemes under UKIP though. We have a big grey vote. What we do offer that no other party does is fully flexible state pension. At present you can keep working longer to get more, but you can’t retire early and take less. We think it should work both ways, this will benefit particularly those with a decent workplace pension, who think of the state pension as an extra. They might actually get a retirement with us, rather than the way the other parties are going which is an ever increasing state pension age.

AK: Needless to say I wish you the best of luck. I know you would make a great MP, and UKIP is the British party that is closest to my own positions and I daresay to the positions of the average Unz Review reader. But let’s be honest… you’re facing some long odds. What are your post-elections plans in the event that you come second or third? Do you intend to continue campaigning for UKIP and participating fulltime in British politics? Do you see UKIP displacing the Conservatives as the dominant party of the right in the foreseeable future (and/or the SNP in Scotland)?

MA: Yes the odds are quite long but I do still believe anything can happen. Should I come second or third, or even if I win, a lot of work needs to be done to build up UKIP as a local party. We need more members so we can have more of those “foot-soldiers” I referred. We also don’t field a full slate of Council candidates (elections often run alongside the general election), which is something we need to change. However, unless I win I will not be doing politics full time, I will go back to my Phd study and teaching undergraduates.

The longer term outlook for UKIP as a whole is very uncertain, and potentially quite dependent on this election. If we get enough seats to push through our agenda, we may leave the EU, I think a lot of our manifesto would then be adopted by the governing party (unofficially of course) and it is hard to know how much credit UKIP will get for it. If we do get the credit the Conservatives could be finished but equally we could slip away quietly and be forgotten. However, it is reasonably likely the same problems we have now will continue for the next parliament at least, in which case UKIP will keep growing I think. We could wipe out the Tories in the North of England particularly, because our brand is not toxic with the Northern working class in the way theirs is. Many people in the North have not forgiven the Conservatives for Thatcherism and will not do for another generation or two. This is an existential problem for the Tories. They have tried to move to the liberal centre of politics in this past parliamentary session and it has cost them, and yet they are still seen as the nasty party because of benefit changes and low wages driving people to use foodbanks on a very large scale, something not seen in the UK for a long time. The Conservative brand is the oldest brand in British politics though, I am not writing it off yet. It may be that party will swing back towards ours and eventually we will merge, but I can only see this being a good thing if the success the UKIP brand has had with working class people rubs off on the Conservatives and the Conservatives return to a more traditional social outlook, otherwise they will always be a party for the City of London and not for small-c conservatives more widely.

AK: What’s your personal favorite video of Farage trolling the Eurocrats?

This is a favourite of mine, particularly the section staring just after the 2min mark and the section just after 5 min, some of the responses of the Eurocrats are astonishing. It is a particular low point in the chequered recent history of the EU.

AK: That was hilarious. Thanks. Personally, I think this was the crowning moment of Farage’s political career:

What about you, Craig? What’s your favorite Farage video?

MA: Hahaha that is a classic. I think it is even in one of the Songify the News videos. Thanks a lot Anatoly.

CW: My favorite Farage video:

Ringing the alarm on the Eurozone’s dangerous undemocratic turn in late 2011, with the parachuting of Eurocrats-cum-Goldman Sachs alumni in Athens and Rome!


Craig Willy vs. Matthew Atkins

CW: In polls, the British almost always rank immigration one of their top issues and they overwhelmingly favor reduction. Yet UKIP seems a bit vague on this point. By leaving the European Union, you would only limit EU migration, yet the British appear slightly more hostile to non-EU than to EU immigration (p. 60-1). What assurances can you make that you will tackle immigration and not disappoint the public on this issue, as the Tories did?

MA: I think by leaving the EU we not only gain the opportunity to limit EU migration, we gain the opportunity to create a holistic system. It is hard to assess how much Non-EU migration is appropriate while we are part of a system we cannot control. It makes it harder to calculate where we have a skills gap and how large that gap is. However, I do take the point we don’t talk about non-EU migration much because in some ways it is a thornier issue. One of the main things we think needs to happen is that international students should come out of the migration figure. 7/10 International students are Non-EU for a total in the last set of immigration figures of a low-end estimate of 120,000 people. Given net non-EU migration was 190,000 in those statistics (2013-14) then in UKIP I think we would say non-EU migration is currently around 70,000 or less as that student figure could be as high as 180,000 – I think that makes clear the point that it is time students were properly recorded in their own right. The next point I would make is that the study you cite is about positive and negative perceptions of EU and non-EU immigration. Perceptions of immigration are affected by many things, a significant number of them cultural, UKIP addresses some of these when it insists foreign Doctors should be able to speak English, for example. People in the UK, as I talked about in Anatoly’s questions, want to feel that the cultural history of the UK is respected and that new arrivals integrate properly. I also think British society needs a single culture, not the failed policy of multi-culturalism, and this is a position taken by UKIP. Obviously British culture adapts to new arrivals, Chicken Tikka Masala and UK hip-hop culture are great example, but to me they remain uniquely British, integrated into the fabric of our society, not a sign of a fragmentation of the British way of life. I think a big concern of many British people when it comes to immigration is that we are seeing increased Ghettoisation and the presence of cultures in the UK that have no interest in becoming part of wider society.

Even with our policies to address this aspect of migration, I would still say migration even from outside the EU alone is higher than UKIP is aiming for, but we have to recognise the fact that much of this migration is subject already to a form of points system and so is directed at UK skills shortages. One of the biggest areas is the need for more Doctors and Nurses in the NHS. We are not training enough home grown medical practitioners. UKIP would reintroduce the system of Nurses who are trained “on-the-job” without the need for an expensive academic qualification. We would also fund Medical degrees through a system by which a medical student will not have to repay their fees if they work in the UK for 5 years after qualifying. I think both of these measures would substantially increase the number of UK trained medics. At the moment I strongly believe that £9000 a year for 5 years is going to put far too many people off studying medicine for that to be sustainable. This is especially needed because it is becoming harder to recruit doctors from overseas as developing countries like India become more attractive to stay and work. I also think UKIP would be looking to ensure most international competition for jobs remains at a highly qualified level. Our whole policy of funding STEMM subjects should reduce the need for migration to meet UK skill shortages, but some professions, like academia and City financial jobs benefit enormously from an International labour market and I would envisage that continuing. However, the current immigration system, which allows EU migrants to freely travel to the UK to work at any level of the economy is madness. Migration needs to be on an equal footing and meet UK skill shortages or provide the best and brightest to enhance our industries, wherever in the world the migrants come from.

CW: UKIP appears to above all be a party concerned with British sovereignty. The party focuses mostly on the EU but is not the United States also a problem in this respect? The Snowden Leaks show that GCHQ collaborated with the NSA to engage in massive spying on British subjects. Politico recently reported that Washington has an effective “veto” on British nuclear weapons. The party also appears to be agnostic on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), an EU-U.S. free trade agreement, which could also reduce British regulatory sovereignty. Does UKIP have a plan to restore British sovereignty relative to the U.S.?

MA: I think the UK and the USA will always share a very close relationship, we like to think it is ‘special’ but we are never going to be the major player in the relationship. When it comes to security though, the whole Western world is really completely dependent on the US. Our nuclear deterrent is independent day to day, our submarines are not manned by Americans, but I know we could not run it without the Americans in general terms. They could pull the plug and take their missiles and maintenance equipment (which they lease to us) back, but they are not going to. In any case, the idea of the UK going to war without some sort of American support is almost unthinkable. We even quietly sought their approval before the Falklands War, if Thatcher had not had as much clout as she did with Reagan the islands might be Argentinian right now. I think the point about America is that while militarily we might be very dependent on them, they have little interest in running our country. We are a strategic asset to the Americans, they don’t really care about our business regulation, or our environmental policy or how we trade with other partners, except they like our support at the UN on some of those things, and I will concede that they prefer we should be in the EU to give them an inside view, but they aren’t going to force us to stay in. America isn’t looking to run Britain like the EU is, it views us as an economic and defense partner, even if it is a decidedly junior partner.

The Snowden revelations were extremely worrying, but if you look at the fine print, GCHQ was merrily doing far more intrusive things than the NSA. We weren’t just forced into that, we were fully complicit in it. One area where I am extremely libertarian is privacy, I believe it is worth the potential loss of life to terrorists not to spy on citizens to that level, but I am not sure the country is with me on that, and I would respect public opinion on it. I do think we need to have the debate. Either way I do not feel like it is a case of the USA interfering with our sovereignty, I think our own government was just as into spying as theirs and there was clearly a very close intelligence relationship. Obviously I am not privy to how the Americans would have reacted had we refused to be involved, I suspect they would have been disappointed in us but said OK and found a way round it. However, I don’t view spying as a threat to sovereignty in the same way as the EU, it is a threat to personal freedom yes, but I think I take the pragmatic view that it is inevitable in international relations. I would not be terribly offended to find the USA spied on our prime minister, or spied on our citizens. Spying is a technical breach of territorial integrity and Sovereignty in that sense, but it is not an attempt to control day to day life in another country, it is a means to ensure the interests of your own country are protected and promoted, a hostile action. It is part of our defensive responsibility to ensure foreign powers cannot do so, but realistically, with the resources and power the USA has, nobody except China and Russia are really going to be able to keep them out if they want to come in. That is just the reality of the world we live in. It is a very different type of threat to sovereignty to the EU, which wants to dictate laws to us, and integrate us into a kind of super-state. The EU has a far greater impact on the day to day lives of British people than American spying. Of course I know that is only true up until the point spying leads to the discovery of some information that results in an authoritarian policy response, which is why I am against mass surveillance and believe in protecting privacy, but as I say it is a different kind of threat. It is a “what of this gets into the wrong hands” problem, not one which is changing the laws of our country every day in the way that the EU is doing.

Our agnosticism on TTIP is due to a particular quibble over whether or not the NHS is exempt in law, which has the public very frightened, and the fact it is EU negotiated. From UKIP’s point of view the whole thing could be avoided if the UK was negotiating a specialist trade deal with the USA on its own, rather than being part of some massive general EU measure.

The last point I would make is that UKIP is the only party which will reverse defense spending cuts and honour our 2% NATO commitment. With any other party the UK will become increasingly dependent on the USA for defense and will be a less and less valuable military ally.

CW: UKIP seems to be an antiwar party. Why is this? In opposing intervention in Syria and Ukraine, the party agrees with a lot of left-wing and nationalist parties, but UKIP seems to be a different political animal.

MA: It is simply because neither of those wars have worked. In fact both situations are a complete disaster, and so is the situation in Libya. So is the situation in Iraq, and so was, and to some extent still is, the situation in Afghanistan. At some point we have to learn the lesson that we cannot fix a lot of these problems. Too many conflicts and uprising are related to incredibly complex local social, economic, religious and racial problems that in our Western ivory tower we cannot understand until we tramp through them with our size 12 feet (militarily speaking) and have made everything much worse. It is not because we don’t care we are non-interventionist, it is because history suggests we will not make things better except in the rarest of cases. Obviously we could start talking about the enormous cost to the UK, both financial and in terms of international political capital, but I think all those considerations are secondary to the fact that we cannot get involved unless we are very sure what the outcome of our actions will be, and it is going to be incredibly rare that we can. I think an exception would be a defensive war, if an ally is invaded, we can help protect them, but if you go on the offensive, you have to be very sure in what you are trying to accomplish.

Since I know the blog might have a mostly American audience, I do want to say that I recognise the enormous contribution America makes to world peace and security and the American desire to spread freedom and democracy is to be greatly admired. There was a debate that John McCain had with Vladimir Putin in their respective national press that I thought was fascinating, because in a weird way I agreed with both sides. The American sense of duty to the world, to make it a better place, is one of the things that makes that country the greatest in the world, but equally sometimes you have to be a bit hard nosed and say, we might be offering something good to that country, but there are too many people in that place who don’t want it, or the local situation means the county is not ready for it yet. It is the debate between internationalist idealism and Realpolitik, and I think UKIP tends to fall a little to the latter, a lot of us are slightly cynical people I suppose.

CW: Nigel Farage is clearly a populist. Sometimes he sounds a bit like a socially left nationalist like Marine Le Pen. But Farage are libertarian. What do you tell people, especially traditional Labour supporters, who are concerned about inequality, fat cats, social services and wages?

MA: I am not sure I agreed with that assessment of Nigel Farage, I think he is far more genuine than most politicians. He has stood clearly and firmly for one idea since the early 90s, that Britain should leave the EU. Everything else flows naturally from that. He has also predicted pretty much every significant disaster the EU has experienced to date. However, I would tend to agree inequality is not his main concern, but when has he said it was? What I say to them is Farage himself clearly cares about Britain and wants its people to succeed, at every level of scoiety, and UKIP as a party now has a significant left-leaning section to it, especially in the North. I do believe there was a time in history when the working people and the political right pursued the same ideas. We want to see reinvigorated British industries, fishing, farming, and even manufacturing and industrial. It may need to have a more high tech focus nowadays but that doesn’t mean it can’t exist. We want to see more apprenticeships and technical skills training. We want a simpler tax system that takes less from everybody and leaves everybody with more money in their pockets. We want a simpler benefits system that is there as a safety net, without all the hassle and complication but which gives people an incentive to work. We want corporations to pay their fair share of tax – but we recognise it is hard, which is why we would set up an expert financial commission to try and create a diverted profits tax, not have politicians do it. The truth is, if you want things to improve, you have to work with economics, not against it. I think UKIP is now in a unique position to walk that difficult line, because so many of our members are people who were not highly educated, but became very successful in long careers in industry and private enterprise. We are a party that believes in aspiration and exceptionalism. I think a lot of traditionally working class people recognise they are being sold a lie when they are told there is a magic fix that will suddenly rebalance all the wealth away from the ‘fat-cat’ rich, but they can’t vote Conservative because they don’t believe that party cares or will even try to change things. I believe UKIP will try, but will do so within the confines of sensible economics.

CW: Marine Le Pen’s falling out with her father Jean-Marie looks to be permanent, he has even been suspended from the Front National. Could this make it possible for UKIP and the FN to join forces?

MA: Not at present no. It is not yet clear the split is genuine, I spoke to a French journalist last week who believed it was for show, and even if it was most of the rest of the party is made up of the same Holocaust deniers and far-right nationalists. UKIP grew out of a centerist economic movement that wished to leave the EU, we do not see ourselves as nationalists, we are moderate patriots. The FN has a clear and undeniable far-right nationalist past, and it will have to go a long way yet before we can be assured that it has changed.

CW: While it is clear the FN and UKIP have different origins, isn’t a bit facile to characterize the Front in this way? Even former French Socialist PM Lionel Jospin has said the FN is not a “fascist” party, for example. And after all UKIP regularly faces little scandals for statements by members and candidates perceived to be Islamophobic, racist or anti-Semitic. Shouldn’t eurosceptic parties display more solidarity in the face of censorship and political correctness?

MA: I would probably accept I am being a bit facile and doing a disservice to many FN candidate and supporters who will be perfectly decent people. However, I have little choice. UKIP will not work with the FN until we can be sure we are not going to have unpleasant old quotations from senior figures in the FN read out to us on national media. We cannot afford to be tarred with the same brush. So I will admit I haven’t given the FN a fair hearing yet, but it really only affects the politics of the European Parliament, where even together we would not have a significant enough voice to actually change anything. The FN seem to be doing perfectly well in domestic French politics on their own. I also stand by my comment that FN has to work harder and go further to prove it is a new party because of its origins, I haven’t seen much sign of them doing that yet, but I will admit I haven’t been looking very hard, mainly for reasons of political expediency.

CW: Most studies, e.g. Open Europe, the Bertelsmann Foundation, suggest the UK’s economy would at best only marginally benefit from leaving the EU (and, equally, most studies suggest the Common Market has only slightly boosted GDP). Does UKIP not risk exaggerating the benefits of withdrawal and in appearing to be a single-issue party?

MA: Our manifesto is based around only costing in the £8Bn net we give the EU directly as a saving. Anything else we save would be a bonus. Plus I think there will be a significant boost to the UK in the medium term as we turn our attention back to courting trade with countries we have neglected, I think it could even start a much more productive period for the UK economy, when our productivity has been stagnating. I do believe necessity is the mother of invention in that sense, we will start to work at international trade again because we will have to, whereas now, we have to let the EU make our trade deals for us. However, as I said with Anatoly’s questions, we face an existential crisis if we succeed in precipitating a Brexit, but I still think there is a space left on the small c conservative right for us. We have a less toxic brand than the Conservatives with working people and a unique social outlook.

CW: What would be the ideal relationship between the EU and the UK for you? Isn’t the current setup – out of the Schengen Area and the Eurozone – pretty grand?

MA: The idea relationship is free trade without free movement and being required to EU technical specifications for goods as regards only those things we sell in the EU. One of the most important factors as I said is the ability to govern our own trade relationship with countries outside of the EU. The problem with the current setup is that all EU law has to be fully implements UK wide, whereas I think we would be better of if it only govern products we want to sell in the EU. Frankly I would prefer much of it did not exist at all, but that is too much to hope for. In any case a big part of the argument for me is not the merits or demerits of our current position, but the fact the EU is continuing on a road where we cannot follow, and it must do so in order for the Euro to survive. As the EU follows its pressing need and its stated desire for closer integration, the UK will be increasingly isolated in the EU anyway and the UK membership of the EU will become inconvenient for all involved. Apart from the large lump of money we pay the EU of course.

CW: Are you concerned that leaving the EU could hurt the City of London? The Continentals, led by Paris and Berlin, would then be free to regulate this substantial market without any British input.

MA: Not really, HSBC has begun a report into leaving the City but its destination would be Hong Kong not somewhere else in the EU. What concerns the City is regulation, I actually think eventually this will be worse in than out. Eventually Britain is not going to be able to stop the Franco-German desire to regulate financial services, I think our negotiating position, and the flexibility of the financial services industry to find clever ways of avoiding the regulation, is better served outside of the main institution of the EU. Especially since as I say my ideal scenario is that we follow EU rules only in so far as it concerns our business with the EU, not with the rest of the world. I think the City could grow in importance as the financial gateway to Europe, much like Hong Kong is to mainland China. ;)

CW: How chuffed are you that you stayed out of the Euro?

MA: Very, very chuffed.


Hope you enjoyed this interview.

Please feel free to discuss all aspects of British politics and the forthcoming general elections in the comments. Also feel free to ask further questions of Mr. Atkins (or of myself or Craig), though considering the many demands on his time and attention right now, replies cannot be guaranteed.

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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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Two weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from Kim Zigfeld, she of the infamous La Russophobe, asking me if I was interested in an interview with her. It didn’t take long for me to come to the wrong decision!

And so commenced our interview. It was a long grind. After ceaseless goings back and forth, arguments about what is really going on in that land of Russia, some 12,000 words of it, we finally entered wacko paradise – INTERVIEW: Anatoly Karlin. Here are a few lines from the freak show stage to whet your appetites!

  • Suppose Shamil Basayev had been found in a lovely home just outside Tbilisi and after Russians assassinated him the Georgian president was invited to Washington and warmly embraced by Obama, how would Russians have reacted?
  • So the USA should forget that Russia is trying to destroy it because China is trying even harder?
  • Frankly, we find your intellectual dishonesty really repugnant, and characteristic of the failed Soviet state. The rulers of the USSR always spoke to the outside world as if they were speaking to clueless idiots. But it was the USSR that collapsed into ruin, wasn’t it?
  • We don’t believe any thinking person can argue that any other Russia blog that has ever existed has come close to being as inspirational to the blogosphere as La Russophobe… Yet many of your Russophile brethren insist on pretending to dismiss us. Why are they so unwilling to admit how good we are? Why don’t they realize how foolish they look? Is it some sort of psychological complex on their part, or is it a crazily ineffective propaganda scheme?

Indeed. Anyhow, apart from her flattering review of my work and the conspiratorial theorizing, the interview mostly focuses on the bread and butter politics that many of us Russia watchers love to talk about. Enjoy the ride! (I did!!!)

Because some of you guys don’t want to grace La Russophobe with a visit, or are banned from it, I’m reprinting the interview below and opening it to comments.

