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I have gone on record with the following odds on Russia’s next President: Medvedev – 70%, Putin – 25%, Other – 5%. The first betting site to offer odds on the Russian Presidential election has other ideas. As of June 2011, the British online gambling site Stan James is offering the following odds: Putin 4/7, Medvedev 11/8, Zyuganov 66/1, Zhirinovsky 80/1, Bogdanov 100/1*.

Converted into non-gambler terminology, this means that they view VVP as the clear favorite. Whereas a $100 investment into Putin will yield just $56, betting right on a second Medvedev Presidency will net you $138. All the other candidates are (rightly) considered to be insignificant fry – e.g., correctly betting $1 on a Zyuganov win will get you $66 (with the additional EV-lowering risk that it may be promptly confiscated as a product of speculation if you’re in Russia))). Or from the viewpoint of implied odds, you need to have >63.64% confidence that Putin will win OR >42.11% confidence that Medvedev will win to profitably bet on the respective candidates**. So if I had the opportunity I’d totally bet on DAM, but unfortunately that site is closed to US-based political gamblers.

Bookies structure their odds in such a way that they win most of the time; note that the total implied odds add up to nearly 110%. But you can still win despite the handicap, by having special insight or knowledge of the topic. Needless to say, most “Russia watchers” will no doubt claim they have those, at least implicitly (otherwise, what right do they have to their editorials, salaries, etc?). I have previously exposed the self-appointed Kremlinogist priesthood for being full of cranks hiding their fundamental ignorance behind credentials, citations, post hoc narratives, etc. Here is their chance to prove me wrong, all ye Leon Arons and Ariel Cohens and Loco Lucases of the world! And get fabulously rich into the bargain!!!

All social (so-called) scientists should be subjected to this “trial by casino.” As the price of holding publicly funded positions, economists should be forced into investing their money into their own predictions of GDP growth or unemployment; political scientists should use their unique insights to bet on political candidates, parties, and revolutions; etc. Think of this as an idea for an institutional safeguard against fraud, an antidote to the snake oil and two-bit experts polluting economic, social, and political discussions. Because when these “experts” fail, they experience no accountability – largely, by conjuring explanations for why they were wrong, or sweeping their old claims under the carpet altogether – while the common folks who pay for their sated and comfortable upkeep suffer the repercussions of their failed predictions. By subjecting the “experts” to the market discipline of the casino, the quacks will be exposed and bankrupted in a Darwinian struggle for (reputational, pecuniary, etc) survival, and thus cleaning up social sciences and benefiting productive society.

But for now I’ll limit this challenge to Kremlinologists, an especially odious, malign and mendacious strain even by social “science” standards. Come on, bet some of that money you leech off your readers and/or taxpayers. If you don’t, like the pathetic quackacademic you probably are, then consider yourself lower than the meanest bookie on the planet. He at least puts his money where his mouth is.

UPDATE 6/11: Two further things I want to mention. Patrick Armstrong kindly pointed me to this site, which is based on punters’ estimates (as opposed to bookies). There, as of today, the traded odds are that there is a 75% chance that Vladimir Putin will “announce he intends to run for Pres. of Russia before midnight ET 31 Aug 2011.” So betting here – i.e. selling shares – is even more profitable. Not only does it cut out the bookie and get one even better odds that from Stan James above, but that prediction also flies against the Kremlin tradition of announcing their candidate within a half-year of the elections (Yeltsin announced Putin as his preferred successor on Jan 1st, 2000; Putin did the same for Medvedev on Dec 10th, 2008).

Why on Earth could the odds be so tilted? First, this trade isn’t enjoying a lot of volume so lots of potential for skew. Second, the Western media coverage, which focuses on how DAM is a puppet of VVP and on how the master wants his old job back to reassert dictatorship or some such. As with the Russian stock market in the past decade, it offers an excellent opportunity, paraphrasing Eric Kraus, to profit off the difference between the media’s perceptions of Russia and reality.

PS. Speaking of prior elections… I noted that Sean Guillory posted about the Presidential odds in August 2007. Back then, the bookie consensus was that Sergey Ivanov – presumably because of his silovik background – was the favored successor with odds of 2.2/1 (45%), as opposed to DAM with 3.75/1 (27%).

PPS. Track the odds below:


* I’d also be willing to take odds of c. 200/1 on figures like Igor Shuvalov or Sergey Naryshkin. They’re very unlikely, of course, but they are dark horse candidates and the payoff, in the event that they are nominated by the Kremlin – after which the chances of theirs winning will skyrocket to near 100% – would be huge.

** That is the reason I took 7/4 odds to bet on a Republican Presidency in 2012. The implied odds for that are 36.36%. My own assessment is that it’s basically a coin flip, because everything hinges on where the economy goes, which in turn depends on whether oil prices spike again between now and summer 2012. I view the odds of that as being significant, about break-even actually. Hence my bet.

EDIT: I was wrong.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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За нас за вас и за десант и за спецназ! I would like to start off by expressing my deepest respects to the Red Army veterans who fought and died so that (literally) hundreds of millions of their Slavic brethren could live. Вечная слава героям!

Last year I discussed four myths about the Eastern Front, and Fedia Kriukov unraveled a fifth in the comments. This year, I’m going to comment on one of the most contradictory, even harrowing, debates in Russia. How to reconcile Stalin, the despotic Messiah, and Victory 1945, now emerging as the primary national myth consolidating the Russian nation-state. I don’t intend to resolve this debate (I don’t believe that’s even possible), but I do believe it is necessary for people on all sides – Westerners, ordinary Russians, Russian liberals, and Stalinists alike – to understand it a bit better. This is my humble hope in writing this.