INTERVIEW: Anatoly Karlin

Anatoly Karlin (who says Russophiles don't have hair on their chests??)

Anatoly Karlin (who says Russophiles don’t have hair on their chests??)

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Welcome to La Russophobe, Anatoly. Let’s start with current events. Almost immediately after America’s public enemy #1 Osama Bin Laden was discovered hiding in plain sight in Pakistan and assassinated, the Pakistan government started coming in for heavy criticism in the West, especially in the USA. And right after that, Russia invited Pakistan to pay the first state visit on Moscow in three decades, and warmly embraced it. Do you think this was a mistake on the part of the Kremlin? Does it concern you at all to see Russia providing aid and comfort to nations like Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Libya? Suppose Shamil Basayev had been found in a lovely home just outside Tbilisi and after Russians assassinated him the Georgian president was invited to Washington and warmly embraced by Obama, how would Russians have reacted?

ANATOLY KARLIN: And yet the US – with the exception of a few Republicans – is still okay with continuing to provide Pakistan with dollops of aid every year. It has had close security relations with Pakistan since the 1980’s, when both supported jihadists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is ridiculous to condemn Russia for “warmly embracing” Pakistan – even if signing a few accords on anti-drugs and economic cooperation can be construed as such – when the US has much deeper relations with them, and for far longer.

Why talk of hypothetical scenarios, when we’ve got real examples? After the Georgians opened fire on UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers, and invaded South Ossetia, the entire Western political class “warmly embraced” Georgian President Saakashvili – a terrorist to the inhabitants of Tskhinvali, whom his army shelled in their sleep.

As for providing “aid and comfort” to Iran or Libya – by which I take it you mean refusing to formally condemn them – why should Russia feel guilty about it, when the West keeps its peace on regimes that are every bit as odious but serve its interests? Saudi Arabia has no elections and doesn’t allow women to drive cars, which makes it less progressive than Iran. It hasn’t exactly made the top headlines in the US media, but in recent weeks Bahrain has “disappeared” hundreds of injured Shia protesters – and many of the doctors who treated them. Why no crocodile tears for them? Presumably, because Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet and Saudi Arabia is the world’s swing oil producer.

The US tries to pursue its own national interests, like most countries. Human rights are fig leaves, or secondary considerations at best. Good for America! Russia happens to have better relations with countries like Libya or Iran than with Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, and I don’t know why it should torpedo them for the sake of foreign national interests.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: That sure is a whole bunch of words, but you haven’t answered our questions, and if you don’t we won’t publish your answers. We’d like to you to assume that Americans are no better at admitting their hypocrisy than Russians, and won’t stop being offended by Russian actions just because they haven’t been as tough on Pakistan as they should be. Russia is puny economically and militarily compared to America, and America is a world leader while Russia has virtually no allies. Do you or don’t you think it was a mistake for Russia to antagonize the US by meeting with Pakistan in the wake of the Bin Laden arrest? How would Russians have reacted if the US had met with Georgia’s ruler after a hypothetical killing of Basayev in Georgia?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Had Russian special forces killed Shamil Basayev in a Tbilisi suburb, this would have implied a very close security relationship between Russia and Georgia – including Georgian acquiescence for the Russian military to operate throughout its territory (i.e. something analogous to the US-Pakistani relationship). Or do you believe that Spetsnaz is so awesome that it could it just stroll into the heart of Georgia, take out the mark in a heavily defended compound, and exfiltrate back into Russia? I don’t think so, and I’m supposed to be the “Russophile” here. As such, I do not believe the Russians would have objected to the US inviting the Georgian ruler over for some Maine lobster and coffee.

If the Americans are deranged enough to be offended by Russia meeting with Pakistani leaders, then they should grow a thicker skin and / or undergo a sanity check. There are few good reasons not to pursue your national interests; indulging irrational psychoses is not one of them. Fortunately, I haven’t come across anything suggesting that the US got “antagonized” by the Russia-Pakistan meeting – and quite rightly so, as there is no need to get one’s knickers in a twist over perceived slights / ridiculous trivialities.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: The assumption made in our question was that the government of Pakistan was complicit in hiding Bin Laden for years and that the US forces struck without the government’s permission. Pakistan is rife with lurid anti-Americanism, similar to what flies about in Georgia with regard to Russia. Do you have any evidence to show that Pakistan helped the US to kill Bin Laden? Do you really expect our readers to take you seriously when you suggest that if it were discovered that Basayev had been hiding in Georgia for years and that Russians went in and killed him with no open Georgian assistance they would have seen Georgia as their friend?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t have the security clearances (or hacking skills) to have these details of Pakistan’s relationship with OBL. Even CIA Director Leon Panetta doesn’t know, at least publicly, whether Pakistan is “involved or incompetent.”

In your scenario, the Russians wouldn’t see Georgia as their friend; they would see it as a “frenemy,” much like how Americans view Pakistan. Managing frenemies requires delicacy, balance, and a lot of bribes. It’s easy for you to say that the US should “get tough” on Pakistan. The world isn’t that simple. Next thing you know, the Pakistanis will ditch the US, cease all attempts to root out militants and cosy up with China.

By and by, if you’re really that obsessed about Russia’s overtures to Pakistan, you might want to examine China’s role. They have recently offered Pakistan 50 new fighters, which is a much warmer embrace of Pakistan than anything Russia has proffered to date.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So the USA should forget that Russia is trying to destroy it because China is trying even harder? That’s the most hilariously stupid thing we’ve ever heard! Lots of Americans criticize China harshly, but our blog is about Russia and we don’t intend to lose that focus. Your childish attempts to throw the spotlight away from Russia are ridiculous and sad. You admit you have no evidence that Pakistan did anything except facilitate Bin Laden’s activities, which means that your first answer to our question was an absurd lie. Your suggestion that Russians would do anything other than brutalize Georgia utterly obliterates your credibility. Now please tell us: Russia has risked infuriating the world’s only superpower and biting the hand (Obama’s) that feeds it. What does Russia get in return to counterbalance that in terms of good relations with Pakistan?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I think the idea that China selling fighters to Pakistan – let alone Russia signing economic deals with it – implies that it is trying to “destroy” the US is hilariously stupid, but then again that’s just me.

Russia doesn’t get much, as Pakistan is of little importance to it (unlike China, which partners with it against India, and unlike the US, which desires its cooperation on Islamic militants). But that doesn’t matter since the very idea that building relations with Pakistan “risks infuriating” the US is crazy and absurd on too many levels.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Why talk about hypotheticals, you ask? You don’t get to ask questions here, you haven’t invited us for an interview. But just for the heck of it, because it’s our blog and we make the rules, that’s why. If you don’t want to follow them, then you’ll publish your views elsewhere. Which, of course, is your right — but we’d have thought you’d enjoy a bit of access to our readers.

ANATOLY KARLIN: To clarify, it was a rhetorical question (as are all my questions in this interview). I did not mean to interview you here – though if you’re interested, I’m happy to offer you one on my blog. You’ll generate lively discussions among my readers at a minimum.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: In regard to Libya and Syria, we mean taking actions to block and obstruct Western support for the democratic movements, especially defending the regimes and criticizing the West in public, and providing Syria with weapons. Sorry if we weren’t clear. Can you understand the question now? Hopefully so, because you won’t get a third chance.

ANATOLY KARLIN: It does not concern me in the slightest. My reasons, in simple(r) language: (1) The West supports regimes that are every bit as odious when they serve its interests, (2) therefore, its motives are not pro-democratic, as its claims, but self-interested and imperialist, and (3) by the principles of reciprocity, Russia has every moral right to call the West out on its hypocrisy and support regimes that it is friendly with.

When the US cancels its $60 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, and condemns them for their human rights violations, perhaps then it would have the moral authority to demand Russia do likewise with its disreputable clients. As it stands, Washington’s protests regarding Russia’s relations with Libya & Co. reek of arrogance and double standards that Russia should not be expected to indulge.

BTW, I find your sensitivity to Russia “criticizing the West in public” to be quite hilarious. Surely the beacon of free speech can take some? Or does Russia have to build shrines to it, or rename its main boulevard after G.W. like Tbilisi did, or something? (these are rhetorical questions)

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Are you suggesting that you believe Russian power is such that it can afford to act however it likes regardless of the way in which its actions may provoke the USA and NATO?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Any country’s foreign policy has to take into account the likely reactions of other international actors. I do not believe Russia should “act however it likes,” though not so much for fear of “provoking” the US or NATO (which in any case have limited options for retaliation) but because in most cases cooperation and accommodation – to a reasonable extent – are more productive than mindless confrontation.

Your language indicates that you have a more zero-sum view of global affairs, what with your insinuation that the main reason Russia shouldn’t antagonize the US is because it is “puny” in comparison and “has virtually no allies.” In other words, it has to unconditionally submit to Western whims. Quite apart from its sordid implications – that might makes right, in which case you could make the same argument for why the “puny” Baltics and Georgia should bow down before Russia – it’s not even convincing on its own merits.

Russia is less powerful than the US, but on the other hand it doesn’t have America’s global commitments – the US is fighting three wars at this time, which drastically limits its freedom of action elsewhere. Its economy is much larger than Russia’s, but it has a far worse fiscal position. The US has big markets and technologies to offer, but Russia’s trade with America is insignificant compared with Europe. Besides, Russia enjoys leverage as a big supplier of oil to world markets, and natural gas to Europe, and of nuclear technology and weaponry to potential adversaries of the US (meaning that it’s patently not in America’s interests to alienate Russia). As for NATO, its relevance has plummeted in the post-Cold War period – its members haven’t been able to agree on a plethora of important issues such as the Iraq War, Georgia’s accession, and Libya!

And lest we forget, Russia is hardly alone in its skepticism on Libya. There’s also the other BRIC’s, as well as (NATO members) Turkey and Germany.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: In a recent comment on the Streetwise Professor blog, you called Russian “president” Dima Medvedev a “pathetic shell” and an “empty suit.” We couldn’t agree more! In return, would you agree with us that Vladimir Putin, who personally handed power to Medvedev, showed extremely poor judgment in doing so, and that this calls all his other policies into question? After all, though Medvedev has no real power he does have technical legal authority and could thrust Russia into a constitutional crisis at a moment’s notice if he chose to do so.

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t view Medvedev as a disaster. On a positive note, he fired more entrenched bigwigs in two years as President than Putin did in eight. But too often, he comes off as naïve and overly submissive to Western demands. A good example is his okaying of the UN resolution authorizing NATO to protect Libyan civilians, which has seamlessly transitioned into a lawless drive for regime change. According to Konstantin Makienko, editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, this will cost Russia at least $8.5 billion in lost economic opportunities (not to mention hurting its image as a sovereign world power).

Putin’s choice of Medvedev wasn’t a mistake. At least, it’s too early to tell. For now, I don’t oppose Dima iPhonechik (as he is known on Runet). On the other hand, I certainly think it prudent that someone like Putin is there to give Medvedev the occasional reality check, and remind him that the West only looks out for itself and that Russia’s only true allies are its army and navy.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So just to be clear, you don’t think it was a mistake to give enormous power to a “pathetic shell” and an “empty suit,” right?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Most politicians fit this description. So, no.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Are you saying there is nobody in Russia except Vladimir Putin who is not a pathetic shell and empty suit?

ANATOLY KARLIN: That is not what I’m saying, as most Russians are not politicians.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Your answer is profoundly childish, asinine, and indicates you have no wish to be taken seriously. Any intelligent person would have clearly understood were asking whether you are excusing Putin’s choice of a “pathetic shell” and “empty suit” for president because every other person he could have chosen also fit that description. There is no requirement that the Russian president be a politician. Mikhail Khodorkovsky would be president today, for instance, but for Putin having him arrested and sent to Siberia. So we’ll ask again: Are you saying there was nobody who was not a pathetic shell and an empty suit that Putin could have chosen to succeed him?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t know. If I had access to alternate worlds in which Putin nominated other successors, and they got to demonstrate whether or not they were empty suits, then I’d be able to answer the question.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But you’ve already said that you approve of Gennady Zyuganov and Dmitri Rogozin. Wouldn’t Russia have been better off if Putin had named one of them as his successor? We ask you again to stop dodging our questions like a coward: Can you or can you not point to a person Putin could have chosen as his successor who would not have been an “empty suit” and a “pathetic shell”? We realize that you can’t win by answering. If you say there is nobody, then you confirm Russia is a truly wretched land. If you say there is somebody, then Putin made a gigantic error in judgment by not choosing that person. But you must answer. Because if you don’t, everyone will see you as a sniveling intellectual coward.

ANATOLY KARLIN: This implies that anything is better than an empty suit, which is not really the case. For instance, Zhirinovsky is quite obviously not an empty suit, but does any reasonable person want him in power? I don’t think so.

But if you still insist on a concrete answer, a Putin – Zyuganov tandem is my dream team (implausible as it is in practice).

LA RUSSOPHOBE: What makes you say it is implausible? If Vladimir Putin had told the Russian people to vote for a ham sandwich to replace him, they would have done it. What’s more, Putin would not have allowed anybody but the sandwich to receive votes. If Putin had named Zyuganov, Zyuganov would have been elected. Apparently you mean it’s implausible because Putin doesn’t share your admiration for Zyuganov. Why not? What mistake is Putin making in evaluating this fellow?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Presumably, because the gap in their worldviews is too unbridgeable. Zyuganov has condemned Putin as a protégé and stooge of the oligarchy, which to a large extent is true. Though I don’t presume to speak for Putin, I imagine he sees Zyuganov as a Soviet-era dinosaur, whose autarkic leanings and unqualified admiration of Stalin have no place in a modern society. This is also true.

But their incompatibilities are precisely the reason why I’d like to juxtapose them, the idea being that Zyuganov can push for the restoration of a social state, while Putin’s influence will provide a check on his more regressive, Brezhnevite tendencies.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: The single greatest mystery for us about Russia is why, when Boris Yeltsin was universally despised in 1999, in single-digit approval territory with talks of impeachment for genocide, the Russian people followed his instructions like lemmings and picked Putin as his successor. Can you explain that behavior to us?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I think the conventional explanation is that Putin’s law-and-order image and savvy handling of the Second Chechen War contributed more to his political ascent than Yeltsin’s endorsement.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Do you have any factual basis whatsoever for that ridiculous statement? Are you seriously suggesting that Putin could have emerged from a contested election as the winner without being the incumbent in March 2000? Even if the people were widely impressed in that way, why wasn’t Yeltsin’s approval more than enough to cause the Russian people to reject him? And if Putin did so well, isn’t that a huge positive reflection on Yeltsin, meaning Russians have vastly misjudged him?

ANATOLY KARLIN: From the beginning, Putin worked hard to differentiate himself from Yeltsin and his “Family.” Athletic sobriety versus a fermentation barrel. Sort out the mess, drown the terrorists in the outhouse, reconsolidate the country. Now obviously, incumbency advantages and the oligarch media helped Putin immensely, but for all that there are limits to what those factors could have accomplished by themselves. There was a flurry of short-lived Prime Ministers between March 1998 and VVP’s appointment in August 1999, and their approval ratings bombed nearly as much as Yeltsin’s despite the oligarch media being on the Kremlin’s side throughout.

Putin wouldn’t have won if he hadn’t been the incumbent for the simple reason that he’d have had no administrative resources to draw upon. But his incumbency allowed him to shine, and become popular, and defeat Zyuganov. Had Yeltsin nominated someone like Chernomyrdin, Kiriyenko, Stepashin, or Nemtsov as his successor, then today’s ‘party of power’ might well be the KPRF.

I agree that Yeltsin’s designation of Putin as his successor is one of his best decisions – not that there’s much competition there.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So you have no factual basis (i.e., a citation to published authority) for your claim, right?

ANATOLY KARLIN: It’s certainly news to me that any of the above is controversial. I guess I can Google up a paper if you insist on it:

“Putin enjoyed a vertiginous rise in popularity following his appointment as prime minister in August 1999. Polls indicated those willing to vote for him as president climbed from 2% in August [to] 59% in January. By then his approval rating as prime minister was 79%. In contrast, for the past several years Yeltsin’s approval rating had been in the single digits. Putin’s rise was fueled by two factors: the war in Chechnya, and the strong showing of the pro-Putin Unity party in the December 1999 Duma elections… It was Putin’s determined handling of the war which then led to his spectacular and sustained rise in popularity.” – from Putin’s Path to Power (Peter Rutland, 2000).

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Do you realize that you are citing a “forthcoming” publication and that the footnote given by the author is blank? Do you realize that your own source says Putin didn’t get above 50% voter inclination until Yeltsin had already made him president? If Putin could have got elected on his own as prime minister, why in the world was it necessary to make him president first? Wasn’t that obviously a gambit to wedge him into office?

ANATOLY KARLIN: You’re just nitpicking now. This was the version accessible on the Web, it was published and if you want a formal citation here it is – Peter Rutland, “Putin’s Path to Power,” Post-Soviet Affairs 16, no. 4 (December 2000): 313-54. The footnote is not blank, it names the source as Yuri Levada.

The same source indicates that the bulk of Putin’s rise in popularity took place during his tenure as Prime Minister, with voter inclination going from the low single digits in August to exactly 50% in December 1999, which I’d say is a winning figure. He was appointed President on January 1st, 2000, after which his popularity remained stable at a high level. This had the practical effect of bringing forwards the elections by 3 months. Did this make a crucial difference? Putin’s approval rating was 70% in March 2000; it was 61% in June 2000 (but rose to 73% a month later), when the election would have otherwise occurred. Considering that Putin won the 2000 elections with 53% of the vote to runner-up Zyuganov’s 29%, I don’t see how the delay could have made a difference.

Mind you, this is all said with the benefit of hindsight. It may well be Yeltsin wasn’t confident that Putin would maintain his high ratings – for instance, he may have feared that the Second Chechen War would go badly and dent his popularity – and wanted to maximize his chances at the elections by giving him the Presidency early. Alternatively, he may have realized just how deeply he screwed up the post-Soviet transition, and decided that it was in Russia’s national interests to get a new face for the new millennium.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Despite nothing but pro-Kremlin propaganda on TV, and a soaring price of oil and revived Russian stock market, confidence in the Kremlin just slipped below a majority. Yet job approval for both Medvedev and Putin remains above 65%. Given that Medvedev and Putin wield dictatorial power and completely control the Kremlin. How is that possible? Are the people of Russia stupid or something?

ANATOLY KARLIN: This is a non-story. Approval for the government always lags the personal popularity of Putin and Medvedev by about 20-30% points, as you can confirm by browsing previous Levada opinion polls. Why that is the case, I’d guess because Tsars are often more popular than their Ministers.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: You’re saying Russia is an irrational country where people hate the government and its policies but don’t hate those who wield absolute authority over the government and its policies?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I’m saying what I said: rulers are often more popular than the government as a whole (for instance, whereas only 19% of Americans trusted the government in Washington in 2010, Obama’s approval rating has hovered from 41% to 52% in the past year).

Anyhow, I would hardly take a government approval rating of 51% (as of May 2010) as evidence that Russians “hate the government and its policies.”

LA RUSSOPHOBE: May 2010? Wouldn’t this year be more relevant? In May 2011, approval fell below a majority. Do you really believe that’s not at all significant? Don’t you think it’s rather idiotic to compare Obama, who has just replaced a highly unpopular president and is undertaking massive reform, and who does not have one tenth the control over the US government that Putin has over Russia, to Putin, who was replaced by a puppet of his own choosing? And don’t you think it’s utterly dishonest for you to use America as a benchmark when it’s convenient for you, but then to say that America is a “different country” and inapplicable to Russia whenever it’s not convenient? Frankly, we find your intellectual dishonesty really repugnant, and characteristic of the failed Soviet state. The rulers of the USSR always spoke to the outside world as if they were speaking to clueless idiots. But it was the USSR that collapsed into ruin, wasn’t it?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Apologies for the mistype, it should have said May 2011. As you can see from the link, government approval was 48% in April and 51% in May. I don’t believe it’s significant, because it’s hardly changed from a year ago when it was 56% in May 2010, and going even further back, government approval was lower than 50% for almost the entirety of the 2000-2007 period, falling to as low as 25% in March 2005.