First, the facts. Russians are not hardcore Stalinists. Neither is the Russian government. President Medvedev unequivocally condemned Stalin, saying there is “no justification for the repressions”, and spoke out against Moscow mayor Luzhkov’s initiative to publicly display a few Stalin posters (amongst thousands) during the Victory celebrations. He was backed in this sentiment by 51% of Russians, while only 12% fully supported Luzhkov. Today, most Russians are either conflicted on or indifferent to Stalin. Neither for, nor fully against. Ambiguous.

Many Westerners, sparing themselves from hard critical reflection, like to condemn Russians for their ambivalence towards Stalin. Wasn’t he a mass murderer who killed more Russians than Hitler? (This is a constant theme of anti-Stalin and general Russophobe propaganda). Quite apart from this being simply wrong according to all objective estimates, Russians themselves say they suffered far more under four years of the Nazi yoke than under twenty plus years of Stalinism*.

According to polls, 50% had a close relative die in the Great Patriotic War (33% – injured, 16% – missing in action). Only 14% say that nothing particularly bad happened to a close relative during the war. These answers are in line with the statistics on wartime demographic losses – some 27mn Soviet citizens died in that war (13mn Russian), of them 8.7mn soldiers (5.7mn Russian)**. That’s out of a total Soviet population of 197mn in June 1941.

In contrast, in response to the question, “Did anyone in your family suffer from the repressions shortly before or after the war?”, 22% of Russians said “yes”, while 63% said “no”. (Note that “suffer” does not imply death, since contrary to the popular anti-Soviet mythology most Gulag inmates survived). This also tallies with the hard statistics. During the entire 1921-53 period, some 4.1mn people were condemned for counter-revolutionary activities, of them 0.8mn to death and 1.1mn of whom died in camps and prisons. After adding the 3.5-5.0mn excess deaths from the collectivization famines, it is hard to see how Stalin could have been responsible for more than ten million deaths at the absolute maximum.

Russian man with Stalin portrait, May Day 2010 (h/t Sean Guillory).

Russian man with Stalin portrait, May Day 2010 (h/t Sean Guillory).

And before some ideological fanatic comes out with the cheap “You’re a filthy Stalinist!” card, I would note that it is quite possible to condemn Stalin on the basis of his real crimes, without resorting to neo-Goebbelsian propaganda about “62 million victims of the Red Plague” or “Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler” spread by the ideologue Rummel. If anything, such rhetoric actually encourages the rehabilitation of Stalinism. No, really. Scratch a Stalinist, and you reveal a can of understandable human emotions – pride, nostalgia, defiance. From Sean Guillory’s post on meeting a small, old KPRF man holding a Stalin portrait during the May Day protest a week ago:

But for a little old man holding a photo of Stalin? For him, the dictator means something wholly different. There is certainly a large element of historical nostalgia embedded in Stalin’s portrait. Stalin is mostly about the USSR’s victory over the Nazis and a time when Russia was a superpower… The Stalin posters also signify a longing for an imagined past of stability, predictability, and ironically, a paternal state that dealt a measure of social and economic justice… Lastly, Stalin is also defiance. People carry posters of Stalin simply because others tell them they shouldn’t. Hoisting Stalin to the sun is about the current war over memory. It’s about saying without hyperbole: This is my Stalin and he has nothing to do with yours.

In contrast to Russians’ conflicted views on Stalin, the Victory is unambiguous, unequivocal, absolute. The Victory that cost 26.6mn Soviet lives, but saved the Slavic world entire from a historyless future of deportations, slavery, and death. A Victory reverently regarded by all Russians with a profound, bittersweet pride. And not only by Russians. Despite Yuschenko’s five year anti-Russian campaign***, 87% of Ukrainians say they believe Victory Day belongs to all people, only slightly lower than 91% of Russians. In a very real sense, Victory isn’t just Russia’s national myth. It belongs to and unites all the peoples of the former Soviet Union.


But here we stumble across the central contradiction. This Victory was won under the supreme leadership of Generalissimo Stalin, the despotic Messiah who ruled Russians like the God of the Old Testament. This isn’t fawning hyperbole. The tendency to ascribe semi-divine or “natural force” characteristics to Stalin is actually rather common amongst Russians. I suspect that is because it’s the clearest way to resolve their radical ambiguity towards Him.

The Kremlin is faced with a dilemma in reconciling Stalin with Victory. Promoting the Victory isn’t only feelgood propaganda. It is very useful. It stokes the social cohesion that Russia needs to consolidate itself, and to actualize her shift towards sobornost’ (the catch-all term for a deep sense of internal peace and unity between races, religions, sexes, etc, within a society). It also creates powerful bonds with other peoples of the erstwhile USSR, buttressing the Kremlin’s drive to (re)gather the Russian lands. For this reason, under Putin, Russia has devoted lavish attention to the public spectacle of Victory. The Victory parades in Moscow become ever more impressive, – indeed, imperial – with every passing year. Under the initiative of Kremlin-affiliated youth movements, the Ribbon of Saint George was popularized as a symbol of Victory since 2005. This harkens back to the Medal For the Victory Over Germany, which was awarded after the war to all the soldiers, officers and partisans who directly participated in live combat actions against the European Axis. A medal dominated by Stalin’s visage.

This very symbology reveals the crux of the dilemma. Stalin. Not as man, but as avatar. The idea. The imagined past of sobornost’. A Golden Age in which the intelligentsia and old Bolsheviks; the corrupt bureaucrats and oligarchs; the Western idolizers and rootless cosmopolitans, were condemned, and extirpated. Above all, the singular emancipation of Victory. Even neglecting the moral dimension, all this opens a frightening, churning vistage that the Kremlin elites dare not approach. Nor is repudiating Stalin an option, for that would also mean repudiation of Russia’s national myth. And that is the surest path to ruin…

So the Kremlin’s position is neither the rose-hued nostalgia of the old Stalinist protester, nor the desaturated grey of the moral relativist. Not in thrall to kitsch, like the blogger behind the Stalin bus (for even discredited kitsch can resurrect itself if enough people begin to believe in it again). Nor the uniform shadows of the Russian liberals (since that is simply too depressing).

When called out to defend or condemn it, the Kremlin is forced by the tides of history and fate into a position of radical ambiguity towards the Stalinist project.

A turbulent world of clashing white and black, the very essence of Stalinist metapolitics. Ironically, the permanent contradiction of both Russians and the Kremlin towards the Stalinist legacy is also its most fitting epitaph, for that was its very essence. Slavoj Zizek on When the Party Commits Suicide:

Precisely as Marxists, we should then have no fear in acknowledging that the purges under Stalinism were in a way more “irrational” than the Fascist violence: paradoxically, this very excess is an unmistakable sign that, in contrast to Fascism, Stalinism was the case of a perverted authentic revolution… the “irrationality” of Nazism was “condensed” in anti-Semitism, in its belief in the Jewish plot, while the Stalinist “irrationality” pervaded the entire social body. For that reason, Nazi police investigators were still looking for proofs and traces of actual activity against the regime, while Stalinist investigators were engaged in clear and unambiguous fabrications (invented plots and sabotages, etc.).

However, this very violence inflicted by the Communist Power on its own members bears witness to the radical self-contradiction of the regime, i.e. to the fact that, at the origins of the regime, there was an “authentic” revolutionary project — incessant purges were necessary not only to erase the traces of the regime’s own origins, but also as a kind of “return of the repressed,” a reminder of the radical negativity at the heart of the regime. The Stalinist purges of high Party echelons relied on this fundamental betrayal: the accused were effectively guilty insofar as they, as the members of the new nomenklatura, betrayed the Revolution. The Stalinist terror is thus not simply the betrayal of the Revolution, i.e. the attempt to erase the traces of the authentic revolutionary past; it rather bears witness to a kind of “imp of perversity” which compels the post-revolutionary new order to (re)inscribe its betrayal of the Revolution within itself, to “reflect” it or “remark” it in the guise of arbitrary arrests and killings which threatened all members of the nomenklatura — as in psychoanalysis, the Stalinist confession of guilt conceals the true guilt… This inherent tension between the stability of the rule of the new nomenklatura and the perverted “return of the repressed” in the guise of the repeated purges of the ranks of the nomenklatura is at the very heart of the Stalinist phenomenon: purges are the very form in which the betrayed revolutionary heritage survives and haunts the regime. The dream of Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist presidential candidate in 1996 (things would have turned out OK in the Soviet Union if only Stalin had lived at least 5 years longer and accomplished his final project of having done with cosmopolitanism and bringing about the reconciliation between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church — in other words, if only Stalin had realized his anti-Semitic purge…), aims precisely at the point of pacification at which the revolutionary regime would finally get rid of its inherent tension and stabilize itself — the paradox, of course, is that in order to reach this stability, Stalin’s last purge, the planned “mother of all purges” which was to take place in the Summer of 1953 and was prevented by his death, would have to succeed. Here, then, perhaps, the classic Trotsky’s analysis of the Stalinist “Thermidor” is not fully adequate: the actual Thermidor happened only after Stalin’s death (or, rather, even after Khruschev’s fall), with the Brezhnev years of “stagnation,” when nomenklatura finally stabilized itself into a “new class.” Stalinism proper is rather the enigmatic “vanishing mediator” between the authentic Leninist revolutionary outburst and its Thermidor…

But some things are certain. Victory can never be fully disassociated from Stalin. And Stalin is far too complex a historical figure to be reduced to an ideological for/against binary. Of course, by now I’m only repeating myself…

* Of course, there are some Russian families – and relatively more Ukrainian and national minority families – who did suffer more from Stalinist policies than under Nazism. That is because Stalin’s repressions tended to target particular social groups and families, such as former nobles or wealthy farmers. Their descendants tend to remember Stalin with much greater distaste than “normal Russians”, for whom just keeping your head down more or less nullified their chances of being repressed. Though even here, a qualification is necessary. On hearing of Stalin’s death, there were reports of even the Gulag inmates weeping. The contradictions, confusions, warping, psychoses, call them what you will, of Stalinism – they have always been there with us.

** Not directly related to this year’s topic, but I do want to recall one of the myths I covered last year on the GPW, the (Western) myth that the “Russians” lost five or ten or whatever soldier for every heroic Aryan. In reality, the ratio of Soviet to Axis losses on the Eastern Front was 1.3:1.

*** From the same article – the Ukrainian Minister of Education also said that Ukrainian textbooks will again refer to the “Great Patriotic War”, reverting back from Yuschenko’s ideological campaign to call it just the “Second World War”.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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This fragmentary text was found by priests of Kǎichè, May He Live Forever, Great Lord of the Last Empire, in the Year 220 AF. It was contained in a far north KHE resilience that had survived the Flame Deluge that ended the Age of Legends. Further excavations are now ongoing at the site, under the supervision and protection of the Guardian of the 7th Chimera Horde (Mosike).

Modern natural science has hacked away at the idea of a Designer God as more and more phenomena have fallen prey to rational explanation. All the arguments for God’s existence yet dreamt of sink under one paradox or another – cosmology through infinite regression, ontology through elementary logic, and teleology through evolution – the latter of which has even displaced God as the cause of directionality in universal history. While Darwin originally applied it to explain the development of the biosphere (the thin layer of flaura and fauna that covers the Earth), it has since been extended into the boundless past-and-future (Vernadsky’s and de Chardin’s theories of universal evolution). However, evolution is as hopeless as traditional objects of belief when it comes to explaining truly deep metaphysical questions…like why are we? Science can keep shaving away swathes of time in its quest to get closer to the Big Bang, yet it is unimaginable that pure positivism could ever explain the reason behind it.