I was only using Obama to illustrate that Russia is hardly atypical in that its leaders are more popular than the government as a whole, not to draw a direct comparison between him and Putin. Ditto for your next question accusing me of double standards.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But Obama doesn’t illustrate that. You again reveal a very poor understanding of how the US government works. Obama has very little power under the US Constitution, so he can’t properly be blamed for most of the decisions that the American public care about. It’s entirely rational to have one view of him and another of the legislature. But Putin has total power, and all of the government’s actions are directly controlled by him. Russians would have to be psychotic to view the government and Putin as being separate, or to allow Putin to escape blame for the government’s failed policies. But what really interests us is this: Isn’t it pretty telling that in a country where the government controls all the TV broadcasts and does not allow any true opposition political parties it cannot manage to generate more than a bare majority of support? What would the rating be if NTV were still going strong and Nemtsov had 75 seats in the Duma? Can’t you admit that the Russian government is obviously failing under Vladimir Putin?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Not really because it is likewise entirely rational to have one view of a Russian ruler (e.g. as competent), and another of the state bureaucracy (e.g. as venal and incompetent). But I digress.

I disagree with your assumptions. Though the Russian state does exert editorial influence over TV broadcasts, as in De Gaulle’s France, this ignores the fact that the print media is largely independent and critical; furthermore, as of 2011, some 42% of Russians accessed the (unregulated) Internet at least once per week. I notice that your own articles are regularly translated on Inosmi (mostly for their entertainment value, if the comments are anything to go by). And the main reason that “true” opposition parties – by which I take it you mean the liberals – aren’t in the Duma has nothing to do with their being “oppressed” and everything to do with their proud association with the disastrous neoliberal reforms of the 1990’s, lack of constructive solutions (their slogans are pretty much limited to “Putin Must Go!” and variations thereof) and worshipful adulation of everything “European” or “Western” as “civilized” in contrast to barbaric, corrupt Russia, or “Rashka” as they like to call it. There is no need to cite Kremlin propaganda or “web brigades” to explain their 5% approval ratings, as their anti-Russian elitism is quite enough to do the trick by itself.

So to answer your questions, by the numbers. The government’s approval rating of 51% is respectable, and the main reason it isn’t higher is that – as with governments anywhere – some of its policies aren’t successful and/or hurt big electoral groups (a good example is the 2005 reforms of pensions benefits, in the course of which its approval rating fell to a nadir of 25%). If Nemtsov had 75 seats in the Duma, this would imply that he somehow managed to reacquire significant support, which would in turn mean that the current regime must have failed in a major way and consequently its approval rating would necessarily be very low. I can’t admit that the Russian government is failing under Putin because to me its failure is very, very far from “obvious.” Give me a call when the protesters at your Dissenters’ Marches start to outnumber the journalists.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Isn’t it true that the only reason the prime minister of Russia has not been sacked is that his name is Vladimir Putin?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t believe things would be much different if his name was Vladislav, or Ivan, or indeed any other.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So you’re seriously saying that you believe if Putin were president and Medvedev was prime minister with Putin’s record, Putin would not have fired Medvedev .

ANATOLY KARLIN: This assumes that the reason Medvedev hasn’t fired Putin is because he is the bad man’s puppet.

My impression is that they form one team, with Putin as its unofficial CEO, and Medvedev as his protégé. Their end goals are broadly similar: stabilization (largely achieved under the Putin Presidency), followed by economic modernization, and liberalization. Their differences are ones of emphasis, not essence. Furthermore, Putin has lots of political experience, immense reserves of political capital in the form of 70% approval ratings and influence over United Russia, and close relationships with the siloviki clans.

In other words, Putin is an extremely useful asset, and Medvedev is wise to keep him on board – despite Putin’s occasional acts of symbolic insubordination.

Had Medvedev behaved in a similar way in 2007-2008, then yes, he’d probably have been demoted, or passed over as a Presidential candidate. But why on Earth should Medvedev have done that? At the time, he was an apprentice. He did not have the qualifications to be cocky like Putin does now, e.g. stalling the disintegration of the country, breaking the oligarchs’ power, managing Russia’s economic revival, presiding over a decade of broadly rising living standards, etc.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: One more time. Putin has a bad record as prime minister. No thinking person can dispute that. Are you seriously saying it’s not bad enough to justify his dismissal, not as bad as that of other Russian prime ministers who have been dismissed in the past, that another man with the same record would not have been dismissed by Putin himself?

ANATOLY KARLIN: If approval ratings are anything to go by, then Putin’s record as PM is very, very far from “bad.” He MAY have dismissed a similar PM in his position, but the reasons for that would have been insubordination or his political ambitions – not incompetence or unpopularity.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: The Politburo had high approval ratings too, didn’t it? And Putin’s approval is falling, isn’t it?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t know about the Politburo, as I’m not aware of any opinion polls on them. Yes, Putin’s approval rating has fallen by about 10% points in the past year. So what? It’s still at 69%, a figure most national leaders can only dream of. It’s not unprecedented either. For instance, it was less than 70% from November 2004 to July 2005.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Well, some people would say falling approval is a bad thing. Guess you think they are all morons. Putin’s poll rating slipped below 50% in mid-2003, and right after that both Khodorkovsky and Trepashkin were arrested. Then people in the opposition started dying. Guess by you that’s all just pure coincidence, right?

ANATOLY KARLIN: What? According to the link I provided above, Putin approval rating was in the 70%’s in mid-2003. More specifically, it was at 75% in September, the month before MBK’s arrest. Please read the link more carefully before making insinuations.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Your egomania is getting the better of you, dude. We were not referring to anything you linked to, we were referring to the fact that the war in Chechnya was going really badly in 2003, it was a bloodbath and the Russian people were sick of it. As a result, this. You have totally ignored the wave of arrests and murders that followed. You’re the one who needs to pay more attention. We ask you again: Was it just a coincidence that when the war in Chechnya, Putin’s main claim to fame, started going really badly major opposition figures started getting arrested and killed? Believe it or not, we can keep this up just as long as you can, you’re not smarter or tougher than us, and we will wipe that schoolboy smirk right off your face.

ANATOLY KARLIN: We’ll see about that. Your first problem is that the poll you cite ISN’T of Putin’s approval rate, but of VOTER INCLINATIONS. There is a big difference, namely that whereas you can “approve” of several different politicians, you can only vote for one of them. Hence, the percentage of people saying they’d vote for Putin can always be expected to be lower than his approval rate – which was at 70% in May 2003. That’s relatively low but still well within his usual band of 65%-85%.

Second, I want to see the evidence for your claim that the war in Chechnya was going “really badly” in 2003. In that year, 299 soldiers died in the line of duty, down from 485 in 2002, 502 in 2001, and 1397 in 2000. According to the graph of North Caucasus violence in this paper (see pg. 185), there was no discernible uptick in 2003.

Third, both Trepashkin and Khodorkovsky were arrested in October 2003. That’s a whole five months after the poll showing a slight dip in Putin’s popularity. Your conspiracy theory has no legs.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Are you really unaware of what was happening in Chechnya between the middle of 2002 and the middle of 2004? This is what, just for instance:

“Between May 2002 and September 2004, the Chechen and Chechen-led militants, mostly answering to Shamil Basayev, launched a campaign of terrorism directed against civilian targets in Russia. About 200 people were killed in a series of bombings (most of them suicide attacks), most of them in the 2003 Stavropol train bombing (46), the 2004 Moscow metro bombing (40), and the 2004 Russian aircraft bombings (89).”

“Two large-scale hostage takings, the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis (850 hostages) and the 2004 Beslan school siege (about 1,200), resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. In the Moscow stand-off, FSB Spetsnaz forces stormed the buildings on the third day using a lethal chemical agent. In the Beslan hostage case, a grenade exploding inside the school triggered the storming of the school. Some 20 Beslan hostages had been executed by their captors before the storming.”

We’re not going to allow any further responses, the fact that you are willing to speak about Chechnya without knowing such basic information makes it clear nothing at all would be achieved in doing so. Let’s move on.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Suppose that Boris Nemtsov were elected president of Russia in 2012. What specific negative consequences do you think this would have for Russia? Would you admit that anything at all in Russia would change for the better if Nemtsov was in charge?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I’m no seer as to predict what will happen with President Borya at the helm, but I can make some inferences from history. As the liberal governor of Nizhniy Novgorod oblast from 1991 to 1996, praised by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, he oversaw an economic collapse that was – if anything – even deeper than in Russia as a whole. Industrial production fell by almost 70%, as opposed to 50% at the federal level; mean incomes declined from 90.8% of the Russian average in 1991, to just 69.5% by 1996.

As Deputy Prime Minister, the New York Times described Nemtsov as an “architect of Russia’s fiscal policy.” In July 29th, 1998, Borya predicted that “there will be no devaluation.” Three weeks later, on August 17th, Russia defaulted on its debts. The ruble plummeted into oblivion, along with his approval ratings, and soon after he quit the government. The next decade he spent on self-promoting liberal politics and writing “independent expert reports” whining about Putin that are as prolific (there are now 7 of them) as they are misleading.

Nemtsov hasn’t exactly made a good impression on the two occasions he enjoyed real power. Who knows, perhaps third time’s the lucky charm. But I wouldn’t bet the house – or should that be the Kremlin? – on it.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Same question for Alexei Navalny.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Life may become harder for corrupt bureaucrats and dark-skinned minorities. Supporters of gun rights will have cause to celebrate.

In short, it’s a mixed bag. I wish Navalny well in his RosPil project, but I wouldn’t support any of his political ambitions unless he firmly disavows ethnic Russian chauvinism.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But Putin hasn’t disavowed ethnic Russian chauvinism. So why do you support his political ambitions? Would you criticize Putin if Navalny announces his candidacy and then gets arrested just like Khodorkovsky?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Putin is most assuredly not a Russian (russkij) chauvinist. He has condemned nationalism on many occasions, and stressed the multiethnic nature of the Russian Federation – as well he should, as nationalism is one of the biggest threats to its territorial integrity. If anything, the nationalists hate Putin even more than the liberals. Visit their message boards and you will see endless condemnations of the current regime as a Zionist Occupation Government intent on selling off the country, populating it with minorities, and exterminating ethnic Russians. The Manezh riots and the banning of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) of the past few months should, if anything, convince one that relations between the Kremlin and far-right groups are decidedly antagonistic.

I will certainly criticize the Kremlin if Navalny is arrested on bogus charges (unlike Khodorkovsky, who is quite guilty of tax evasion). Not Putin because it is highly unlikely he’d have anything to do with it. But I very much doubt it will come to that. To have done so much anti-corruption work as Navalny without getting into any major trouble for it – at least up till now – means that he almost certainly has a good krysha (roof), i.e. political protection of some sort.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Please provide a link quoting Putin “condemning” Russian nationalism. And please explain why the cabinet wasn’t multi-ethnic under Putin.

ANATOLY KARLIN: There are literally thousands of links on this topic. Here’s one for your delectation, from December 2010:

“If we don’t appreciate Russia’s strength as a multinational society, and run about like madmen with razor blades, we will destroy Russia. If we allow this, we will not create a great Russia, but a territory riven by internal contradictions, which will crumble before our very eyes… I wouldn’t give 10 kopeks for someone who travels from central Russia to the North Caucasus and disrespects the Koran.”

There is nothing to explain. Off the top of my head, Minister of Economic Development and Trade Elvira Nabiullina and Minister of Internal Affairs Rashid Nurgaliyev are Tatars, and Minister of Emergency Situations Sergey Shoygu is Tuvan.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Our readers may not be familiar with Life News. Can you tell them what that is? Is it, for instance a national TV network? Has Putin ever condemned Russian nationalism in a speech to the Duma, or one of his national Q&A sessions, or in an address to the nation? Has his government ever handled a nationalist the way it handled Mikhail Khodorkovsky? If Putin is serious about protecting the people of the North Caucasus, why do so many of them have to go to Strasbourg?

ANATOLY KARLIN: As far as I know, it’s an online news site with a TV operation. (I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it, it was the first to get hold of a video of Oleg Kashin’s beating). But you can find the above quotes repeated on hundreds of sites. You can read the full speech here.

Would this Q&A on national TV from December 24th, 2010 qualify? That’s at least five denunciations of nationalism in one speech:

“We have to suppress extremism from all sides, wherever it comes from… It’s vital that that all Russians citizens, whatever their faith or nationality, recognize that we are children of one country. In order to feel comfortable anywhere on our territory, we need to behave in such a way, that a Caucasian isn’t afraid to walk Moscow’s streets, and that a Slav isn’t afraid to live in a republic of the North Caucasus… I’ve said this many times before, and I say it again, that from its beginnings Russia grew as a multinational and multiconfessional state… This “bacillus” of radicalism, it’s always present in society, just like viruses in nearly every human organism. But if a human has good immune defenses, these viruses don’t propagate. Likewise with society: if society has a good immune system, then this “bacillus” of nationalism sits quietly somewhere on the cellular level and doesn’t seep out. As soon as society begins to slack off, this immunity falls – and so the disease begins to spread… Russia is a multinational state. This is our strength. No matter what they say, those who sabotage these foundations, they undermine the country.”

If by that you mean prosecuting MBK for breaking laws, then just this past month two ultra-nationalists were jailed for the murder of HR lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova.

Presumably, there are many Russian cases at Strasbourg because Russia is part of the Council of Europe – which it could leave, if it wanted to – and because it has a big population with a creaky justice system?

LA RUSSOPHOBE: We didn’t say we hadn’t heard of it, we said our readers might not have. Because it’s pretty obscure. On Strasbourg, you’re again missing the point. See, if Russia under Putin really treated the ethnic peoples fairly, then they would not need to go to Strasbourg, and they would not go because it’s lot of trouble to go. And Putin could order that it be so, and it would be so. But he has not done it. And that’s why they go to Strasbourg. You’ve also lost the thread on Putin and nationalism. Putin is only talking about race murders and racism, not Russian nationalism, and only from the perspective that he fears racists who dare to run wild in the streets he’s supposed to control. And it’s only lip service. When is Putin photographed cuddling dark-skinned people? Where is his program for racial tolerance in Russian schools? Has he ever delivered a speech on national television, ever once in his entire tenure, to lecture the nation on race violence? More importantly, though, when has he ever gone beyond race murder to discuss the horrific consequences of raging Russian nationalism — for instance towards Georgia? Never. To the contrary, Putin actively stoked the flames of hostility towards Georgia, actively fuels Russian xenophobia and hatred of the United States, because doing so helps him stay in power. Your attempt to claim that Putin is Russia’s variant of Martin Luther King is absurd on its face. When Politkovskaya was killed for championing the rights of dark-skinned people, Putin basically said she got what she deserved. Putin routinely pours scorn on the Strasbourg court and has done nothing to improve the quality of justice for Russians as a result of its numerous decrees finding Putin’s government guilty of state-sponsored murder, kidnapping and torture. He has never once taken a such a personal interest it the prosecution of a nationalist as he did with Khodorkovsky. That’s what we meant.

ANATOLY KARLIN: I never claimed that Putin is Russia’s MLK, that is absurd, as his job is in governance not civil activism.

By the numbers. “Cuddling dark-skinned people” – what, just like he does with rare and exotic animals? Do you realize how patronizing – and yes, racist – that sounds? I don’t know about his school policies. As far as I know, Putin never gave a speech solely on race violence on Russian TV, but even if he did, I’m sure you’ll just move the goalposts further (as you did here) and ask if he ever apologized to ethnic minority representatives for past hate crimes, as Germany did for the Holocaust.

As for Georgia, I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong suspect – better ask Saakashvili why he feels it’s okay to invade a South Ossetia that wants nothing to do with him and murder people with Katyusha rockets in their sleep in the cause of Georgian nationalism. Though I’m aware that you’d have much preferred that Russia turn a blind eye to the attacks on Ossetian civilians and its own peace-keepers, failing to do so isn’t exactly nationalism.

Individual racist hoodlums, reprehensible as they are, are not the grave threat to the state that Khodorkovsky was. As such, a personal interest in their prosecution is not required or expected.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: You mean you actually believe that Navalny could be arrested on bogus charges in order to prevent him challenging Putin for the presidency and Putin might have nothing to do with it? That if Putin gave the order to do no such thing, and let Navalny run if he wanted, Putin might be ignored?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I suppose Putin COULD do it, but that’s beside the point. That’s not how they roll. If the powers that be really, really didn’t want Navalny to run for the Presidency, he’d be disqualified on a technicality. As for the latter point, the notion that Putin would think of “ordering” someone NOT to be arrested is pretty ludicrous as it implies an absurd degree of micro-management on his part.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: There’s no doubt that Khodorkovsky was guilty of some criminal violations, that’s not the point. We believe your comment about him is extremely dishonest and an insult to our intelligence. The point is the Khodorkovsky was arrested for doing things that many other Russian businessmen close to Putin have done and continue to do without charges being filed, and was arrested only when he began making noises about challenging for the presidency, and that unlike any of the others he was lobbying strongly to bring Western accounting transparency to Russian business. Do you honestly believe that Putin himself declares all his income on his tax returns? That Khodorkovsky’s arrest was in no way political?

ANATOLY KARLIN: My main problem isn’t that Khodorkovsky’s arrest was political, but that it wasn’t political enough! Were I in charge like a Sid Meier’s Civilization player, all the other oligarchs would join MBK on his extended Siberian vacation, with their ill-gotten assets confiscated and returned to the Russian people.

And if wishes were fishes… Still, let’s get some things straight. On coming to power, Putin made an informal deal with the oligarchs that allowed them to keep their misappropriated wealth in return for paying taxes and staying out of politics. This wasn’t a perfect solution, but one could reasonably argue that it was a better compromise than the two alternatives: large-scale renationalization, or a continuation of full-fledged oligarchy.

For whatever reason – be it self-interest, hubristic arrogance, or even genuine conviction in his own rebranding as a transparency activist – MBK wasn’t interested in this deal. Instead, he bribed Duma deputies to build a power base and tried to run his own foreign policy through YUKOS. So what if other businessmen close to Putin were involved in shady enterprises, you ask? The “others do it too” argument is for the playground, not a court of law. Unlike them, MBK mounted a direct challenge to the Russian state – funded by wealth he’d stolen from it – that Putin was under no obligation to tolerate.

The bottom line is he failed at his power grab, becoming a victim of the same lawless system that he had no qualms exploiting to become Russia’s wealthiest man in the first place (his sordid activities may have extended to murder). Too bad for him, he should have spent his loot on buying foreign football clubs and luxury yachts, like Abramovich. Smallest violin in the world playing for his lost opportunity to enjoy la dolce vita!

I’d really recommend the liberals adopt some other martyr as the face of their Cabbage Revolution, because Khodorkovsky’s sure ain’t pretty!

As regards Putin’s financial probity, I addressed this question below.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: If you had to choose someone from the opposition to replace Medvedev in 2012, who would you choose and why?

ANATOLY KARLIN: That’s easy, Gennady Zyuganov. The Communists are by far the most popular opposition to the Kremlin today. Plus, they make awesome vids.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: We’re not sure you understood the question. You mean you think Zyuganov is the best choice among all those opposed to Putin and Medvedev to be their successor?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Yes, I’d take the Communists over liberals mooching at Western embassies any day of the week. If you listen to Zyuganov’s recent speech, you will find that he is deeply critical of Putin’s and Medvedev’s record.