The only possible resolution is to posit that the world of forms, the realm of mathematics, is not only a deeper reality than what we perceive – it is the only reality. What we perceive as spacio-temporal reality is but an extraordinarily complex, by our standards, mathematical object. This is an incredible claim which will doubtless be met with incredible incredulity. While proving it is impossible, it should be accepted as axiomatic, internalized in the same way that we accept that two parallel lines never meet in Euclidean geometry. Science over the centuries has rejected old folkish beliefs that matter was continuous and elemental (earth, fire, water, etc) and replaced them with evidence that space-time is made up of discrete, if very small, units – cells, atoms, ‘chronons’. There seem to be fundamental limits on observation into the worlds that lie hidden within Planck distances and in between Planck time. So if the universe is discrete, it can in principle be run by a universal computer.

Rebuttals hinging on subjective experience can be side-stepped; as Kant argued in the Critique of Pure Reason, space and time are merely forms of intuition by which we perceive objects. So it goes for “consciousness”, an evolved construct that manifests itself as an emergent pattern. Evolution itself can be modelled from surprisingly simple rules – a simple and graphic way of looking at this is to imagine the universe as a huge, universal cellular automaton. A cellular automaton is a grid with cells, whose states (e.g. black or white) change depending on their neighbours after each iteration to create a new generation. Some can create order and complexity out of initial chaos, thus fulfilling a key criterion of evolution.

A consequence is that all that might be, is – for the world of forms, which we shall call the Void, has all possible mathematical objects. To cite the chapter What Might Be Is from the ancient book Sublime Oblivion:

In a sense, the Void fulfils all the criteria of God. Null and unity, it transcends the human imagination, for human minds are finite in scope. It sidesteps the ‘who created the creator?” paradox, for it is. And was, and will be, though being outside Time, its directionality becomes meaningless. It is zero and infinity of cardinal infinity. What might be, is. All possible cellular automata, all of which can be represented by Turing machines, exist and are. The Void is everywhere, in every one of us, and nowhere.

[missing text] … The next two chapters explore the consequences. Chapter 30, Struggle and Suicide, makes a point that all in life and in history can be reduced to struggle (belief – the illusion of meaning) and suicide (nihilism – the absence of meaning). Evolution is nothing more or less than the dialectic between struggle and suicide, yet they are intimately related, since suicide is only reached through struggle, while suicide is a “rejection of reason and an embrace of struggle”. But what exactly connects the two?

From Chapter 110, Sublime Games

One of the ways humans are unique is in their appreciation of aesthetics; Dostoevsky remarked that ‘beauty is mysterious as well as terrible’, and according to Schopenhauer reaches its pinnacle in the form of the sublime, a concept of greatness beyond mortal imagination…

Schopenhauer saw beauty (pleasure through peaceful contemplation of a benign thing) rising to sublimity (pleasure through seeing a vast, threatening thing capable of undoing the observer) and reaching a terrifying crescendo in the ‘fullest feeling of sublime’ – knowledge of the vastness of the universe in all its dimensions and the consequent insignificance of the observer.

However, the spiritual dialectic in history has also expanded human consciousness to the realm of the sublime! The Claws of Cthulthu [science] have torn humanity from the absolute; this struggle comes to an end with the sublime soul, which recognizes the Void as the Sublime, one and same. At the end we have Trinity: Struggle and Suicide, and the Sublime, which is the relation between them.

The soul of struggle knows what is good and what is evil and strives towards the Sublime, but only reaching it through suicide – the casting away of illusions and reconciliation with an absurd world, when according to Camus, humanity’s striving for unity meets the cold, indifferent universe. There can be no salvation for the (post-historical) sublime soul, for which there can be no meaning and no understanding of what is good and what is evil (for those are the products of history) – the only final resolution is a rejection of reason and reversion to struggle.

A profoundly pessimistic philosophy, maybe even a kind of nihilist manifesto? – but only to those still in the world of struggle.

These views are their fortune, for they are not afflicted with the existential despair of the sublime soul, which yearns for unity (due to its incomplete break from the world of struggle). Yet they are also their loss – the sublime soul knows that contemplation of a dancing flame, the ungentle seas and starry sky has value of its own. After all, gaming is fun.

On the Apocalypse: The end of the world holds a certain fascination to many people, even a seduction. The word itself is derived from a Greek word that literally means a ‘lifting of the veil’, a kind of relevation to a chosen elect (and a wonder of the mystery that is an integral part of Orthodox Christianity). The act in itself is beautiful, appealing to the human aesthetic. The other side of it is the eschaton, which refers to the actual end of the world, typically in a sudden and violent cataclysm.

This, however, is sublime – pleasure in seeing an unimaginable vast, malignant object that threatens to undo the observer, according to Schopenhauer; or as per Kant, while beauty is “connected with the form of the object”, the sublime “is to be found in a formless object” of absolute, boundless greatness. While beauty could be understood, the sublime “shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense”. Thus, a rose is beautiful; a tsunami or a nuclear detonation is sublime. Schopenhauer saw the fullest feeling of the sublime manifested in contemplation of the universe, its immensity and the consequent insignificance of the observer (a point made in Struggle and Suicide is that this reaches its logical conclusion when the sublime soul internalizes the Void). Thus, appreciation of the Apocalypse is merely a function of how well-developed one’s sence of aesthetics is.

Hence there is a Trinity in the Apocalypse – the revelation (lifting of the veil and enlightenment), the supremely sublime end of the world itself and the relation between them, which is the apokalupsis eschaton – the revelation at the end of the world. It is the act by which beauty morphs into sublimity; a majestic sublimation that lays bare the great sublime in all its consummate transcendence.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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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)
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Following my posting of Russia’s Sisyphean Loop, the influential East-Central Europe expert, Vlad Sobell, wrote up an interesting critique at the Untimely Thoughts Russia Discussion Group. It addresses what may be considered some weak, or at least not thoroughly explained, points from the original article, so I thought it would be useful to reproduce it in full along with the ensuing e-mail conversation.

I first give a very condensed version (inevitably a caricature) of what he has written, and then proceed to inform him what is wrong with it.

His thesis goes as follows:

In its effort to modernise and catch up with the West (mainly for reasons of defence) Russia has been going in circles, or historical cycles – a Sisyphean Loop. Anatoly has developed a useful model (his Belief Matrix TM) which illustrates the parameters in which this cycle is set.

He concludes that Russia is currently at a crossroads: it could either continue the cycle, with the current authoritarianism strengthening (even metamorphosing into totalitarianism) or it could break out from its cycle and embrace genuine liberalism.

What is wrong with it:

While this is a very useful analytical framework, it is too deterministic. Anatoly is very good at sticking his neck out on the side of the NEGATIVE outcome, based on his tendency to see History as an endless repetition, rather than progress to something new. Thus he predicts a reversion to totalitarianism and neo-imperialism.

(Incidentally when earlier analysing Europe, he raised the prospect of a rising Germany eventually drawing Europe to another war – a daring prediction indeed!) [see The Return of the Reich?]

However, Anatoly should realize that while history does to some extent repeat itself (and there are structural/geographical causes of this), things ALSO DO CHANGE and evolve. Indeed, change and evolution is a more potent force than eternal repetition. This is why there are different species, for example, and why there is such as a thing as Russia in the first place!

(And I do not want to remind Anatoly of the hackneyed statement – usually (but most likely mistakenly) – attributed to Karl Marx, that although history does repeat itself, the first time around it is a tragedy, but the second time a farce).

I believe that this time around the odds are stuck firmly in favor of
fundamental change and a break out from the cycle. Russia cannot revert to the past because its economy would not be able to take it. Without modernization the Federation would disintegrate, and modernization cannot be carried out on the basis of autarchy. In today’s globalized environment (and in the era of the Internet) autarchy is simply a non-starter.

Anatoly makes the mistake of taking the indisputable signs of repetition (e.g. Putin’s strong rule) as a proof of reversion to kind. The evidence for this so far is meager. This is not authoritarianism for authoritarianism’s sake, this is largely a democracy’s defense against oligarchy and demagogy driven chaos.

I would also argue that we are witnessing Perestroika mark 2. The system that Putin built has been shown to be seriously wanting by the depth of the economic crisis. Just like in the 1980s this is fueling pressures towards liberal reforms.

Best regards,
Vlad Sobell

My response.

Thanks for the critique, Vlad.

Re-my view of history as cyclical and pessimism. First, I would note that I didn’t really give predictions as much as different possible scenarios. The reason that pessimistic ones figure much more prominently in my work than in some (most) others is because my worldview is fundamentally shaped by the concept of Limits to Growth – the theory that the world system is coming under increasing ecological and resource stress and may collapse in a few decades. Whenever you’ve had strains, you also had popular disillusionment, more support for strongman rule, retreat of globalization and of commercial values in favor of militarism and nationalism, etc. Even though Russia itself is pretty well endowed with resources, the shrinking of the world system may encourage it to move to a more autarkic and militarized form of government (e.g., note that the Great Crash and the Soviet “Great Break” [that marked the genesis of Stalinism] both took place in 1929). In the end, industrialism may just be a passing phase in human history, just one really big cycle [enabled by humanity's discovery of and exploitation of the fossil fuel windfall], and will centuries later be remembered as some kind of “Age of Myths”.

Re-”Russia cannot revert to the past because its economy would not be able to take it. Without modernisation the Federation would disintegrate, and modernisation cannot be carried out on the basis of autarchy. In today’s globalised environment (and in the era of the Internet) autarchy is simply a non-starter.”

There are two assumptions here: that globalization is permanent, and that autarchy won’t survive in a globalized age. For the former, see above [or my article Shifting Winds]. For the latter, see Brezhnev’s Soviet Union – impoverished, but still a superpower, and one that endured for a generation after the onset of zastoi (and could have theoretically endured for much longer – see North Korea). The Federation itself can’t really fall apart any more, I think, (with the exception of a few S. Caucasian Muslim states) because it is now 80% Russian, whereas in the USSR the figure was 50%.

Re-”The system that Putin built has been shown to be seriously wanting by the depth of the economic crisis. Just like in the 1980s this is fuelling pressures towards liberal reforms.”

But… one of the biggest reasons, probably the main one, why Russia’s economy fell so hard was because of its loss of access to the cheap Western credit its corporations had come to rely upon, and the primitive nature of its own domestic financial system. To the contrary, this may be interpreted as a lesson to become *less* reliant on outsiders.

In sum, you think we’re in the 1980′s, I think we’re in the 1920′s. ;)

Vlad replies.


I cannot take seriously this theory of the limits to growth. I understand the reasoning and there is no doubt that the growth of population is vastly out of line with the availability of all manner of resources (plus the environment damage etc).

But instinctively (apart from rationally) I do not like any apocalyptic theories (the same goes for conspiracies). Something always happens, things ALWAYS turn out different, in both positive and negative sense.

I also do not accept the global warming – yes there is a lot of evidence and yes it is caused by human activity, but I do not believe that shutting down on industrialisation is the answer, and we do not (cannot) know now what we will know in 10 years from now, never mind 100 years from now.

So as you can see I am very sceptical.

The market will likely solve these problems – as resources get more scarce, they will get more expensive. This will generate money for the alternatives and will make previously expensive alternatives look cheap. This is how it works. Population growth will slow down – as it does when nations get richer. etc.