I think he’s the best choice among the current opposition, but the issue is, of course, arguable. What’s undisputable is that it’s the most democratic. According to opinion polls, a great many Russians hold socialist (40%), Communist (18%), and agrarian (19%) values – all of which the KPRF espouses. The numbers of those with liberal (12%) or ethnic nationalist (12%) values is much lower.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So you’re saying you think an avowed communist apparatchik is a better choice to govern Russia than Mikhail Kasyanov, who was hand-picked by Vladimir Putin to run the country?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Zyuganov has some good ideas about reintroducing progressive taxation, strengthening the social safety net, and increasing spending on groups like pensioners, working mothers, students, and public workers. Misha knows how to take 2% kickbacks and whine about his former employer to Western journalists.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: If you are right and, two decades after the collapse of the USSR, the best alternative to a proud KGB spy as Russia’s leader is a shameless Communist apparatchik, doesn’t that say something pretty damning about the people of Russia, the quality of their citizenry and their ability to modernize, adapt and grow? After all, Americans were able to follow Richard Nixon with Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush with Barack Obama. Are they really that much better than Russians in this regard?

ANATOLY KARLIN: If the Communists are Russians’ best alternative, it implies that they suffer much less cognitive dissonance than Americans, who claim to want a Swedish-style wealth distribution but consistently give power to plutocrats drawn from a common “bipartisan consensus.” So that’s another way of looking at things.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: If you had to choose someone, and you could choose anyone at all, to be the next president of Russia, who would you choose and why?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Dmitry Rogozin, because his Twitter feed is the best thing since sliced white bread. Realistically? Despite my criticisms of his rule, I think Vladimir Putin remains the best choice.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But Rogozin is a fire-breathing nationalist. How do you square criticizing Navalny on this ground and then totally ignoring it with respect to Rogozin?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I think advancing Rogozin on the merits of his Twitter feed provides a strong clue on the (non) seriousness of the proposal.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Kevin Rothrock of “A Good Treaty” says Putin won’t return to the presidency in 2012, Medvedev will be reelected. Do you agree?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Yes, I do. If I had to bet on it, I’d give the following odds: Medvedev – 70%, Putin – 25%, Other – 5%.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: What odds do you give Medvedev of defeating Putin in an “election” that Putin wants to win?

ANATOLY KARLIN: If they go head to head, I’d say: Putin – 75%, Medvedev – 25%.

According to opinion polls, 27% of Russians would like Putin to run as a candidate in the 2012 elections, compared to just 18% who are Medvedev supporters (another 16% would like to have both of them run; I count myself among them). Putin’s approval ratings are consistently higher. He has the support of the party of power and the siloviki, though Medvedev can count on the Presidential Staff. A recent infographic in Kommersant indicates that Medvedev enjoys slightly more media coverage.

I think Medvedev will only get a good chance to beat Putin if the allegations of massive corruption against the latter are found to be actually true. As I argue below, I doubt Putin is personally corrupt – at least, not to banana republic-type levels – so I don’t see that becoming a decisive factor.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Rothrock says the 2012 election won’t be free and fair by European standards. Do you agree?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Mostly, I disagree. As I noted in this post, the results of the 2008 Presidential elections almost exactly matched the results of a post-elections Levada poll asking Russians whom they voted for. The percentage of votes for Medvedev, and the percentage of those who later recalled having voted for Medvedev (excluding non-voters), was exactly the same at 71%. If vote rigging were as prevalent as you guys seem to think, there would logically be a big discrepancy between these two figures, no?

(And before you retort that the director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, is an FSB stooge or some such, consider that he writes things like this: “Putinism is a system of decentralized use of the institutional instruments of coercion, preserved in the power ministries as relics of the totalitarian regime, and hijacked by the powers that be for the fulfillment of their private, clan-group interests.” Doesn’t exactly sound like the biggest Putin fanboy out there…)

The question of whether elections will be fair is a different quantity. The Russian political system is a restricted space, in comparison to much of Europe, which I suppose makes it less fair. On the other hand, it’s hardly unique in that respect. The first past the post system in the UK, for instance, means that in regions dominated by one party, there is no point in voting for an alternate candidate (a feature that has led to artificially long periods of Conservative domination).

LA RUSSOPHOBE: If Putin does return to the Russian presidency in 2012, do you believe there’s any chance he’ll leave power in anything but a coffin? If so, tell us how you think it could happen.

ANATOLY KARLIN: He might also leave in a helicopter, a Mercedes (or a Lada Kalina, if he’s feeling patriotic that day), or even a computer if “mind uploading” is developed like those technological singularity geeks predict.

Okay, let’s be clear… unlike you, I don’t view Putin as a dictator. The Russian Federation is, at worst, semi-authoritarian, and has been such since 1993 – when the “democratic hero” Yeltsin imposed a super-presidential Constitution with tank shells. If Putin becomes President in 2012, he will likely leave in 2018 or 2024.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But according to your own words, the only way Putin will become “president” in 2012 is if you are very, very wrong. So your prediction about him them leaving office is just drivel, isn’t it? Or are you saying he’ll take a six-year holiday and come back in 2030?

ANATOLY KARLIN: It’s not a prediction, it’s a supposition (note my qualifier: “likely”). As I said, I’m not a seer. What I do know is that Putin honored the constitutional limit on two Presidential terms in 2008, defying the predictions of legions of Kremlinologists, so based on historical precedent I assume he’ll continue to follow the letter of the law.

VVP will be 78 years old in 2030. I suspect he’ll be playing with his great grandchildren by then, not running the country. Unless he takes up Steven Seagal on his offer to become a cyborg, or something.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Could you have asked for a more Russophile-friendly president of the USA than Barack Obama? If so, how could Obama have been even more Russophile-friendly while still retaining credibility among American voters?

ANATOLY KARLIN: If by “Russophile-friendly” you mean a President who takes a neutral and constructive position towards Russia (as opposed to McCain’s kneejerk Russophobia), then yes, quite a few improvements could be made.

Repealing Jackson-Vanik is one long overdue reform, as Russia hasn’t restricted emigration for over two decades. Introducing a visa-free regimen will make life a lot easier for both Russians and Americans. Agreeing to let Russia have joint control of European ballistic missile defense will alleviate Russian concerns that the system is targeted against them, and will give the US leverage to extract more Russian cooperation on issues of mutual concern such as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Admittedly, the last will be a difficult pill to swallow, for those who are still entombed in Cold War mindsets.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: You seem a bit confused. The President of the USA can’t repeal a law. Try reading the Constitution. What could Obama have done within his power as president that he has not done? Are you proposing that Europe will have joint control over Russian ballistic missile defense as well?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Presidents can lobby to repeal a law, but OK – point well taken. I don’t deny that Obama has been a good President for US-Russia relations.

This is common sense on his part. The US is an overstretched Power, with a budget deficit of 10%+ of GDP; it’s fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya; China is emerging as a major economic and military challenger; and the government is sinking into dysfunctional partisanship. Reaching some kind of accommodation with Russia is very much in the US national interest, even if the residual Cold Warriors and neocons are too blind to see it.

If the US granted Russia joint control of its BMD systems in Europe, and if – for whatever reason – Russia were to install BMD facilities abroad in Belarus or Transnistria, then yes, it would be justified for the US and a European authority to demand joint control over those Russian BMD systems.

(Ideally, in my view, all parties should abandon BMD projects against next to non-existent threats from countries like Iran, and concentrate their resources on far more pressing issues, such as anthropogenic climate change).

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Are you saying Obama isn’t lobbying to repeal JV?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Obama could be more pro-active about it. It’s been three years now and still no cake.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: According to Transparency International Russia has become much more corrupt while Putin has held power, and there’s certainly no evidence it has become less corrupt. Do you believe Putin is personally corrupt, in other words that he’s taken any money or wealth in any form that he has not declared on his tax return while president or prime minister?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I take issue with your first statement. Russia’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) was 2.1 in 2000; it remained unchanged, at 2.1, in 2010. How does this indicate that Russia has become “much more corrupt” under Putin? I’d call it stagnation. (And that’s corruption as measured by a metric that has been widely criticized for its subjectivity and methodological flaws. But that’s another topic).

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Putin’s bank accounts (of course, neither do the legions of journalists writing about his $40 billion offshore fortunes). In fact, as far as I know, these claims originated with Stanislav Belkovsky, a political scientist citing “anonymous sources” in the Kremlin. The sole problem with his thesis? He doesn’t give any evidence whatsoever to back up his claims.

My impression is that Putin is not personally corrupt – at least, not to Suharto-like extremes. Sure, it’s not as if Putin buys his $50,000 watches and vintage cars with his own salary; that’s the job of his staff, to maintain a respectable image. And this isn’t uncommon. For instance, President Sarkozy wears a $120,000 Breguet, among several other luxury watches in his collection.

PS. I noticed in your translation of Nemtsov’s report that he took issue with taxpayer-funded estates “that are at the disposal of the country’s top leaders” as one example of Putin’s incorrigible corruption. The first example of this ‘corruption’ he cited was Konstantinovo Palace, near St.-Petersburg. Some facts: it’s an imperial-era palace that fell into disrepair in the 1990’s; Putin merely ordered its restoration. It’s possible to visit it as a tourist, and in fact I did, in 2003. Like many other cultural attractions, it has its own website. I wouldn’t find it surprising if tourism has already repaid the ‘corrupt’ state investments into its reconstruction.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Please have a look at the nice red-and-white chart in this link. Would you like to change your answer?

ANATOLY KARLIN: The chart shows that Russia’s position fell in Transparency International’s global rankings from 82nd in 2000, to 154th a decade later. What the esteemed author, Ben Judah, conveniently forgot to mention was that the sample of countries it was measured against rose from 90 to 178.

So, that’s a no.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: You’re saying that the revelation that there are seventy two more countries in the world than previously thought that are less corrupt than Russia is insignificant? You’re saying that you don’t think it reflects at all badly on Vladimir Putin that there are 153 world nations that are less corrupt than Putin’s Russia?

ANATOLY KARLIN: You’d benefit from a course in Stats 101. Russia’s absolute ranking has fallen, but this was exclusively due to a doubled sample. Its absolute score remains exactly the same at 2.1, and it stayed in the bottom quintile in the global rankings. There is no “revelation” to speak of as statisticians would have ACCOUNTED for the fact that the sample only covered less than half the world’s countries in 2000!

I completely agree with you that Russia’s position in Transparency International’s CPI rankings reflects badly on VVP… if the ‘perceptions’ of their self-appointed experts actually had anything to do with reality! Fortunately for Russia, that is not the case. Quite apart from its methodological flaws – using changing mixes of different surveys to gauge a fluid, opaque-by-definition social phenomenon – it doesn’t pass the face validity test. In other words, many of the CPI’s results are frankly ludicrous. Do you truly believe that Russia (2.1) is more corrupt than failed states like Zimbabwe (2.4) and Haiti (2.2), or that Italy (3.9) is more corrupt than Saudi Arabia (4.7) which is a feudalistic monarchy for crying out loud!? If you do, may I respectfully suggest getting your head checked?

There are many other corruption indices that are far more useful and objective than the risible CPI.

One of them is Transparency International’s less well-known Global Corruption Barometer. Every year, they poll respondents on the following question: “In the past 12 months have you or anyone living in your household paid a bribe?” According to the 2010 version, some 26% of Russians said they did, which is broadly similar to other middle-income countries such as Thailand (23%), Hungary (24%), Romania (28%), or Lithuania (34%). It is significantly worse than developed countries such as the US (5%) or Italy (13%) – though Greece (18%) isn’t that distant – but leagues ahead of Third World territories like India (54%) or Sub-Saharan Africa (56% average).

Another resource is the Global Integrity Report, which evaluates countries on their “actually existing” legal frameworks and implementation on issues such as “the transparency of the public procurement process, media freedom, asset disclosure requirements, and conflicts of interest regulations.” (This involves rigorous line by line examination of the laws in question, as opposed to polling “experts” on their “perceptions” as in the CPI). Russia has relatively good laws, but weak implementation, making for an average score of 71/100 as of 2010 (up from 63/100 in 2006). As with the Barometer, Russia is somewhere in the middle of the pack. It does better on the International Budget Partnership, which – believe it or not – assesses budget transparency. On the Open Budgets Index of 2010, Russia scored 60/100 (or 21st/94 countries), which is worse than most developed countries like the US (82) or Germany (67), but average for its region, and well above states like Nigeria (18) or Saudi Arabia (1).

Now I hope you won’t take away the wrong impression here. It is not my intention to argue that there’s no corruption in Russia, or that it isn’t any worse than in most of the developed world. But I do not consider Russia’s corruption to be atypical of other middle-income countries, and it’s certainly nowhere near the likes of Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea as those who praise the Corruption Perceptions Index would have you think.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But Anatoly, you’re still ignoring our questions, and that’s very rude. As TI started bringing in more and more countries within its survey, it found that far, far more of them were LESS corrupt than Russia, and only a handful were MORE corrupt. You can’t seem to decide if TI’s data is reliable, and therefore proves corruption isn’t getting worse in Russia, or unreliable, and therefore can be ignored when it claims Russia is a disastrous failure. Since you don’t care about facts, let’s talk about anecdotes: Have you personally ever actually tried to do business in Russia?

ANATOLY KARLIN: So what?? The experts polled by Transparency International believed Russia to be a corrupt hellhole in 2000 (bottom 9% globally). They believed Russia to be a corrupt hellhole in 2010 (bottom 14% globally). Nothing changed.

Just because more countries were included in the survey during the intervening period says absolutely nothing about corruption trends in Russia!

TI’s data used to compile the CPI is reliable enough at measuring corruption PERCEPTIONS; what I think I made quite clear is that I do not believe those perceptions to be reflective of Russia’s corruption REALITIES, because of the methodological and face validity problems that I discussed above. As such, I do NOT view TI’s CPI as a reliable measure of corruption in Russia. There are far better measures such as the Global Corruption Barometer, the Global Integrity Report, and the Open Budget Index.

You can view Russia’s scores on these, relative to other countries, in my new post on the Corruption Realities Index 2010. It combines the findings of the three organizations above, and in the final results Russia comes 46th/93 (and before you rush off to claim it is “Russophile”-biased, note that Georgia comes 21st/93). Nobody would claim being about as corrupt as the world average to be a great achievement, and I never did; but neither is it apocalyptic.

No, I haven’t done business in Russia. Is it supposed to be a prerequisite for studying corruption in Russia? In any case, even if I had done business there, my experiences wouldn’t necessarily be representative of the business community at large.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Well, see, if Russia wasn’t really so bad, or was in stasis compared to other countries, then you’d expect to see an equal division between “less corrupt than Russia” and “more corrupt than Russia” as new countries were added to the mix. But in fact, as new countries are added the overwhelming majority turn out to be less corrupt than Russia. Even if Russia’s score is overstated by one-third, Russia still isn’t among the 100 most honest nations on the planet. A person who truly cared about Russia would be very, very concerned about this. You, instead, seek to rationalize Russian failure and by doing so you help it continue. So as we’ve said before, with “friends” like you Russia needs no enemies.

ANATOLY KARLIN: I doubt Russia’s corruption problem will be fixed sooner by screaming “ZAIRE WITH PERMAFROST!!!” at any opportunity, but that’s just me so let’s agree to disagree.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Why don’t you live in Russia?

ANATOLY KARLIN: This question appears to be a variation of the “love it then go there” argument, which is a false dilemma fallacy.

Anything more I say will only be recapping issues I’ve already addressed in this post.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Again, you’ll have to answer our questions or your interview won’t be published. Bizarre as it may seem to you, those are our rules. Incidentally, our readers aren’t overly interested in following links to your blog. Care to try again?

ANATOLY KARLIN: My reasons for living not living in Russia are simple and mundane: at the present time, I see more opportunities for myself where I currently reside than I do in Russia. I’d prefer to finish my last year in university, and overall, the Bay Area is a pretty cool place to be in.

This may change in the future, as in general, I view myself as a wanderer, a “rootless cosmopolitan” if you will, and some other countries on my to-go list include China, Argentina, and Ukraine / Belarus.

However, I doubt your motive in asking this question is to exchange pleasantries about my life goals. Instead you or your readers may legitimately ask why my opinions on Russian politics, society, etc., should carry any weight when I don’t live there.

First, who I am, where I live, and what flavor of ice cream I like has no bearing on the validity of any arguments I make about Russia or indeed almost anything else. Not only is disputing that a logical fallacy, but for consistency you’d then have to dismiss almost all Western Kremlinologists – including those you approve of, such as Streetwise Professor, Paul Goble, Leon Aron, etc – who likewise don’t live in Russia.

Second, you might be implying that I should “love it or leave it,” i.e. leave the US (which I hate) and go to Russia (which I love). Not only is this also a logical fallacy, a false choice dilemma, but it is also untrue. There are many aspects of the US which I love and likewise many aspects of Russia that I hate, and vice versa.

Third, you may say that I “voted with my feet,” thus proving that USA is Number One. Sorry to disappoint, but one person cannot be generalized to ‘prove’ things one way or another on issues as subjective as which country is better or worse than another. The exercise is entirely pointless given the huge impact of unquantifiable cultural factors and specific and personal circumstances inherent to any such judgment.

Fourth, and finally, even if I did live in Russia, the Russophobe ideologue will only argue that it’s confirmation that I’m an FSB stooge – because, as he or she well knows, the Kremlin crushes all dissent and only allows Putinistas online.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: We don’t believe any thinking person can argue that any other Russia blog that has ever existed has come close to being as inspirational to the blogosphere as La Russophobe. Just for instance, neither your blog nor the one you (laughably) consider the best in the universe, Kremlin Stooge, would exist without our inspiration. And if there’s one thing we respect about you, it would be your willingness to admit the extent of our influence. Yet many of your Russophile brethren insist on pretending to dismiss us. Why are they so unwilling to admit how good we are? Why don’t they realize how foolish they look? Is it some sort of psychological complex on their part, or is it a crazily ineffective propaganda scheme?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I think you’ve given all the answers in advance.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: No, we’ve given a choice of options, and maybe you can think of another one we haven’t.

ANATOLY KARLIN: It might have something to do with them seeing you as a slanderous egomaniac with delusions of grandeur (“La Russophobe, of course, stands alone as the best Russia blog on this planet, or any other”), though admittedly, also morbidly entertaining, like the artworks of Damien Hirst. But I’m sure they’re just jealous. After all: “ревность – сестра любви, подобно тому как дьявол – брат ангелов.”

You’ll always be an angel to me, La Russophobe!

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Do you seriously believe Kremlin Stooge is the best Russia blog on the planet, or were you just being a provocateur?

ANATOLY KARLIN: It’s a tossup between Kremlin Stooge (popular coverage), Russia: Other Points Of View (in-depth economy, politics, media), A Good Treaty (society), The Power Vertical (politics), Sean’s Russia Blog (history), and Sublime Oblivion (demography)… well, if you insist, add La Russophobe (the кровавая гэбня).

(Of course, these are only the English-language blogs. There is also Alexandre Latsa’s Dissonance blog, en français, and it goes without saying that there are dozens of extremely good Russia blogs на русском.)

At a minimum, they all offer something unique. Selecting the best one is, by necessity, an exercise in subjectivity. With that caveat, I find Mark Chapman’s Kremlin Stooge, Russia: Other Points of View, and Eric Kraus’ Truth and Beauty to be the most interesting English-language blogs.

Thanks for your thoughtful questions, and wish you the best.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Thanks for the interview, and good luck with your blogging!

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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The next installment of our Watching the Russia Watchers series at S/O features an interview with Peter Lavelle, the main political analyst at the Russia Today TV network, host of its CrossTalk debate show and Untimely Thoughts blogger. (He also has a Wikipedia page!) Peter is opposed to Western media hegemony, considering it neither fair nor useful, and firmly believes that global media should feature a diversity of voices from all cultural traditions; as such, the rise of alternate forums such as Al Jazeera and Russia Today are a boon for media consumers everywhere. Peter Lavelle actualizes this philosophy in his own CrossTalk program, in which controversial topics from France’s burqa ban to the collapse of Soviet Amerika are discussed: agree with him or not, one can certainly never get bored listening. The serious Russia watcher is recommended to join his “Untimely Thoughts” – Expert Discussion Group on Russia.

Peter Lavelle: In His Own Words…

What first sparked your interest in journalism and Russia, and how did the twain meet?

The reason I started to write about Russia – circa 1999 – came about for two reasons. First, having an education in Eastern European and Russian history gave me a reason to write about where I lived. I didn’t like much of what the commentariat was writing on contemporary Russia. The second reason was to earn some money, which later led to needing to make a living.