I am aware of the problem of the Russian economy – it was the inability of the system to provide long-term finance, and hence its foolhardy reliance on external finance.

But when they start building a proper financial system, that system will need to be properly integrated within the global financial system. There can be no such thing as financial autarchy these days – hence the same applies to the rest of the economy. Diversification of production, financial flows and hence diversification of risk is the answer.

I am not saying that you are completely wrong. There are (will continue to be) forces in Russia pulling in the direction you describe. But they cannot prevail in the long run.

As I said, I do not believe that History repeats itself – there are similarities and analogies, but there always are also huge (and material) differences. Every situation is always novel.

Best regards,


By the way, I think are one of the most interesting writers on these topics around. I like the way you put together the big picture and your ability to draw your ideas to their logical ends, regardless of how “outrageous” or unpalatable these ends may be. Your stuff always makes me think and look at things in a different way.

And here I basically think we can agree to disagree, since otherwise the debate will spiral far beyond the more limited subject matter of Russia’s Sisyphean Loop. Just to conclude, however:

  • The markets-and-technology will solve our problems, or a latter day form of cargoism. The problem with rising costs is that they, in essence, translate to higher energy costs – or in other words, a lower EROEI. The minimum EROEI needed to sustain industrial civilization happens to be 5:1, which is probably somewhat equivalent to the overall values for wind (not enough of it to power the world anyway) and solar (can power the entire world, but is still very underdeveloped – even in 2008, photovoltaics supplied less than 0.02% of the world’s total energy supply).
  • There has been no significant action on global warming at all, with emissions increasing at a record breaking rate during the 2000′s as China continued its breakneck industrialization; furthermore, public acceptance of anthropogenic global warming is actually falling, despite the overwhelming evidence for it.
  • The subjective factor – I like apocalyptic theories, which may bias my judgment. ;)
  • Russia will have to do with financial autarky if global finance collapses. It won’t be that difficult, since that has been the norm for most of Russia’s history, with the exception of late Tsarism and the post-Soviet era till now.

Readers, please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments below.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Here I will try to categorize all the major Russia-watching schools along two axes: 1) a Russophobe – Russophile axis and 2) a values spectrum on attitudes towards the West as a universal mental matrix. Along these lines I created the image map below which attempts to graphically deconstruct the belief systems many prominent Russia-watchers today subscribe to. I mostly limited myself to those with a presence on the Anglophone blogosphere, though I’ve added in some nationalities and ideological groupings to clarify the terrain and fringe elements to demarcate the boundaries.

Jeff Nyquist ( A Step at a Time (David McDuff) Window on Eurasia (Paul Goble) Thomas P.M. Barnett Gordon Hahn (Russia: Other Points of View) The Ivanov Report (Eugene Ivanov) Dale Herspring Moscow Tory (Carl Thomson) Mike Averko Andrew Wilson (Virtual Politics) Vilhelm Konnander Mark Ames (eXile) Mat Rodina (Stanislav Mishin) Kirill Pankratov Russian Blog (Konstantin) Russia in the Media (Fedia Kriukov) Truth and Beauty (Eric Kraus) Nicolai Petro Vlad Sobell Eduard Limonov Siberian Light (Andy Young) La Russophobe (Kim Zigfield) Edward Lucas Streetwise Professor (Craig Pirrong) Robert Amsterdam Russia Blog (Charles Ganske & Yuri Mamchur) Sublime Oblivion (Anatoly Karlin The Russian Government (Dmitri Medvedev & Vladimir Putin) Peter Lavelle The Spirit of Terrorism (Jean Baudrillard) The End of History (Francis Fukuyama) Sean's Russia Blog (Sean Guillory)

Introduction: A Very Brief History of Russia-Watching

Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930’s. The following remarks made by John Scott in Behind the Urals, an account of life in a Soviet industrial town, are as relevant today as they were back then:
In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren't we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.
So basically, opinions on Russia were binaried amongst those who cared to express an interest. And they were almost all wrong. The hardcore Communists would not admit that life remained hard for most people, that Russia’s level of development remained far below that of the West (despite the Depression) and ignored the high level of political repression. On the other hand, the anti-Communists were just as wrong. Their ideologized refusal to acknowedge the high morale, technological progress and the huge rise in Soviet military-industrial potential under Stalin did them no good, especially for those Nazi strategists who thought all they had to do was kick the door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would come tumbling down.
Another point I would make here is that Russia’s history is highly cyclical, going through a pattern of collapse, recovery, expansion, stagnation and collapse. There are some convincing reasons that much of this is tied to its geography and derived cultural traditions. The archetypical Russia is economically weak (cold climate, vast distances and subpar riverine interconnectivity) and insecure (open, undefended borders). This traditionally meant that the Russian state had to marshal all available resources to compete as a Great Power, necessitating a strong state capable of maintaining superior armed forces, keeping abreast of foreign technological developments and providing bread and games to the people. However, the strain of supporting a metastasized empire out of proportion to its economic development, as well as the ideological rigidities necessary to thwart its premature dissolution, meant that when critical amounts of pressure did build up collapses tended to be far more total and catastrophic than in the West.
A succinct summary of this theme of eternal rise and fall can be found in Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century:
At present, all we see is chaos, struggle, economic collapse, ethnic disintegration – just as the observers of 1918 did. How could they have foreseen then that a decade or so later the USSR would have begun to produce chemicals, aircraft, trucks, tanks, and machine tools and be growing faster than any other industrialized society? By extension, how could Western admirers of Stalin’s centralized economy in the 1930’s know that the very system contained the seeds of its own collapse?
And as is well-known very few Kremlinogists accurately predicted the breakup the Soviet Union until 1989 (although it should be noted that contrary to current conventional wisdom, they were well-justified in their complacency because the Soviet political economy was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant, and collapse was precipitated by Gorbachev’s abandonment of central planning in the absence of evolved market mechanisms). And yet soon after the pendulum swung the other way. Now quoting myself in Reading Russia Right:
Wildly optimistic predictions of tigerish growth rates and flourishing democracy were confounded, as practically every socio-economic statistic worsened and reforms were perceived to have authorized the wholesale looting of Russia – ‘the sale of the century’ – and the creation of a ‘historyless elite’ focused on the ‘exchange of unaccountable power for untaxable wealth’. By the end of the 1990’s, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, tax collection and monetary emissions had eroded; market fundamentalism had transformed the Upper Volta with missiles into a ‘looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy’ in a demographic death spiral presided over by the ‘world’s most virulent kleptocracy’ about to splinter along ethnic lines and fall into fascism sometime tomorrow. The Atlantic put it nice and simple: ‘Russia is Finished’.
And we all know what happened since 1998, even though some Russophobes have yet to catch up with the times – much like the ideologized anti-Communists of the 1930′s… (Of course, this is not to say that Putin is the next Stalin. I’m talking about the economic recovery, and the increasing investments into things like nanotechnology, which will probably be as important in this century as coal and steel were in the last).
Russia and Ideologues: Past Debates on Russophobia