I came to Russia to live in late 1997. I was employed as an equity analyst at what was then called Alfa Capital. I was lured to Russia by my former boss (an American) I worked with in Poland. I never wanted to move to Russia – actually I must say I was rather adverse to Russia, having lived in eastern Europe for about 12 years. As a result of the financial crisis of 1998, I was given a generous severance package. This allowed me to stay in Russia for a while without worrying too much about money. In spring of 2000 I started to work for a small Russian bank. The money wasn’t great, but at least the bank organized and paid for my visa. Plus, I had time to write now and then. It was at this time I discovered the JRL – Johnson’s Russia List. I have been hooked on (even an addict to) Russia watching ever since.

So you ask “how did the twain meet?” I was furious with what some journalists passed off as serious analysis and commentary on Russia and I was given opportunities to express myself as a corrective to what I thought was awful journalism. The synthesis is me today (and not just regarding Russia).

My first stop was the Russia Journal. It wasn’t much of a newspaper, but I sure did write a lot for it and really enjoyed it. Then UPI’s former Moscow bureau chief asked me to come on board as a stringer – I was thrilled. That was the first time I called myself a journalist.

Later, I wrote for Asia Times Online and – yes! – for Radio FreeEurope/Radio Liberty. Being published in “Current History” was also a special benchmark for me as a journalist.

This was also the first time I started butting heads with the commentariat. I would like to point out that this is way before I had anything to do with Russian state (funded) media. Please remember my Untimely Thoughts newsletter was going full blast during all of this.

And for all those interested: I started to work at RIAN (2005) becauseI was tired of the “slave wages” UPI was paying and for problems associated with getting a new visa. Thus, I had very practical reasons to make this move.

It is simply not true I went to RIAN (later RT) due to “ideological” motivations. I had already settled in Russia and wanted to stay settled. My journalism in front of a camera today differs little from the journalism I practiced in print years before RT came into existence.

What were your best and worst experiences as a Russia journalist?

The highlight of my career to date in journalism, in which I include television, was covering Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia in August 2008. I was in the news studio hour after hour, day in and day out. I lived on cigarettes and coffee, and with very little sleep. Watching such a story from the start and unfold was exhilarating. I am proud to say RT did an excellent job and that we at RT got the story right from the beginning when other news outlets either got it wrong or played catch-up (following RT’s lead of course!).

Having my own television program (aired three times a week) remains a great highlight. I dreamed (or day dreamed) of having such an opportunity at a very early age watching the Sunday political chat shows in the US. So dreams can come true, I suppose.

What is my worst experience? This will surprise you: not getting paid for my work. I have lost count of the number of articles I wrote without being compensated when I was still in print journalism. Today I can write for media outlets without asking for compensation – a wonderful position to be in.

I would like to also mention that while not directly under the category of “worst experience” I can say an on-going “unpleasant experience” is being called “Putin’s mouth piece” or the “Kremlin’s tool.” I speak my mind, I have always done this. Anyone acquainted with my long lost friend – my Untimely Thoughts newsletter – knows I have changed very little over the years. Television has not changed me; it has only allowed me to amplify my worldview.

Who are the best Russia commentators? Who are the worst?

Who are the best? There are some really great ones – ones that come to mind immediately: Patrick Armstrong, Vlad Sobell, Thomas Graham, Eugene Ivanov, Dale Herspring, Stephen Cohen, Paul Sauders, Dmitry Sims, Anatol Lieven, Mary Dejevsky, and Chris Weafer (and of course you Anatoly!).

Who are the worst? I think it is pointless to answer this question. Among the commentariat there is a small cottage industry that regularly condemns me – everyone reading this interview knows who I am referring to. To this day not one aspersion said or written about me warrants my reply. These are small minded people and most of them are journalists because they lack the ability and talent to do anything else. These are the worst kind of people – they get along by going along. When it comes to writing about Russia, the majority of them don’t have the guts to stand alone and speak up.

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

I love and hate Moscow! Moscow is my home so I make the best of it. Because of my CrossTalk program, I very rarely travel anymore. In fact, I have seen very little of this vast country. I have visited various cities between Moscow and St Petersburg and down south as far as Chechnya. By my own admission, I should be better travelled after so many years. I am still hoping to make it to Vladivostok.

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

Martin Malia’s “Russia under Western Eyes” [AK: Click to buy] – I can’t remember how many times I have read this great tome, but each time I do I learn something new to reflect upon.

Do you think today’s Russian media environment is better than in 1999? The late 1980′s? Are Russian journalists freer or safer than they were before?

Comparing Russian media of the 80’s to the 90s to the 00s is not very constructive. The ending of Soviet era censorship was a great moment for Russians and Russian society. Some embraced honest and professional journalism; others practiced this trade with regrettable irresponsibility.

The way I look at Russia’s media transition – and the journey is long from over – is through the prism of business models. In the 80s the state’s monopoly had to be broken and eventually was. In the 90s the oligarchs divided up among themselves huge media empires – none ofwhich had any interest in real journalism or the social good. These media empires were political tools that terribly damaged journalism as a trade, profession, the political environment and even the world of business.

Since about 2000 (circa Putin), media in Russia is very much a business and a very profitable one at that! Today media caters more to audience interests and tastes – mostly entertainment (particularly when it comes to television). Is this good? Does this make a better society? Are people well enough informed? On the whole I don’t see Russian media being all that different from other media markets in the world. Russians – like their global counterparts – are well enough informed about their environment to make rational decisions about their lives. There is plenty of diversity, though one has to make an effort to satisfy interests beyond Russia’s mainstream.

As for the safety of journalists in Russia: this is a very painful and even shameful state of affairs. The police and judiciary need to do much more for journalists. Their inability to prosecute those behind high profile murders hurts journalism as a profession and public trust in state authorities.

Also, I want to point out that journalists are killed more likely because of “kompromat” being investigated or written about someone else’s money – not politics in its normative sense. In Russia money is everything – politics is a sideshow that amuses Russia’s hopelessly retarded liberal intelligentsia.

On balance, do you think Putinism was good or bad for Russia? (Try not to sit on the fence here).

I don’t like the term “Putinism.” There is no such “ism.” Russia is going through what I call the “post-soviet purgatory” – and doing well at that by my estimation, considering the other post-soviet states.

Vladimir Putin is the best thing to happen to Russia in its modern history – he is a rational person and a true patriot. Because of Putin, Russians are freer and richer now than any time since the Russian state came into existence centuries ago. Putin saved the Russian state from thieving oligarchs and their highly paid western advisors. Putin reconstructed the Russian state, was behind the creation of a middle class, and Russia’s dignified turn to the world stage. And he rightfully fought terrorism in the Caucasus when the West hoped for the slow and painful collapse of the Russian state in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

Putin is also the indirect creation of western hubris and the gross irresponsibility of Russia’s self-hating cappuccino-drinking liberals. Russia doesn’t need to be lectured by an outrageously hypocritical West, especially American posturing. Putin is the antithesis of Western hypocrisy and history will be very kind to him. Russians give him a lot of credit and he deserves it.

How will Russia-West relations be affected by Obama’s “reset” policy and Medvedev’s new emphasis on modernization? Which was the main party responsible for their deterioration in the first place?

The so-called “re-set” is a media strategy and in a sense a fraud – it has nothing to do with reality or political facts on the ground. Washington caved to reality – the American empire is collapsing. To slow the inevitable, Washington needs Moscow’s help. Out of self-interest Russia is willing to engage Obama. Pragmatic Russia today is helping Soviet Amerika out of a mess of its own making.

Most of the world’s problems can’t be resolved without Russia’s involvement – Washington now acknowledges this. Moscow does not give a hoot about Obama or the US. What Moscow does care about is how the world will evolve as the US deals with its own and much needed, but rarely spoken about, perestroika. The US is in decline and Russia (along with the emerging world) is readying itself for the inevitable paradigm shift.

Lastly, Russia and the US are not enemies, but they are competitors at times. Competition is good for both countries – even when dealing with common problems facing the world.

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

The Russian government claims it is fighting corruption (and there are signs of this), but it is not doing nearly enough. If Russia is to modernize itself to be competitive in the global marketplace, then it must to do more to fight this cancer. If this is not done, then history will pass Russia by.

HARD Talk* with Peter Lavelle

ANATOLY KARLIN: You are a fierce critic of US policy towards the Muslim world, and its enabling of Israeli expansionism and sidelining of dissenters like Robert Fisk and Norman Finkelstein. First, could you please expound on the similarities between Russophobia and Islamophobia? Second, why are Israeli policies towards the Palestinians / Hamas worse than Russia’s towards the Chechens / Caucasus Emirate?


PETER LAVELLE: First of all, I don’t like the terms Russophobia and Islamophobia – both terms are emotive and lack precision. That said, it is obvious that Russia and Islam today serve as the West’s “other” – meaning both are feared because they are different and will not submit. It is the highest form of hubris on the part of the West to believe (even demand) that everyone in the world should be like the West. The fact is many in the world simply don’t want this. They want good education, health care, prosperity, etc., but not necessarily Western values and certainly not Western (read: American) militarism. This really annoys the West, particularly poorly educated and poorly informed Americans.

Russia sees itself as its own unique civilization. This may or may not be true, but many Russians seem to think so. Islam is obviously a civilization different from the West. Islam is experiencing a resurgence and a great deal of this resurgence is the rejection that Muslims must become more like American, Europeans, etc. I blame Western mainstream media for misleading Western audiences about Islam and the Muslim world. Tragically this is part of the grossly one-sided reporting when it comes to Israel and Greater Middle East politics.

Russia is terribly misinterpreted and misunderstood in the West. Russia is presented as the loser in the Cold War and thus should act as a defeated power. Russia refuses to do this. This infuriates many in the West. The fact is Russia and Russians liberated themselves from communism! According to the Western discourse regarding history, Russia is not repenting for the past, thus it still must be the enemy. The good news is Russia is a political fact on the ground and the West has no choice but to do business with it.

You ask: why are Israeli policies towards the Palestinians / Hamas worse than Russia’s towards the Chechens / Caucasus Emirate? You are asking me to compare apples with cement bricks!

The Israelis threw the Palestinians off their land and deny them their own state. Chechens have their republic within the Russian Federation, which is generously supported by the federal government.

Palestinians are less than second class citizens in Palestine, Chechens have the same rights as any other Russian citizen. Israel is a zionist state; Russia is a secular state protecting the religious rights of all citizens. Hamas was democratically elected; the Caucasus Emirate was not elected by anyone.

I could easily go on. As you can see I don’t see there is much of a comparison.

ANATOLY KARLIN: In my question to you about Russia-US relations, you claim the “American empire is collapsing” and allude to “Soviet Amerika” (that’s even the title of one your Crosstalk programs). Now it’s no secret that the United States has its share of problems: an overstretched military, awning budget deficits, etc. Nonetheless, we need some perspective. The US economy is still much larger than that of its nearest competitor, China (which has lots of bad loans and will be devastated if it were to pull the plug on its prime export market). The Eurozone may already be on the verge of unraveling. As for Russia, its GDP is an order of magnitude smaller than America’s.

So is it then reasonable to speculate about the collapse of Pax Americana, considering its current strength and the problems afflicting potential rivals? If it does collapse, which country or bloc will take its place, if any? Finally, have you heard of Dmitry Orlov’s idea of “the Collapse Gap” between the USSR and America today?


PETER LAVELLE: Yes, I have come across Orlov’s work and remain skeptical – he simply wants to the US to collapse. Everything you point out in your question is correct about the US. But you left out one important issue – the current weakness of America’s democracy. There is no political will in America to live within the country’s means. No one wants to sacrifice – and so many want too much without paying for it. This cannot last much longer – a couple of decades at best. America simply cannot maintain a global empire and prosperity at home. The only card up America’s sleeve is the dollar at the moment, but there is every indication that it will be replaced by a basket of currencies by mid-century.

Who will lead in the wake of America’s inevitable retreat? Hopefully the world will truly become multi-polar. Such a world is better for all of humanity. Multipolarity is better suited to dealing with issues such as climate change, food and energy security, non-proliferation, dealing with HIV/AIDs, etc. Today the world has to wait on all these issues because the US is very often the greatest barrier to positive change in world.

ANATOLY KARLIN: You say that you’re not a paid shill because you are quite sincere in your beliefs: you’re not “the man who $old his homeland”, as alleged by Russia Today’s (RT) former Tbilisi correspondant William Dunbar**. That may be so.

Nonetheless, many observers believe you and RT are hardly free of the same biases that you claim pervade the Western MSM. Though accusing you of being a “latter-day Lord Haw Haw” is surely extreme (as well as a reductio ad hitlerum), the perception definitely exists that what you call “challenging the Western media hegemony” is really just a euphemism for pushing Kremlin spin on unwitting Westerners.

First, do you think this is a valid argument? (If you use the “whataboutism” response, e.g. but the Western media is controlled too!, explain why you think that justifies Russia doing the same.) Second, if you still insist that you’re not beholden to the Kremlin, could you make three criticisms of the Medvedev-Putin tandem?

PETER LAVELLE: I knew William Dunbar and know a few of the details connected to his departure from RT. He is entitled to his opinion, though they are not opinions I agree with. Indeed, he does claim I am “the man who $old his homeland.” This only informs me that he knows little about me and my opinions.

So I will answer my critics on the compensation issue. Yes, I live a comfortable life in Moscow as far as a journalist is concerned, but that is not saying much these days! I am compensated because my work is hard, presenting truly alternative viewpoints, and promoting the station – no different from other television professionals around the world.

What does it mean to sell out one’s homeland? I am American and proud of it. Being American allows me to dissent – and I dissent all the time! RT allows me to do this when most western media outlets could never dream of giving a journalist so much free space. My program CrossTalk is my creation and I am very thankful RT management supports me. I decide the program’s topics and approve guests. I inform my boss what I am doing; I don’t ask for permission.

I don’t care what some disgruntled RT employee has to say about me. The same applies to others in the commentariat because their lack of talent or success. How often these days do I openly attack my critics? The answer is that I don’t. I am attacked and vilified because of my employer, but not my message. That is cheap.

I do not speak for RT – I can only speak for myself and my work at the television station. And let me make it clear – I don’t alway like every story RT broadcasts. At the same time I will defend the station’s commitment to being different. Again being honest – some RT reports are a bit over the top. But this is a good thing in the end – we ask our audience one basic thing: Question More. We may not always get it right, but our intention is spot on.

As far as Kremlin spin-doctoring is concerned, all I can say that this assumption is laughable. I come across this accusation all the time, but after working at RT for almost 5 years I still don’t see the evidence. Does RT present the government’s point of view? Yes, of course it does (and many other viewpoints as well). But is this “Kremlin spin-doctoring”? Obviously Russia’s political elite views the world differently from let’s say the US. Why should anyone be surprised by this? Also, anyone who has watched RT will tell you that the station is not only about politics. How can non-political stories be “Kremlin spin-doctoring”? RT wants to be and is competitive. This is because it is consciously different from its competitors.

RT doesn’t do the same. It is part of my job to watch the competition. I watch CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. CNN and BBC are wildly one-sided on most global issues compared to RT. Where I work you can come across opinions never heard by RT’s competitors. I give Al Jazeera very high points for its coverage of the Greater Middle East (though not its Russia coverage). Thus, I have no need to use the “whataboutism” argument.

You want me to prove that I am not the Kremlin’s slave and live to talk about it! I welcome this opportunity. You asked for 3 examples, well I will give you 10. Over the past 10 years Russia’s leading politicians haven’t done enough regarding:

  1. Corruption at all levels.
  2. Support of the older generation (pensions).
  3. Repair of and construction of new infrastructure.
  4. Support of small and medium size businesses.
  5. Development of political parties.
  6. Promotion of civil society’s role in solving social problems.
  7. Over reliance on the oil and natural gas sectors.
  8. Introduction of a volunteer-only military and military reform in general.
  9. Finding justice in so-called high-profile murders.
  10. The lack of competition in the marketplace.

I could easily go on. Russia has a lot of problems, no different from ALL OTHER countries in the world.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Global warming [deniers / skeptics] (delete as needed) like Alex Jones, Piers Corbyn and Chris Monckton – all with fairly minimal scientific credentials – get prominent coverage at RT. The entire topic of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is treated as a debate in which either side has yet to prove its case.

However, in the real world, there is a consensus: in a 2004 study, Naomi Oreskes concluded that 75% of papers backed the AGW view, while none directly dissented from it. (And the latest studies are almost always more pessimistic about the magnitude of future warming than “previously expected”.) Given the sheer amount of evidence in favor of AGW, it seems strange to put a hereditary aristocrat who calls his opponents “Hitler Youth” and organizes witch hunts on the same pedestal as climate scientists. Even though more Americans believe in creationism than in evolution, news channels don’t normally give equal weight to both sides in that “debate”, do they?

So I’m at a loss how to explain this. Does RT want to get the scoop on the Western media, even at the cost of its own credibility? Or were you guys told to spin up Climategate because global warming is expected to benefit Russia? Or do you really believe that the AGW “debate” is still far from “settled”?


PETER LAVELLE: Again you are asking me to speak for RT – I am not RT’s spokesperson. And to be frank, I find your “Or were you guys told to spin up Climategate…” insulting. The fact is many of our viewers are interested in climate change. RT follows its viewers.

Nonetheless, I am glad you ask about AGW. I have done two programs on the subject – a topic I want to learn more about. I have no problem having Piers Corbryn and Chris Monckton on my program. Could you debate them? My other guests were actually quite keen to debate them. Let me be clear about something: RT gets credibility because it gives air time to different voices. And you are right, there really is no debate on American television. That can’t be said about my CrossTalk program and RT. Speaking about different voices: I may be one of the most prominent backers of dissent in the world of television today! I am proud of that.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Thank you for answering four very HARD questions. I’ll go easy on the last one. As you told us earlier in the interview, you dreamed of having your own TV program from an early age. Your wish came true. There are many who share your dream. Some of them might even be reading this interview! What advice would you give them on becoming a made man or woman in journalism? (The mafia reference isn’t entirely whimsical: from a distance, the profession does appear distinctly cliquish.)

PETER LAVELLE: This is the hardest question of all. All I can say is if you really want to be a journalist (including a TV journalist) you have to make a huge commitment. The competition is enormous and at times talented. Be different because you really are – not because being different might sell. Start blogging and pitching your material. Be prepared for rejection – many times over before things start to happen. Stay away from attacking individuals – staying with your convictions will be enough. Don’t try to become famous, that will come with hard work and honest and fair beliefs. Be willing to learn from others. And lastly stay away from journalists – a caste of people who, for the most part, aren’t worth even having a cup of coffee with.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where they 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.

Ok, Peter Lavelle’s predictions:

  • The current tandem will rule for the foreseable future – which is a good thing.
  • The next election cycle will go smoothly – parliamentary and presidential. Fingers crossed Russia’s political parties will mature some.
  • Russia will continue to recover and grow during the on-going global slump. If the US and Europe experience another turn-down, Russia will be spared.
  • Over the next few years, Russia and its eastern European neighbors will continue a robust process of reconciliation.
  • Russia will have to step in to play a greater role in the Greater Middle East as Washington is anything but a fair broker.
  • Russia will not continue down the path of pressuring Iran regarding Tehran’s nuclear program – Russia-US relations again will be strained (though nothing like during the Bush years).
  • Russia will continue to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere, though not as a direct competitor to the US.
  • NATO will start to seriously listen to Russia (as most European capitals will pretend they have never heard of Saak!).
  • Mainstream western media will continue to get Russia wrong — that is an easy preduction!
  • Eventually, Putin will be blamed for the oil spill in the Gulf and creating the HIV/AIDS virus.

Do you plan to revive your Untimely Thoughts blog? Could you throw us a bone about any other projects you may have in the works?

What about the future? I am having a new website created to mirror my CrossTalk program. There, I intend to return to blogging in a big way in September.

Anatoly, thanks for the interview!

And thank you too, Peter, for a brilliant interview that gives fans and critics alike a lot to chew on!