Anyone familiar with Western commentary on Russia will know that much of it is bifurcated into two camps, the so-called “Russophiles” and “Russophobes”. Both range the whole gamut of opinion from classical liberalism to nationalist arch-conservatism, and tend to invoke Orientalist interpretations of Russian culture to make their points. This dichotomy has a millennial heritage, going back as far, perhaps, as the medieval period when Western Christendom first acquired a primal aversion to the dark, chaotic steppes to the east; yet an aversion tempered by seductive legends such as that of Prester John, who ruled a perfect Christian kingdom in a place beyond the darkness of Tatary.

Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930’s. The following remarks made by John Scott in Behind the Urals, an account of life in a Soviet industrial town, are as relevant today as they were back then:

In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren't we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.

So basically, opinions on Russia were binaried amongst those who cared to express an interest. And they were almost all wrong. The hardcore Communists would not admit that life remained hard for most people, that Russia’s level of development remained far below that of the West (despite the Depression) and ignored the high level of political repression. On the other hand, the anti-Communists were just as wrong. Their ideologized refusal to acknowedge the high morale, technological progress and the huge rise in Soviet military-industrial potential under Stalin did them no good, especially for those Nazi strategists who thought all they had to do was kick the door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would come tumbling down.

Another point I would make here is that Russia’s history is highly cyclical, going through a pattern of collapse, recovery, expansion, stagnation and collapse. There are some convincing reasons that much of this is tied to its geography and derived cultural traditions. The archetypical Russia is economically weak (cold climate, vast distances and subpar riverine interconnectivity) and insecure (open, undefended borders). This traditionally meant that the Russian state had to marshal all available resources to compete as a Great Power, necessitating a strong state capable of maintaining superior armed forces, keeping abreast of foreign technological developments and providing bread and games to the people. However, the strain of supporting a metastasized empire out of proportion to its economic development, as well as the ideological rigidities necessary to thwart its premature dissolution, meant that when critical amounts of pressure did build up collapses tended to be far more total and catastrophic than in the West.

A succinct summary of this theme of eternal rise and fall can be found in Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century:

At present, all we see is chaos, struggle, economic collapse, ethnic disintegration – just as the observers of 1918 did. How could they have foreseen then that a decade or so later the USSR would have begun to produce chemicals, aircraft, trucks, tanks, and machine tools and be growing faster than any other industrialized society? By extension, how could Western admirers of Stalin’s centralized economy in the 1930’s know that the very system contained the seeds of its own collapse?

And as is well-known very few Kremlinogists accurately predicted the breakup the Soviet Union until 1989 (although it should be noted that contrary to current conventional wisdom, they were well-justified in their complacency because the Soviet political economy was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant, and collapse was precipitated by Gorbachev’s abandonment of central planning in the absence of evolved market mechanisms). And yet soon after the pendulum swung the other way. Now quoting myself in Reading Russia Right:

Wildly optimistic predictions of tigerish growth rates and flourishing democracy were confounded, as practically every socio-economic statistic worsened and reforms were perceived to have authorized the wholesale looting of Russia – ‘the sale of the century’ – and the creation of a ‘historyless elite’ focused on the ‘exchange of unaccountable power for untaxable wealth’. By the end of the 1990’s, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, tax collection and monetary emissions had eroded; market fundamentalism had transformed the Upper Volta with missiles into a ‘looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy’ in a demographic death spiral presided over by the ‘world’s most virulent kleptocracy’ about to splinter along ethnic lines and fall into fascism sometime tomorrow. The Atlantic put it nice and simple: ‘Russia is Finished’.

And we all know what happened since 1998, even though some Russophobes have yet to catch up with the times – much like the ideologized anti-Communists of the 1930′s… (Of course, this is not to say that Putin is the next Stalin. I’m talking about the economic recovery, and the increasing investments into things like nanotechnology, which will probably be as important in this century as coal and steel were in the last).

So if there’s one thing history proves, understanding Russia requires a wide array of different approaches and a certain ideological flexibility. Unfortunately, this has rarely been the case because Russia is a palimpsest, a place of all things to all people due to its own extremes and contradictions. This is what we are going to explore now…

Categorizing the Russia Debate

Both Russophobes and Russophiles have a somewhat obsessive love-hate relationship with Russia, the main difference being that the “Russophobe” does everything she can to condemn the country (and those who defend it) from within her own specific frames of reference, frequently through the prism of an idealized West; while the “Russophile” does everything she can to understand Russia on its own terms. And since understanding is forgiveness, this inevitably leads to a Romantic infatuation with the country (this is where seduction begins).