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

* A note on HARD Talk: My job as an interviewer is be a contrarian and even a “devil’s advocate” of sorts; to air common, common-sense or germane criticisms of the interviewee’s arguments and worldview, REGARDLESS of what my opinions might or might not be. (For instance, though I criticized Peter Lavelle’s views on the collapse of “Soviet Amerika”, I’ve made the same arguments on this very site: e.g. see here, here). I hope this clarifies things for the angry person who wrote me the email accusing me of Russophobia (LOL) in my HARD Talk with A Good Treaty.

** UPDATE August 14, 2010: William Dunbar has since deleted his only comment at that Facebook Group, which is reproduced below:

William Dunbar: hi, i just resigned from RT because i was being censored about georgia, i was the tbilisi correspondent. i have to say this is among the best groups i have ever seen on facebook. peter used to have a profile, i guess he left because it was another example of the double standards of the biased western media… or maybe putin prefers myspace

After I contacted him, Dunbar said that 1) he never alleged that Peter Lavelle is ““the man who $old his homeland” and that he left the Facebook group after reading this interview, 2) the last sentence is an inside joke between Dunbar and Lavelle that is “light hearted and not had absolutely nothing to do with how much Peter may or may not be paid”, and 3) he thinks that Peter Lavelle “is a true believer”, albeit his “commentary is objectionable, prejudiced and misleading.”

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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putmarck Kicking off the Watching the Russia Watchers interview series at S/O is the promising new blogger A Good Treaty. He is a DC-based foreign policy analyst who prefers a “good treaty with Russia” to only treating with a good Russia: as a foreign policy realist, he is averse to neocon (and neoliberal / liberal interventionist) tropes alike. A Good Treaty has a graduate degree in Soviet history and has lived in Moscow several times. His blog references Russian newspapers and makes original translations, and constitutes an excellent resource for any Anglophone seriously interested in Russian politics and Russian-American relations. You can follow Putmarck on Twitter.

A Good Treaty: In His Own Words…

Before answering any questions, let me take a second to thank Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion for taking the time to draft some very challenging questions that were very fun to (try to) answer. I tried to invent responses that were equally thought-provoking, and while I may have failed in that enterprise, I do hope to explain a little bit about the way I approach this work, which occupies a startling amount of my time.

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

I’ve been studying and working on Russia for about nine years now. Russia = bizarre, alluring, etc. I figure anyone reading my blog shares my interest in the Motherland.

I don’t expect this blog to have any impact on public policy or academic debate, but I do personally benefit a great deal from having a forum through which I can better synthesize my own ideas and listen to the responses of others.

The specific angle of AGT (the whole ‘realist’ POV) was a conscious decision I made after working in Washington for about a year. Democracy promotion, I soon discovered, has really supplanted all other approaches to foreign policy. Speaking outside this framework is the easiest way to get oneself painted as un-American and pro-dictatorship. This is largely a sham, since the United States has hardly stopped cooperating with nasty foreign states, but the dialog carried out in DC makes it very difficult for anyone to acknowledge this. Basically, I set out to avoid the old, tired normative analysis.

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

The most fun I’ve had so far is writing direct responses to articles that appear in the press. Doing this, I’ve managed to gain the attention of other bloggers and journalists, which has produced some stimulating private email exchanges and led InoSMI to translate a few of my posts (three, so far) into Russian.

The worst thing about blogging is an inverse of one of its best aspects: I’m regularly reminded how many talented, bright people there are out there with my exact specialty, who are regularly producing fascinating original work, and living abroad in Moscow, which I think of as a sort of bittersweet adventure.

What are the best blogs about Russia and the Eurasian space? What are the worst?

Some of my favorite Russia blogs (in no particular order): Julia Ioffe’s Moscow Diaries, Mark Adomanis’ On Russia, Sean’s Russia Blog, poemless (RIP — just kidding), this blog — Sublime Oblivion, The Russia Monitor, and Scraps of Moscow. I’ve recently started following Democratist, Dividing My Time, The Kremlin Stooge, and Neeka’s Backlog (which posts the loveliest photographs of Eastern Europe). In Russian, Maxim Kononenko at and Oleg Kashin’s LiveJournal provide regular amusement. Evgeny Gontmakher, Medvedev’s “man on the outside,” has some amusing op-eds on his ‘blog’ at Ekho Moskvy. For military affairs, I regularly turn to the following three blogs: Russian Defense Policy, Russian Military Reform (Dmitry Gorenburg), and Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Pavel Podvig).

The Russia blogs with which I torture myself by reading are some of the following: the LJ blogs of Vladimir Milov, Vasily Yakemenko, and Andrey Illarionov. Catherine Fitzpatrick’s Minding Russia reliably produces some of the longest, most rambling posts you’ll find online. Oleg Kozlovsky’s blogs (WordPress for English and LJ for Russian) are both as boring as they are terrible. Since Oleg decided to integrate his Tweets with his LJ account, there has been five times as much garbage. Ilya Yashin’s LJ blog, modestly titled in Spanish “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (A People United Will Never Be Defeated), is full of the same D-list self-promotion, but he sometimes includes photography and multimedia that makes reading his PR slightly more fun. (Also, he volunteered sordid details about an alleged threesome sex scandal that never got any corroboration beyond his own ranting. So, it can be entertaining on occasion, without a doubt.) And finally, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s blog, Spotlight on Russia, is another publication I love to hate for its unwavering commitment to recycling the most vapid, useless tropes about the ills of Russia.

I don’t even bother reading La Russophobe, which seems to just scrape the bottom of the Window on Eurasia barrel — another blog I skim but lack the stomach to honestly read. I think LR is too much opinion without enough style. Mark Adomanis (On Russia) and Mark Chapman (The Kremlin Stooge) are also very opionated and often openly insulting, but I’m able to enjoy their stuff mainly because (a) I don’t find their opinions to be so crazy (sorry, what can I say — I love to affirm my biases), and (b) their writing is immensely better.

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

I haven’t traveled Russia nearly enough. The farthest east I’ve been was a brief visit to Kazan’, which I thought was fascinating and beautiful. The local Kremlin there, which hosts both an Orthodox church and a mosque, has a marvelous statue out front dedicated to the world’s proletariat. Though I’m not a Marxist, the monument is awesome. Imagine Atlas breaking Ghostrider’s fire-chain in slow motion, and perhaps then you’ll understand how cool this thing is. Hell, just look at it here.

I’d love to see just about anywhere else in Russia I haven’t already been, which is most places.

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

I wouldn’t trouble anyone with a whole book. To understand Russia’s transitional conundrum, one should begin by reading Yuri Slezkine’s 1994 article “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism“.

Do you think the average Russian lives better today than in 1988? 1980? 2000? Are they richer, freer or happier than before?

My impressions from talking to Russians is that life is better now that it’s been before. It’s still pretty lousy for most people, though. (I don’t think Russia is alone in this.) Whatever the benefits of modern living, Soviet nostalgia (for geopolitical status, for scientific respect, for athletic greatness, etc.) is also a patently real political force. Material realities are important, but it’s public perceptions that ultimately make the world.

How would you classify Russia’s political system? Is it a liberal democracy, an authoritarian regime, or a hybrid crossroads? Which current or historical political economies does it most resemble, if any?

Every polity is at a crossroads all the time. Every society in every nation in history is also a hybrid of various trends and persuasions. Russian politicians tend to have a more statist leaning in their way of conducting affairs, but this isn’t to say Western officials aren’t entangled in comparable webs of intervention, assistance, and power brokering. I honestly find very little to be gained by pursuing any classifications like those you suggest. If we call Russia ‘authoritarian,’ there are a thousand examples of information freedom and public debate to debunk this label. On the other hand, there are countless instances of repression to suggest that the Kremlin is indeed an authoritarian menace. Take your pick, but please leave me out of this errand.

On balance, do you think Putinism was good or bad for Russia? (Try not to sit on the fence here).

First of all, I don’t like the term “Putinism.” I think it gives too much ideological credit to the Putin administration, which has never bothered much with a real intellectual architecture for either the Power Vertical or United Russia. (Sorry, Surkov, but I’m just not seeing the big picture when you tell the Nashi kids to ‘innovate’ the way to tomorrowland.) Putin consolidated power during a time of political and economic anarchy. Was that a good thing? Of course it was. Russians were deeply unhappy with Boris Yeltsin’s second term (which they were scared into granting thanks to the a spectacular PR scheme by the oligarchs), and Putin brought more than just stability to the country — he managed a period of genuine prosperity that, at the very least, benefited enough of the country’s elites that they ceased open, internecine warfare.

The new focus on modernization and innovation under Dmitri Medvedev, whom I believe to be a political ally and proponent of “Putinism,” is just the next phase of a process begun ten years ago. Perhaps it’s thanks to Putin’s flexible non-ideology, but I believe that he’s capable of adapting tactics to the needs of the moment. If his financial team is telling him that foreign investment is a must, it’s no shock that the Kremlin is now pursuing FDI with all its might.

It’s not all roses with the Putin years. In 2001, Russia was 79th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Last year it was tied for 146th. (Hint: higher is worse.) While we shouldn’t attach apocalyptic significance to the designation of a number by a single NGO, the general consensus is definitely that corruption has been on the rise. This is a serious problem — it’s the serious problem. An optimistic take might be that, as the Kremlin begins to crack down on bribes and dodgy deals, the wrongdoers are trying to exact maximum rents as long-term insurance.

Or maybe Putin’s own web of rent distribution is the backbone of the ‘legal nihilism’ behind Russia’s Africa-level corruption. If that’s the case, then perhaps that way of doing business is no longer optimal. Recent overtures from Medvedev (presumably acting in agreement with Putin) suggest that the authorities are, at the very least, considering new priorities. It’s Russian politics in action.

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

Harassing the liberal opposition by denying them rally sites with fake counterprotests (for example, blood drives, and so on) seems to me to be a completely pointless exercise. It’s exactly this negative publicity that the opposition needs to survive, and the authorities continue to feed them this sustanance. Putin’s response, delivered to Shevchuk at the infamous luncheon exchange, was that these decisions aren’t up to him, but lie with local officials. Very well, Vladimir Vladimirovich, but why the hell don’t you get off your ass and exercise a little of that characteristic paternalism to steer your ship to calmer shores? I can only guess that the Kremlin is either unconcerned or desperately afraid — either of which seems like a stupid mindset for the leaders of the Russian Federation.

Additionally, I don’t see the point in squashing mayoral elections in cities across Russia. A few opposition victories by the communists or the SRs in buttfucknowhere cities is desirable! When Kondrashov won the Irkutsk spot recently, I thought ‘Wonderful!’ A few more such incidents will not even dent United Russia’s juggernaut, and it both injects some alternative voices into national politics and serves as excellent PR for Moscow to use in the faces of people who moan about attacks on democracy. And then I heard about Kondrashov switching affiliations to register with the ruling party. And then it turned out that the regional duma was seeking to abolish mayoral elections altogether in favor of an opaque ‘city manager’ appointment system. Again, the Kremlin and the authorities demonstrate an entirely unnecessary panic about the threat of opposition parties. If I had Putin’s or Medvedev’s ear, I’d scream into it that they need to display a bit more confidence — even if it’s in their own puppet political theater.

HARD Talk with A Good Treaty

ANATOLY KARLIN: As I understand, you are not the biggest fan of the Russian liberal opposition. You believe their leaders kowtow to the West and couldn’t care less about the everyday concerns of ordinary Russians. But consider the case of a patriotic Russian who detests the corruption and proizvol (arbitrariness) of state institutions and genuinely wants to improve human rights – not just those of Khodorkovsky, but of prison inmates, conscripts, minorities, etc. What can she realistically do about it, apart from ranting about the return of neo-Soviet totalitarianism in front of foreign TV cameras?

A GOOD TREATY: People “do” all kinds of things. Thirty-six parents and teachers in Ulyanovsk went on a week-long group hunger strike to successfully protest the closure of several local schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a group of youths in the Far East, fed up with local law enforcement and inspired by a particularly trigger-happy version of nationalism, decided to arm itself and start attacking police officers. Some people make it their profession to work in the line of danger — people like Natalia Estemirova and Sergey Magnitsky. Others lead scholarly human rights organizations like Oleg Orlov of Memorial, dedicated to unearthing a Soviet past they believe is forgotten at Russia’s peril.

All of these people are patriots in their own heads, and who am I to disagree?

I don’t begrudge the liberal opposition for ranting hyperbolisms in front of foreign TV cameras. This is half the business of being in the Russian liberal opposition, after all: (a) they need to provoke/tempt the authorities into cracking down on their rallies, otherwise nobody would ever care, and (b) they need to attract the attention of the West — for financial aid, for international connections, and for status. The liberal literati are frequent visitors to the United States — even the younger, student-”employed’ members like Ilya Yashin (who recently concluded a cross-country tour of the U.S.) and Oleg Kozlovsky (who’s been Stateside for weeks and is currently attending some kind of not-at-all-propagandistic-sounding democracy workshop at Stanford University).

These boys are more than welcome to globetrot wherever they like, but I personally can’t help but see them as a bunch of spoiled brats, partying to their own celebrity and hopelessly out of touch with the needs of ordinary Russians. (I’ve made it a point on AGT to focus on their endless infighting in order to highlight how self-centered and oblivious they really are.)

ANATOLY KARLIN: You noted that Oleg Kozlovsky’s rush to disassociate Solidarnost’ from the gay rights movement, or “radical LGBT activists” as he calls them, is remarkably similar to the Kremlin’s own arguments for dismissing the Russian liberal movement: neither minority enjoys much approval from ordinary Russians (see On “Minor & Non-Critical” Issues: Oleg Kozlovsky vs. Gay Rights). This is an inconsistency at best; a less charitable explanation is that many Russian liberals are themselves hypocrites and homophobes.

But consider this from another perspective – though claiming to be “a fan of free societies”, you insist the current Russian liberal movement is morally bankrupt and should moderate its anti-Kremlin rhetoric to be accepted by ordinary Russians. But if compromise is the key to political breakout, why should Russian liberals embrace the LGBT movement, an act that is sure to “alienate the vast majority of the population”, as Kozlovsky says, but improve neither rights of assembly nor LGBT rights? Are you not guilty of the same double standards as both Kozlovsky and the Kremlin?

A GOOD TREATY: The leaders of the liberal opposition may be a band of egotistical creeps, but I don’t think the principles of the movement itself are necessarily bankrupt. Like with the communists, there’s an unhealthy degree of backward-looking thinking, in their case consumed primarily with nostalgia for and white-washing of the ‘troubled 1990s.’

I don’t think the opposition needs to “moderate its anti-Kremlin rhetoric.” Plenty of Russians are more than responsive to criticisms aimed at the authorities, and liberals from Eduard Limonov to Liudmila Alexeeva could remain prolific dissidents without abandoning their principles. Remember that even at 70% approval ratings, almost one-third of all Russians still disapproves of the political status quo.

What liberals would benefit from is a reappraisal of their goals. Over the last few years, they’ve moved from one fad to another. ‘Other Russia’ to ‘Solidarity.’ ‘Marchy nesoglasnikh’ to ‘Days of Rage.’ The newest campaign, ‘Strategy-31,’ is catchy, but it likely maxed out its publicity potential with the blowup at the end of May. (We’ll see if the next one in three days proves me wrong.) As Vladimir Milov pointed out in a radio debate with Ilya Yashin, Solidarity and its various rally projects have peaked. More people just aren’t coming anymore (in fact, many seem to be leaving, he claims).

This, I think, has more to do with the focus (or lack thereof) of the professional liberal protesters. Everywhere they look for concrete platform ideas, they’re terrified of casting the net too narrowly. Hence, they mustn’t support the gays for fear of alienating the masses. Certain environmental causes are taken up (such as the movement to protect Lake Baikal), but it’s usually in response to local initiatives elsewhere, and it’s after the real hubbub has ended. What Moscow’s protesting “elites” typically trumpet is an unattractive medley of ad hominem attacks on national figures. So it’s “Putin v ostavku” or “Luzhkov v tiur’mu” — the Russian equivalent of Bush-era peacenik demonstrators demanding the president’s impeachment or today’s Tea Party comparing Obama’s healthcare plan to National Socialism.

For the individuals involved in this movement, I’ve no doubt that they think they’re speaking ‘truth to power.’ On a superficial level, it’s certainly a pretty daring person who delights in taunting Russian OMON troops, essentially begging them for a beating and an arrest. But it’s that photogenic rush that seems to fool these folks into believing that they’re soldiers on the 21st century front against totalitarianism. When I met Oleg Kozlovsky earlier this year, he was asked if people feared for their jobs when attending rallies. His answer? Nope. Nobody gets fired for coming to these circuses. Come one, come all, to the political pageant.

If people like Yashin and Kozlovsky (and Milov and, I’m sure, nearly all the high profile lib leadership) want to ignore the gay rights movement for fear of endangering their popular appeal, I wonder why they can’t apply that same political sense to the rest of their activism. Either they are purists proudly pontificating from the periphery, or they’re cutthroat and calculating, and presumably seeking a way to speak to the interests and tastes of society at large. Right now, they seem to be occupying a sort of idiot’s limbo, where just about everyone has a reason to dislike them. And — what a shock — most Russians do.

ANATOLY KARLIN: When the Feds rolled up the “extremely undangerous” Russian spy ring, you argued that they managed to “jeopardize” an important relationship with the world’s second nuclear superpower. But STRATFOR would argue that you missed the point (see Russian Spies and Strategic Intelligence). Though Boris and Natasha failed to steal anything important, that wasn’t their goal to begin with! The traditional modus operandi of Russia’s intelligence services is to recruit young, promising Americans with potential careers in organizations like Lockheed Martin or the CIA (think Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames). Unless you want foreign moles infiltrating the Homeland’s national security agencies and military-industrial complex, why would you criticize the FBI for doing its job?

anna_chapman_facebook13.jpg A GOOD TREATY: It’s funny that you mention Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames as examples of people at risk of being ‘turned’ but Russian secret agents, as both these men initiated their work as spies by themselves. Hanssen and Ames each lived beyond their means, and apparently approached Russian embassy personnel to sell U.S. state secrets in order to cover their debts and subsidize the high life. No unregistered foreign employees were required to flip these Americans, whose volunteered treachery led in turn to the deaths of Soviet and Russian traitors working for us. If Anna Chapman or anyone from her team of ‘Illegals’ was in a position to ‘flip’ an important American source, it would have marked a departure from the history of U.S. sellouts, who typically defect of their own accord to registered Russian officials.

ANATOLY KARLIN: You describe yourself as a foreign policy realist and admire Otto von Bismarck for his political acumen. But what if American geopolitical imperatives and “a good treaty with Russia” are incompatible? Let me expound. The foundations of geopolitics are Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History. According to this view of the world, the Russian Empire seeks hegemony over the Eurasian Heartland; in direct opposition, the United States tries to prevent its emergence through geopolitical balancing, economic constriction and amphibious interventions (in what Aleksandr Dugin calls the “Anaconda Strategy”). These geopolitical dynamics colored the Cold War and are once again coming into play: even as Russia reasserts its influence over the post-Soviet world, the US is preparing to withdraw from Iraq and is building forward bases in the Balkans and expanding defense ties with Poland.

Two questions follow from the above. First, one of America’s great strengths is the abiding attraction of its purported democratic model. Why then isn’t then the US export its “freedom” to check Russian expansionism, and if possible undermine the Kremlin itself? (After all, if guys like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky come to power, they can be expected to participate in the “international community” / serve Western interests). Second, as a realist, why would you disagree with Mearsheimer’s argument for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent?

A GOOD TREATY: The U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq … and doubling-down in Afghanistan. Being overstretched and unable to seriously deliver on open-ended defense pacts with Eastern European states, the White House’s rhetoric about missile defense and security investments along Russia’s western periphery is worrying, to say the least. The decision to militarize what could have functioned as a peaceful buffer zone between Russia and Europe seems to me to have been an extremely unwise decision by U.S. decision-makers. Even at the height of the Cold War, American buildup in Western Europe was met by (or in response to) Soviet maneuvers within the Warsaw Pact. It was certainly competition, but spheres of influence were generally agreed upon, and — even during the various uprisings that led to Soviet troops being deployed in 1953, 1956, and 1968 — the U.S. never threatened intervention, and any direct confrontation remained a nonfactor. In the 2008 Ossetian war, however, George W. Bush’s advisers apparently lobbied for an attack on the Roki Tunnel — an act of war that would have engaged American soldiers directly against Russian troops. That the U.S. has reached a stage where it even contemplates initiating military strikes against the Russian army indicates the frightening recklessness behind any worldview built upon a foundation of “America’s great strengths.”

Any conversation about realism is incompatible with a question that opens, “If guys like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky come to power.” That being said, Vladimir Milov compares Kasparov to the early Bolsheviks, indicating that he might not be the friendliest candidate for a job in America’s global utopia. As for Khodorkovsky, installing him in the Kremlin would theoretically only put in his hands yet more power to buy or bump off his enemies and competitors. Even in this scenario, there’s reason to assume the U.S. would not find its ideal Slavic partner.

In living memory, it seems Washington has really only been happy when it’s been free to call all the shots — i.e., under the administration of Boris Yeltsin. If that’s really true, American spooks should look not to the liberal elite (who likely would only use more power to fight amongst themselves), but to institutional fissures in the Russian state. Yeltsin was in large part such a swell pal because he was all too happy to sell off the kitchen sink, as long as it meant the Soviet cooking space was left without running water. “Take all the sovereignty you can swallow” he commanded initially. It was only later, after he consolidated his own authority and raked the USSR’s ashes into the garbage chute, that national determination transformed into an all-out war for territorial integrity.

A weak Russian state will be less assertive on the international level, but destabilizing Russia itself can and would pose devastating risks to the human beings actually living there or nearby. (Luckily for Uncle Sam, I guess, his primary constituents are well across the pond.)

Regarding a nuclear Ukraine: great idea, but they surrendered the last of their bombs in 1996. Moreover: not a great, but a lousy idea. Russia would never have bought the concept that an unaligned Ukrainian state could exist with or without atomic weapons. Aside from the crippled era of Boris Yeltsin, the Kremlin has never been comfortable with the premise that Ukraine exists outside its “privileged sphere.” The attraction of a buffer zone does not apply to Ukraine. If Washington had insisted on maintaining a nuclear Kiev, Moscow would have interpreted it as a direct existential threat. In other words, it would have been extremely destabilizing in an already topsy-turvy decade.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where they 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.

Medvedev will be reelected in 2012. Putin will continue on as Prime Minister. There will be some staff reshuffling, but nothing will really change. By 2012, the Russian economy should be doing much better. (I expect the same to be true in the U.S., where Obama will likely ride an ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ mantra to a second term.)

The 2014 Sochi Olympic Games will not produce any major international embarrassments for Russia. Investigative reporters will have no trouble turning up horror stories about the waste that went into the project and the poverty it ignored alleviating in the surrounding areas, but I don’t expect any Dagestani terrorist attacks or roof collapses to indict the Kremlin for lousy management. As for Russia’s medal count: better than it was in Canada, but still low enough to trigger another slew of articles about the collapse of Soviet sports training.

Sooner or later, Alexei Kudrin will be ousted from his position in the Ministry of Finance. This guy’s name is attached to too many revenue-saving, unpopular budgetary measures for him not become a political liability eventually. I don’t expect him to go the route of Andrei Illarionov, however. He’ll be honorably discharged and put to use in some less public capacity.

The Solidarity Movement will fizzle out within the next few years, to be replaced by the next ‘it’ conglomeration of the very same individuals. Maybe they’ll call it the ‘March of the Raging 31 Dissidents.”

What are you plans for A Good Treaty?

I intend to simply keep posting 1-2 pieces every week on topics of my choosing. I like to alternate between big-headlines-grabbers (like the Russian spy ring) and stuff that requires me to be a bit more inventive and take time to research (like previous posts on Russian defamation law, the recent FSB law, the ‘Clean Water’ program, and so on). Unfortunately, based on the WordPress statistics to which I have access, it’s these latter posts that generate substantially fewer readers. I can’t blame the interwebs for sending me less traffic when I’m not writing about hot topics, but it is a little disappointing to know that some of the stuff that takes to most work to write is also the least popular.

The biggest thing I’ve started doing in connection with the blog recently is actively using Twitter. I include a snapshot stream of my tweets in the lefthand column on the blog, but I hope users will actually subscribe to my feed on Twitter itself, as this allows me to better track my followers, and allows for opportunities to interact with readers/users — which is something I love about the service.

There is a possible Russia blogging collaboration project in the works with Mark Adomanis, but I really can’t say anymore because I don’t know anything more than that. He contacted me recently about the idea, and we tentatively agreed to make something happen. As I said above, Mark is a very talented writer, and I’m pretty excited about the idea of mooching shamelessly off his celebrity. Thanks, Marco!

And thank you, A Good Treaty, 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 the years, Andy Young of Siberian Light did a series of interviews with top Russian watchers. However, Andy doesn’t have the time for continuing these interviews of late, so we’ve agreed to have me take over for the time being.

You can follow these interviews at Watching the Russia Watchers. They will consist of about 15 questions – most of them standard ones and a few specific to the interviewee. I’m not as nice as Andy, so you can expect the latter to be probing, even combative. I will try to avoid taking any ideological stance: I want to have every interviewee, no matter their beliefs, leaving the stage with fear and trembling. ;)

I intend to conduct one interview every two weeks. If you want to be interviewed, write to me with your contact details. If you’ve already been interviewed by Siberian Light, I’m open for second rounds, but not before finishing with the newcomers.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Admin, Blogging, Interviews 
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Please make any comments at Andy’s blog Siberian Light.

Those of you with long memories will remember the series of interviews I did with top Russia bloggers, back in early 2007. Well, after a very long hiatus, I’ve decided it’s time to resurrect the series again – and who better to start with than Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion.

Previously blogging at Da Russophile, Anatoly has made quite a mark for himself in quite a short space of time,. Over the past couple of years, he has published plenty of insightful and in-depth articles over the past year or so, quite a few of which have been re-published in Johnsons Russia List and, as you’ll see from the interview, is already working on a book (although sadly it won’t be about Russia).

So, without further ado, over to Anatoly.

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

First off, I would like to thank Andy for the interview and express my sincere admiration for his work in bringing together such a cluster of diverging and often highly-charged viewpoints together in a civil “interview” format over the years, as well as to offer my apologies for the six month delay in completing this interview.

Let’s start at the beginning. As I’ve spent the majority of my life as a Russian immigrant in the UK, I became acutely aware of how the sentiments of many Westerners towards Russia ranged from ignorance to disdain, with a large degree of overlap. This is unsurprising and understandable, of course. The countries in the NATO alliance had spent the last fifty years living under the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. And the inhabitants of Western Christendom have had a primal aversion to the dark steppe to the east since times immemorial. Scratch a Westerner, and you wound a Russophobe. ;)

This essentialist worldview is systematically reinforced by the Western media, whose distortion of Russia ranges from the blatant and despicable – e.g. referring to Chechen terrorists as “freedom fighters” during the Beslan crisis; to the more subtly mendacious, in which it sees fit to assume the role of judge, juror and executioner regarding the Kremlin’s exclusive guilt in reducing gas subsidies to Ukraine (“energy blackmail”), the death of Litvinenko (“FSB assassinations”), and the 2008 war in South Ossetia (“revanchist Russian imperialism against a beacon of democracy”). All this constitutes a real information war against Russia by Western media outlets working to the “propaganda model“. (So what if I cite Chomsky? All he does is point out the obvious).

As if the Western media on Russia being little more than a brief for the prosecution wasn’t enough, I then happened upon a certain blogger who gloried in calling “herself” a “Russophobe” and tried “her” best to attach a stigma on a word supposed to have much more positive connotations – “Russophile”, in the most underhanded and low-life ways imaginable. Even semantics are ammunition in the information war. And this was the ultimate trigger that inspired me to create the original Da Russophile in January 2008. Translitered into Russian, it’s supposed to read, “Да – Руссофил!”, that is, “Yes – I’m a Russophile!” (and proud of it).

What spurred me to action was not the even the perceived duplicity of most Russia coverage, but the lack of an opposing interpretation. I believe the prosecution has made its case and as such I didn’t bother laying claim to objectivity; instead, I explicitly admitted to my pro-Russia partisan bias (as Howard Zinn said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train”, and those who pretend otherwise are hypocrites or naïve). This is in stark contrast to most bloggers (journalists, humans, institutions, etc), who present themselves as – and even frequently believe themselves to be – paragons of objectivity. The former Economist Russia journalist Gideon Lichfield put it best: “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them”.

What are your goals for Sublime Oblivion?

First, the need for alternate Russia coverage is far less pressing now than it was a year ago. The Kremlin is realizing the value of soft power and has acquired some heavy artillery over the past two years, such as the Russia Today TV channel and the Russia: Other Points of View information portal. As such, I now rarely feel the need to comment on current Russian news – demolishing the same Russophobe myths gets repetitive and boring after a while (much like grenade fishing), – speaking of which, I think I now understand why similar “Russophile” bloggers like Konstantin, Fedia Kriukov, and Kirill Pankratov jumped ship after a year or two.

Second, after a few months of blogging, I became more adventurous in my scope and ambitions. This moved me to make some major changes to the original Da Russophile, the biggest of which were: the transition from Blogger to self-hosted WordPress, the abandonment of the pseudonym stalker (yes, I love the film) in favor of my “true name“, and a certain moderation in rhetoric. I have largely abandoned activism in favor of observation and analysis. Most importantly, I’ve expanded the blog beyond focusing exclusively on Russia, to a more of an about-me-and-my-interests kind of thing – which at the moment and for the foreseeable future happen to be Russia, geopolitics, and future global trends.

As for my current plans:

What have been your best & worst experiences about blogging so far?

I’ll be indecently honest here. By far the best experience is the ego trip. I love fan mail and Googling my name to find snippets like this or this. Best of all is getting recognized by the VIP’s. It feeds my narcissism and encourages me in my endeavours. ;)

I think that praise and criticism are really two sides of the same coin, so I’m 100% cool with the latter – even of the sort La Russophobe and “her” minions like to dish out. In fact, especially of that sort – they provide lots of lols, just read the list of insults Russophobes have thrown against me! I sympathize with Andy on how there are too many zealots polarizing the Russia “debate”, but I don’t think it annoys me quite as much as it does him. ;) After all, it’s been a constant feature of the Russia debate throughout history. (That said, the attacks do tend to become boringly repetitive after a while, hence I tried to automatize their refutation by compiling a list of Responses to common Russophobe “Arguments”, in addition to the classic Top 50 Russophobe Myths and Russophile Core Articles.)

As for the worst experiences, they are stunningly banal. Writer’s block – I spend at least as much time procrastinating on teh internets as actually writing, and managing complexity – juggling between a big number of online projects, academia, and social life can be enervating. Not that terrible, but still vastly more aggravating than the sum wrath of the LR collective. ;)

Which blogs about Russia and the FSU do you most enjoy reading?

There is a Zen temple in Japan, Ryōan-ji, which has a rock garden arranged in such a way that you can only ever see a maximum of fourteen rocks out of a total of fifteen from any horizontal vantage point. I think it is an excellent metaphor for truth; though it is always elusive when sought from a single perspective, it can be probabilistically narrowed down to an ever smaller region by looking at things from different locations, different interpretations, etc. If you are serious about attaining enlightenment on any subject, it is best to become acquainted with all interpretations – in Russia’s case, be they “Russophile” (Peter Lavelle, Nicolai Petro), Marxist (Sean Guillory), postmodern “virtual-political” (Andrew Wilson), cultural path-dependency theoretic (Streetwise Professor, Stratfor, the Eurasianists, etc), and – yes – all-out “Russophobe”.

As such, I subscribe to most of the main Russia blogs on my Google Reader, though I certainly don’t read all or even the majority of the posts. Life is short. After all, some interpretations aren’t really about observing rocks, but crawling under one. ;) That said, here’s a list of my favorite Russia blogs:

What first sparked your interest in Russia?

The central theme of my identity is my lack of one. I was sundered from my native Russian land at a young age and I assimilated most of my “cultural assets” during my period of exile in Britain. The reason I call it an “exile” is that I always felt as a a stranger in a strange land there; I was never accepted as British by its denizens, even though I spent the vast majority of my life there. My resulting mentality is aptly labeled “diasporic” by Konstantin Krylov; a state of profound amorality, rationalism, and apathy for the host society’s values – for someone who sees all values as relative cannot have any other attitude.

However, the “diasporic mentality” is a profoundly unnatural – and hence unstable – state of affairs, since the human soul yearns for unity, belief, and sobornost. This may explain the dawning of my sentimental interest towards Russia, which was only reinforced by my socio-cultural alienation and rising political awareness (e.g. of the nauseating moral hypocrisy inherent in Western cultural imperialism towards nations pursuing sovereignty like Russia and Venezuela).

I do not recall there being any “first spark” to my interest in Russia, the ideological evolution began in my mid-teens and is an ongoing process. We shouldn’t forget that dismissing and dissing Russia was fashionable in the 1990’s, when Yeltsin’s “family” were pillaging the nation and many Russians, especially émigrés, felt “betrayed” by the Russian state (partially to justify their own flight abroad and spiritual descent into self-interested, amoral poshlost). There’s also a generational aspect here. Whereas the “fathers” tended to gleefully indulge in Russia-bashing – and embraced all aspects of Westernization with the fanaticism of the new convert – the effect was sometimes quite different on Russia’s “sons”. As Susan Richards points out, contrary to Western delusions, it the youngest Russians which constitute the most “anti-Western” cohort, who according to Nicolai Petro “embraced patriotism as a defense mechanism against the blanket criticism of Russia’s past that left them with nothing of their own to believe in”.

Though I personally have no doubt been influenced by the above developments, I cannot really partake of this spiritual reawakening in Russia. Whenever I visited Russia, most of my relatives insisted on labeling me as English; and if I tried protesting it, many rejoined that I was talking nonsense, or had no idea of “how Russia really works”. The message is clear. I am rejected as Russian by the Russian narod, which correctly perceives me as contaminated; a spiritual threat to the cohesiveness of the community. Like the typical second-generation European Muslim emigrant, divorced from both their indigenous culture and their host society, I have no “real” identity. I’m not just an inostranets (foreigner), but a bezstranets, a dude without a country, a rootless cosmopolitan who ought to be hunted down and shot for treason by all humanity.

It is thus of no surprise that I’ve found a home, of a kind, in California – a state which Fukuyama identified as the most “post-historical part of the United States”, and more specifically, in the liberal oasis that is The Bay. It is here that I realized that I could reconcile my “Russophilia” with my social liberalism, environmentalism, Marxism, predilection for postmodernist thinking, and dislike of Western chauvinism, by embracing Third-Worldism. This perhaps finally resolves my internal contradictions in a way that is both logically consistent and politically correct.

Anyway, the point I was making was that my interest in Russia is not whimsical or academic (that would be China), but lifelong and quasi-spiritual.

What do you most love / hate about Russia?

Drinking vodka with friends. Cheap flying, parachuting, and bootleg IP. The unsettling but intoxicating blend of license and insecurity. The Russian village and peasant wisdom, now sadly in its death throes. The greater “reality” of life in Russia. The profound mysticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the primeval mysticism of Russia’s endless plains, dark forests and Slavic skies.

Aggravating though it frequently is, the bureaucracy is tolerable. I’ve never been forced to pay bribes, with the exception of traffic police requisitions. There seem to be many more daily quirks, inefficiencies, and stupidities of various kinds. But ultimately, are these not just affirmations of Russia’s greater scope of humanity, life, and spirit?

My greatest concern about Russia is its continuing lack of civilizational confidence and cultural submissiveness before the West (the “преклонение перед Западом” that Soviet ideologists rightly warned against), which manifests itself – and I might add to a much greater degree that in Western countries – in the crass materialism and historyless ideologies of its current crop of elites.

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

As Oswald Spengler said, Tolstoy is Russia’s past and Dostoevsky is its future, so “The Brothers Karamazov” would make as good a choice as any.

On balance, do you think Vladimir Putin’s Presidency has been good or bad for Russia?

Let’s approach this from the viewpoint of the Russian “silent majority”, instead of the quack Kremlinologists and limousine liberals who claim to speak for them. First, there can be no doubt that the vast majority of socio-economic indicators improved markedly under Putin. This is not to deny that many Russians lead hard lives, and that the prevalence of material poverty remains much higher than in the West (which contrary to some common Russian rose-tinged perceptions, is not itself a land of limitless milk and honey) – but exactly where did I claim otherwise?

With that caveat, I daresay – to a greater extent than Russians living in Russia – that on average their living standards have improved greatly since 1998. Though they may go on about how inflation and bureaucracy makes their lives unbearable, it does not resound well when set against their ringing cell phones and new cars parked outside (consumerism exploded in the 2000’s). This is an excellent example of creeping normalcy – some Russians fail to appreciate the strong secular trend towards improving average real living standards since 1998, focusing more on present day concerns like rising prices and poor government services. Nor is this improvement limited to Moscow and the rich, as some Russophobes like to assert. Statistics hint that the economic revival is broadbased across regions and social classes, and I can personally confirm that even small, depressed towns like Kolomna and Volokolamsk have seen vigorous economic expansion in recent years. This has been matched, from around 2006, by an accelerating cultural and demographic revival.

Second, the more sophisticated Russophobes counter that yes, there have been real economic improvements, but only at the cost of shrinking democratic freedoms; in their view, a more liberal regime would have would have undoubtedly performed better. The problems with this viewpoint are manifold. First, most Russians believe they live in a democracy and as pointed out in a BBC poll, some 64% of them believe Putin has had a positive impact on Russian democracy – and who are we to say otherwise? Second, they conflate “democracy” and “liberalism”, which are in fact two very different things. As Vlad Sobell points out, Russia remains “an evolving, post-totalitarian democracy, which unsurprisingly continues to suffer from the baggage of its difficult history” – heck, even Khodorkovsky admitted that Putin is “more liberal and more democratic than 70% of the population” – and as argued by Nicolai Petro, the second phase of the “Putin Plan” for Russia’s modernization is liberalization, which follows on from the first phase – “consolidation” of the Russian state. In their view, Putin’s “soft authoritarianism” was necessary to curb the “roving banditry” of the 1990’s predatory-oligarchic state to allow the development of real liberalism. (The sad experiences of 1990’s Russia and post-Orange Revolution Ukraine illustrate the perils of “anarchic liberalization”). Third, they arrogantly assume that Western-style democracy is an unalloyed good thing, even an end-of-history eschatology, whereas in reality, it is just an expression of hubristic Western egocentricity. In my opinion, nations like Russia and China are fully capable of developing their own, indigenous versions of democracy; if anything, Russia needs a “sovereign democracy”, unbeholden to foreign influence, in order to organically evolve the institutions required for the long-term survival and incubation of liberal ideals within its borders.

Though at times he may be diverted from the task by national security exigencies and adjudication of disputes amongst the Kremlin clans, I believe this is precisely the long-term goal Putin is pursuing – consolidation, modernization, liberalization (in this order of priority). The recent moves by an alliance of Surkov’s “GRU” clan and the civiliki (economic liberals) to investigate corruption and mismanagement of strategic companies under Sechin’s “FSB” clan – which has the implicit blessing of the Russian President, Medvedev – may be the opening shots in a coming purge of the most egregiously corrupt siloviki. This will help the Kremlin in its efforts to modernize Russia, which may in turn lay the foundations for an eventual liberalization by the 2020’s.

On the modernization front, there have been some little-noted successes, e.g. a partial revival of manufacturing from its post-Soviet nadir, helped in part by a new mercantilist industrial policy (contrary to popular belief, a calculated measure of state intervention has been central to all successful development stories). The state reigned in the most rapacious oligarchs and since the mid-2000’s expanded its support for the hi-tech sector (e.g. nanotechnology) and strategic industries. That said, a great deal of work remains to be done, such as reviving the hypertrophied military-industrial complex and developing a real “innovation economy” – these will be some of the big projects of the 2010’s.

I will refrain from making value judgments on whether Putin was “good” or “bad” for Russia, except to the extent of noting that his consistently sky-high approval ratings amongst Russians, usually above 70% since 1999, indicate the former (though then again, some would ascribe this to a “traditional” Russian penchant for a paternalistic Tsar-savior). Instead, the argument may be advanced that a Putin was inevitable.

The Russian Empire has always been subject to cyclical collapses due to its inherent tendencies towards illiberal anarchy (the “Time of Troubles”, the Civil War, the 1990’s). These collapses were followed by ”white riders” (the early Romanovs, Lenin, Putin) who checked the collapse, restored order with a firm hand, and reconstituted “the Empire”. Bismarck remarked that “the art of statesmanship is to steer a course on the stream of time”; as an inheritor of the Tsarist and Soviet historical and cultural legacy, it is to be hoped that the Putin system eventually manages to fulfill the Kremlin’s dreams of reconciling sovereignty with liberalism, instead of succumbing to anarchy like Boris Godunov or metamorphosing into a “dark rider” like the late Ivan Grozny or Stalin. We’ll see.

Do you think the average Russian’s life today is better, or worse than it was in 1989? Why?

On the one hand, the “average” Russian became unprecedentedly empowered as a consumer by the mid-2000’s, though this was accompanied by massive new inequalities (the 1970’s-80’s Soviet Union had no concept of consumer sovereignty and devoted all its additional, shrinking production growth to the military-industrial sector). There were also a great many more social and political freedoms, despite the continued social prevalence of illiberal “post-totalitarian” attitudes, especially amongst the bureaucracy and security forces. Russians also opine that they became happier.

However, the only people to immediately benefit from the Soviet collapse were the ambitious, unscrupulous, and well-connected; and even today, for a great many Russians – especially in the provinces and amongst the elderly – real living standards remain both substantially worse and buffered by a much weaker social safety net. The comparison becomes even worse when one also accounts for a host of social ills (crime rates, alcoholism, ethnic tensions, AIDS, etc) that germinated in the late USSR, but only exploded once society was opened up. Some 45% of Russians believe people are now worse off than under Communism, whereas only 33% take the opposite stand (though it should be noted that this is slightly better than average for the former socialist bloc). I can personally sympathize with this viewpoint. Furthermore, this pattern of nostalgia for an imagined past of a bright socialist future, to a greater or lesser extent, is common to all post-socialist nations (for instance, 57% of East Germans now defend the GDR).

Why? The fundamental reason is that though there undoubtedly appeared a general apathy in late Soviet society, it still retained a deep sense of social solidarity, or sobornost – a catch-all term for a deep sense of internal peace and unity between races, religions, sexes, etc, within a society, or in the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky, “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values”. However, by the late 1980’s the costs of keeping the Soviet system were perceived to exceed the benefits; the burden of complexity became too great to bear. The Soviet state, bereft of its most powerful tools (economic coercion) yet still burdened by immense obligations (welfare and warfare), unraveled under the strain. By the early 1990’s, the “Empire” crumbled and Russia reverted to anarchic stasis in an economic hyper-depression – a neo-feudal oligopoly extracting rents from a demoralized population wracked by social insecurity and demographic crisis, under the guise of virtual politics. Russia’s place on the Belief Matrix shifted towards poshlost – another untranslatable Russian word which denotes cultures that have lost belief in themselves and their own future in favor of vulgarity, commercialism, and pessimism. Most Russians viewed this development as an unmitigated disaster (hence Putin’s infamous comment that the Soviet collapse was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”), and yearned for a “white rider” who would restore order and return them to the future. They got Putin.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Russia’s resurgence – especially visible after 2006 – has been marked by what I perceive as an accelerating drift back towards a Eurasian Empire (not only or even mainly in the territorial sense); a more informal, smarter, and reinvigorated USSR-2. As I outlined in “VII. Return to the Future” in Russia’s Sisyphean Loop, the evidence for this includes: a) the continued consolidation of state power, including Surkov’s ideological invention of “sovereign democracy” (in 2006), and its increasing overspill into active management of Russia’s economic development in what is the latest round of Russia’s “defensive modernizations”, b) a marked improvement in social morale, as attested to by opinion polls and a demographic stabilization that is likely to be sustained in the long-term, and c) the continued deterioration of social attitudes towards the West (especially the US), coupled with increasingly active – and successful – Kremlin efforts to restore its hegemony over the post-Soviet space.

The poor, chaotic, and colorful interlude of poshlost is at an end, most poignantly symbolized by the demise of the eXile in 2008 (I’m sure they’d agree; one of their last issues bewailed the demise of the gopniki, Russia’s equivalent of “white trash”, and a good metaphor for poshlost). A new Eurasian Empire is coalescing in its place, which has started to and will probably return sobornost to Russian life within the decade. And that will mean far more to the average Russian than any amount of Chinese trinkets or London mansions.

Do you think Russia will ever embrace the style of democracy now favoured in most of the rest of Europe, or will it take a different path?

Probably not. For that matter, perhaps not even many European democracies will survive in the next few decades, or more specifically their liberal characteristics. They have a host of problems such as rapid aging, overly generous welfare states, below-replacement level fertility rates, simmering ethnic tensions, national rivalries and varying interests undermining the EU project, and severe structural economic and / or fiscal solvency problems. These will soon by joined by resource shortages and the effects of climate change.

As for Russia itself, I’ve identified several likely directions it could go in “VIII. Return to the Future: Forking Paths” in Russia’s Sisyphean Loop – “sovereign democratization”, “return to the natural state”, “liberalization”, and “totalitarian reversion”.

In “sovereign democratization”, Russia continues implementing Nicolai Petro’s vision of the “Putin Plan“, modernizing and liberalizing Russian society in a new “revolution from above”, or as Vlad Sobell puts it, “this new ‘USSR’ has shed its totalitarian and imperial character and is building genuine democracy à la russe”. Look to Gaullist France, with its emphasis on populism, sovereignty, and dirigisme, as an example. The Sechin silovik clan of ‘former’ FSB officers will be purged or sidelined and by the Year 2020 (a date which has assumed a somewhat millenarian status in Kremlin rhetoric on development), Russia will be a prosperous, innovative, liberal, and patriotic nation. I think this is an optimistic, though still realistic, vision; however, it is contingent on the survival of globalization and the continuation of Russia’s economic and demographic resurgence, both of which are far from assured.

Another strong possibility is a “return to the natural state”, i.e. the reinforcement of Russia’s current paternalistic and neo-feudal features, and continuing economic nationalism, silovik cronyism, and resource dependency. A powerful Tsar will dole out transitional rent-gathering rights unto his boyars, in return for their political loyalty and tax payments. This ‘Muscovite model’, or neo-Tsarism, is socially unjust, Pareto inefficient, and ineffective at either generating economic prosperity or sustaining resource mobilization. Russia will restore its Empire and military might, but as Steven Rosefielde noted, it will be a giant with feet of clay – weakened by economic frailty, undermined by separatist and dissident-revolutionary movements, and contained by the Atlantic powers, it will lapse into a zastoi reminiscent of the Brezhnev era. This ‘middle variant’ tends to be favored by analysts who perceive that Russia is run by a gang of kleptocratic neo-Soviet revanchists and believe the country is doomed to secular decline on account of what they perceive are its disastrous demography and moribund economic system.

“Liberalization” (in the anarchic 1990’s or today’s Ukrainian sense) or “totalitarian reversion” are very unlikely today. The Russian liberals, or “liberasts” as they are sometimes unflatteringly called, are now irrelevant, discredited relics of an older and not-too-soon-forgotten time (of troubles). Nor do Putin and his associates have a death wish to become all-out “dark riders” in a neo-Stalinist mold. Though there is now substantial support for disparate extremist movements (neo-Eurasianism, Strasserism, White Nationalism, etc), they remain confined to the political fringe as in the rest of Europe – though we shouldn’t forget that all it takes for this to change is a weakened state, social disillusionment, and a well-organized, ambitious Party with a skilful demagogue. That said, it is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which a Muscovite “natural state” collapses under its own failings by the 2020’s, unleashing a destructive wave of “liberalization” that returns Russia to poshlost, ushers in renewed social disillusionment, and engenders a violent reaction against liberal ideals that culminates in a totalitarian despotism, and one probably far more ‘racialist’ than its predecessors – not to mention armed with thousands of nukes.

Which of these paths Russia will go down is still impossible to predict with full certainty, though there are certainly signs, Aesopian language, etc, that the Kremlinologist should observe for hints of Russia’s future trajectory. In particular, the outcome of the brewing GRU / civiliki vs. FSB clan war will be a major portent of things to come.

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

No more mindless idolization of the West (преклонение перед Западом). Instead, develop civilizational confidence by rejecting “Europe” and recognizing Russia’s status as a unique Eurasian civilization, not inferior (or superior) to any other. This does not imply an irrational rejection of useful Western technological and even cultural imports, as urged by some extreme Slavophiles. That said, this does not mean Russia should worship everything Western, because many Western imports clash too much with indigenous Russian traditions to be of any real benefit. Furthermore, the speed, zeal, and “totality” with which Western imports were forced on Russia by its rulers tended to exceed anything seen in the West itself due to Russia’s habit of attempting to “leapfrog” the gap separating it from the West, as happened during the Bolshevik Revolution (from feudalism / early capitalism to socialism) or the 1990’s (from socialism to market fundamentalism) – i.e., to whatever utopian end-of-history the West appeared to be moving towards at the time. Needless to say, the short-term effects were tragic and the long-term effects were enervating, resulting in long periods of retreat and stagnation. It’s time to break this cycle.

If Russia’s elites were to fully embrace this wiser mentality, a number of consequences would follow. They would pay less attention to what foreigners think of their actions, and will thus possess greater freedom to act in Russia’s real national interests. For instance:

  • More state control over natural resources extraction, mainly to limit activity so as to leave more reserves in the ground in a world of limits to growth.
  • Free trade is only good as long as it really is free, which it isn’t. Russia should be bolder about incubating promising infant industries, encouraging domestic savings, and pursuing strategic trade.
  • In particular, Russia must give the formation of a proper domestic financial system top priority in order to gain independence from Western credit flows – their sudden disruption in 2008 was the major cause of Russia’s economic crisis.
  • Russia has no need for billionaire oligarchs, especially since they are almost all de facto employed by the state; a few millions should be enough of an incentive.
  • Don’t be afraid to reintroduce the death penalty for corruption and sabotage – it works in China, it worked in the Soviet Union, and there is no reason it shouldn’t work in Russia again. The Council of Europe can fume all it wants.

That said, there’s no need to be impolite and in-your-face about all this. Again, follow China’s rhetoric on “peaceful rise” (even as it builds up the world’s largest industrial economy, acquires neo-colonial spheres of influence, steals the most advanced Western technologies, and pursues military modernization). Most importantly, remember that socio-economic modernization is most successful when generated indigenously, not forced upon from outside via Westernization, which is undesirable because of the internal social conflicts in provokes in non-Western societies. Don’t become blindfolded by Western ideological imports like Marxism or neoliberalism. Instead, work patiently and eruditely to explain to the domestic “liberast” intelligentsia – many of whom are actually patriotic, if misguided – why their prostration before the West is unproductive to Russia’s interests (or just ignore them). Breaking up their small rallies with the OMON just reveals insecurity and is counterproductive.

Finally, there is strength in numbers; as the greatest champion of “The Rest” against “The West” since the Revolution (or even gunpowder Muscovy), Russia should resume pushing for Third World solidarity and participating in its manifestations like the BRIC’s and G20. The words of Russian philosopher Nikolai Trubetzkoy are as relevant today as when he first wrote them in 1920:

Without the support of Europeanized peoples, the Romano-Germans will not be able to continue the spiritual enslavement of the whole world. Quite simply, upon realizing its mistake, the intelligentsia of Europeanized nations will not only stop helping the Romano-Germans, but it will try to thwart them, at the same time opening the eyes of other peoples to the true nature of the “benefits of civilization”.

In this great and difficult work to liberate the world from spiritual slavery and from the hypnosis of the “benefits of civilization”, the intelligentsia of all the non-Romano-Germanic nations that have set out on the path to Europeanization or are planning to do so must act together in the spirit of full cooperation and agreement. They must never lose sight of the true problem and not be distracted by nationalism or by partial, local solutions such as Pan-Slavism and other “pan-isms”. One must always remember that setting up an opposition between the Slavs and the Teutons or the Turanians and the Aryans will not solve the problem. There is only one true opposition: the Romano-Germans and all the other peoples of the world – Europe and Mankind.

Russia has developed a much more assertive and confrontational approach to foreign policy over the past couple of years, particularly in its Near Abroad. From Russia’s perspective, what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?

As I pointed out above, Russia is returning to the Empire. The state is expanding its power on multiple dimensions – political, economic, geopolitical. It is almost inevitable that it will eventually expand territorially as well (as foreshadowed by 500 years of history); to an extent this is already happening, as South Ossetia and Abkhazia have become virtual Russian protectorates after it repelled Georgia’s invasion in August 2008. This is an accelerating process and I agree with Stratfor that in one form or another (ranging from closer integration into already-existing institutions like EurAsEC and the CSTO, to a full-fledged neo-Soviet Union), a new empire will appear on the map of northern Eurasia by 2020 at the latest.

From Russia’s perspective, the effects will be almost entirely positive (at least until it reaches the point of ”imperial overstretch”, when the benefits are canceled out by Western containment and perhaps Polish- and Turkish-instigated separatism; but this is still far off). Rebuilding the Empire will 1) further legitimize the state, 2) increase sobornost, 3) expand the military-industrial power at Moscow’s disposal, and 4) provide a much larger “scope” for autonomous economic development. All these factors reinforce the Empire’s power and “sovereignty”.

Nor is this going to be a particularly difficult undertaking. Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia are already firmly within Russia’s orbit. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are dependent on Russia for their security, and Uzbekistan realigned itself with Russia in 2006. The prize jewel is Ukraine – as Brzezinski pointed out, Russia has never been a proper Empire without it. However, Ukraine is now a weak, “failing state”, close to fiscal insolvency; the Orange movement is fully discredited (President Yushenko’s approval ratings hover in the low single digits and overall support for democracy fell from 72% in 1989 to just 30% in 2009); both the next two prospective Presidents, Timoshenko and Yanukovych, are campaigning on pro-Russian platforms; and there is more popular support for Eurasian integration than for entry into NATO or even the EU. Facing a resurgent Russia and an America increasingly absorbed with other problems, there is a moderate-to-high likelihood that Ukraine will either return to Russia’s orbit or split down the Dnieper River within the next five years.

The deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West, especially the US and its allies, went in tandem with Putin’s consolidation of the Kremlin’s power and Russia’s post-2006 “return to the Empire”. Considering the number of humiliations and broken promises Russia previously received from the West – NATO expansion, the bombing of Serbia, color revolutions, the media war, missile defense, etc – it is not at all surprising that Russia began to push back once it regained a position of strength by the mid-2000’s. Now that it has begun, I doubt it will stop. The late Soviet and Yeltsin-era naïveté about kind Western intentions towards Russia is gone, thanks largely to the West’s own exploitation of Russian weakness. Now Russia has reverted to thinking in 19th century terms, and back then its Army and Navy were its only friends.

You describe yourself as “not just an inostranets (foreigner), but a bezstranets, a dude without a country, a rootless cosmopolitan.” There’s been a bit of a trend recently of people with Russian roots (for want of a better term) returning to Russia, often to do business. Do you think Russia benefits from this influx of bezstrani?

Yes. Technological transfer, new management skills, etc. But its overall economic impact is minimal. Unfortunately, of the middle-aged researchers who left Russia in the 1990’s, only a few are going to go back even in a best case scenario. I applaud Medvedev’s recent initiatives to lure back Russian emigrants, but it is too little, too late.

Furthermore, I should also note that far from all emigrants have a favorable impression of Russia, even despite the spiritual revival mentioned above. Many are stuck with the clichés of the 1990’s with which they left Russia; on top, there are the clichés of the famously “objective” Western media. Gangster capitalism plus FSB authoritarianism drenched in vodka. This is not to imply that this caricature doesn’t contain a kernel of truth, but as Sean Guillory points out, going back to Russia for a while will give a much needed wider perspective. That said, many diaspora Russians are psychologically averse to equanimity on Russia; in many cases, they are huge fans of whatever country they immigrated to, and of the West in general, as if to justify their own immigration to themselves. Consequently, some even view any “defense” of Russia, no matter how justified, as a personal attack on themselves and respond ferociously. For obvious reasons, I do not see many of these people going back.

The only way to get a big stream of high-quality talent to come is to modernize and implement a good immigration system with minimal bureaucratic hassle (Canada is a good model, I think). Russia is currently lagging behind on all three factors. Perhaps that will change by the 2020’s, but by then it will have to be tailored to second-generation immigrants who will have minimal social investments in Russia (friends, relatives, lives, etc). I suspect it is a leap very few will be willing to take, no matter how many incentives the state gives.

I see you’re writing a book. I know you don’t want to give away too much at this stage, but could you give us a brief preview?

For more info see Sublime Oblivion – The Book. I hope to have it finished by spring 2010 and published soon thereafter.

It is essentially a work on future history – a vision of the effects today’s global trends are going to have on different regions and the world system in the decades to come. One of the wellsprings of my analysis is that we live in a time of change far more rapid than anything seen in history, and that anything at all is possible.

Let me demonstrate. Today, there are two particularly influential “schools” on the future. Both germinated in the 1970’s and are regarded as diametrically opposite each other. On the one hand, you have the technological singularitarians, who point out that computing power per dollar has been doubling every two years since the 1960’s and will “inevitably” continue to do so. This miniaturization will eventually allow us to scan the brain with enough precision to record all its details and replicate it electronically. Or perhaps a consciousness will emerge out of Web. The resulting “strong AI”, easily able to quickly replicate and recursively improve itself, will make biological humanity obsolete. Ray Kurzweil, one of the high priests of this school, places the Singularity at 2045.

On the other hand, the “Limits to Growth” schools asserts that our world is finite, and posits that industrial civilization will soon run up against limits to growth in the form of resource depletion and pollution overload. We will need to make ever greater efforts to achieve the same “benefits” in resource extraction and agricultural production, as the system comes under the strain of flattening agricultural yields, topsoil loss, peak oil, higher-EROEI energy sources, runaway climate change, global dimming, political and geopolitical flux, etc. Barring a rapid transition back towards sustainability or the discovery of a technological silver bullet, humanity will massively overshoot the carrying capacity of the Earth, destroy the physical basis of its own existence, and usher in an unprecedented Malthusian dieoff in famine, plagues, and wars. The “standard”, business-as-usual Limits to Growth model places the date of collapse at around 2030-50 (furthermore, the current statistical evidence indicates that the world system closely tracked the original 1972 predictions to today).

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside? I think this is the big question of this century and it forms the defining theme of the book.

That is not all, of course. Other trends I will highlight encompass geopolitics, economics, demography, politics, culture, and wars, as well as the intersections between them and their impact on the world’s disparate regions, nations, and cultures. Russia-watchers will not be disappointed; as a potential superpower that stands to benefit from resource depletion and global warming (relatively speaking), Russia will play a major role.

This is a cyberpunk future – a world system wracked by neo-colonial resource wars and under severe ecological strain, tipping over into outright failure throughout the Third World; yet also a world ever more tightly intertwined into an information ether, where fantasy displaces reality. By the 2030’s, as mounting stresses approach critical levels, some of the Great Power-”fortresses” decide to cooperate in a last-ditch effort to save the System from collapse – they start on the construction of a massive, space-based power generation and geoengineering project. Simultaneously, there emerges a global super-conscience, a strong AI– “the last invention that man need ever make”, from within the cathedrals of cyberspace. Salvation beckons. Yet who can presume to know the mind of God?


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

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

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

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