Refer to the grid at the top of this post. The vertical axis attempts to gauge the Russia-watcher’s attitudes to the West and its values. Though they may admit to minor blemishes, those who are “pro-West” are firm believers in the absolute superiority of Western civilization as symbolized in the Idea of the West (rule of law, sanctity of contract, free markets, classical liberalism, etc). In contrast “cynics” tend to focus on its rather unnatural (”Faustian”, to use the Spenglerian term) characteristics, systemic hypocrisies and tend to believe in the possibility – and indeed desirability – of economic modernization, social progress and democratization without Westernization.

Viewed from within this conceptual framework of a belief matrix, several major groups or schools begin to emerge.

Centrists & Marxists. These folks tend to be placid, considerate and consciously strive for objectivity in their judgments. Leading lights of this school include Andy Young (Siberian Light), Sean Guillory (Sean’s Russia Blog), the folks at the eXile (though they lean towards cynicism), Geoffrey Hosking and Anatol Lieven.

Siberian Light is the centrist par excellence amongst bloggers. Though he personally has a rather dim view of the Putin administration, Andy mostly focuses on aggregation and allows readers to make up their own minds.

Sean Guillory (Sean’s Russia Blog) aims to explore Russia through the “dialectic between universal and particular”, without trying to resolve, but rather accepting, the inherent contradictions born of such an exercise – this acceptance is the reason he tilts towards the “Russophile” end of the horizontal axis (albeit this is moderated by his semi-unconscious Western biases). He criticizes the Orientalism which he believes are clouding both the Russophile and Russophobe perspective, though as I assert in this work a Russophile cannot be an Orientalist by definition. As can be expected from a liberal Californian social sciences academic, not to mention his language, Sean directs his analysis through a Marxist and more broadly a dialectical prism. For reasons I will explain below, the dialectical approach is the epitome of Reason, which is located at the center of the vertical axis

On a less refined level, Sean’s approach could be described as both realistic and cynical. This attitude is broadly shared by some former eXile writers like Mark Ames and Yasha Levine.

The Western Russophobes. These are people with a strong belief in the validity of the Idea of the West and its near flawless exercise in the “Western world”. Their perceptions of Russia’s “Otherness” from Western ideals lead to regret and sadness for the apparent plight of the Russian people (often with scant regard for the Russians’ subjective perceptions of their own situation). Examples of such moderate Western Russophobes include Robert Amsterdam, Vilhelm Konnander, Steven Rosefielde, Andrew Wilson and most of the folks at RFERL.

The more extreme elements see the struggle in Manichean, quasi-religious terms. Russia’s ostensible denial of the Idea of the West is amoral, if not heretical – and so are the defenders of Putin’s “bloody regime”, who are either innocent dupes (”useful idiots”) or unrepentant heretics with whom there can be no compromise. Here’s a telling quote from Streetwise Professor’s (Craig Pirrong) seminal essay On Russophobia:

…It is this fundamental philosophical and moral divide between the classical liberal views I espouse, and the anti-liberal views of the Putinists, that explains my intense antipathy for the current Russian government and state, and which is the wellspring of my trenchant criticism. It is not a divide that can be bridged [my emphasis], as these are antithetical conceptions of the roles of the individual and the state…

Yet the cake here goes to Ed Lucas, who explicitly compares modern-day Russia to Mordor (the archetypal evil empire of epic fantasy) and its defenders to the evil henchmen of the Dark Lord himself.

But as the skies darken once again over the European continent (or Middle Earth if you prefer)… Mordor is clearly the Russian Federation, ruled by the demonic overlord Sauron (Putin). His email address, to give a contemporary note, might be (the suffix is for Middle Earth). The threat from Mordor—symbolised by the Ring—is the combination of dirty money and authoritarian political thinking.

And Sauron’s henchmen the Orcs are clearly the murderous goons of the old KGB. The new twist—the Uruk-Hai, is the mutation of the old Soviet intelligence service with organised crime and big business. Sauron’s allies—the Nazgul—are the Siloviki, the sinister chieftains of the Kremlin’s authoritarian capitalist system. Like the Nazgul, we seldom see their faces.

So despite their representation of themselves as paragons of upstanding morality and reason, the bankruptcy of their arguments soon shows them up for the reality-disconnected ideologues many of them actually are. Other folks in this category include Paul Goble and David McDuff.

However, the ultimate in this category is the bombastic, manipulative La Russophobe, who abuses “her” anonymity to “expose” (read: smear) innocent individuals voicing disagreement with her extremist views in the vilest and most low-life manner. She represents the voice of Russia’s liberasts, a very small but loud segment of the Russian population which hates its own country and uses Bolshevik-reminiscent rhetoric against its enemies, real and imagined. Beyond them lie folks like Jeff Nyquist and the “Final Phase” conspiracy theorists, who believe that the Soviet Union never collapsed, continues to plot for the global triumph of Communism and recommend a pre-emptive American thermonuclear strike / holocaust on Russia. These extremist elements, lying on a spectrum from SWP to the Final Phase theorists, demonstrate that paradoxically the greater the strength of your belief in the West – the more your thoughts and actions forsake its rationalistic ideals.

The Western Russophiles. People like Thomas P.M. Barnett, Charles Ganske & Yuri Mamchur (Russia Blog), Eugene Ivanov, Gordon Hahn, Dale Herspring and Mike Averko (I think) believe that the civilizational commonalities between the West and Russia are strong, Russia is (more-or-less) converging to Western norms of economic and political behavior under the present regime and intense US-Russian co-operation is both rational and desirable. Such commonalities include: the war against terror, the struggle against radical Islam, common goals in economic development and democratic governance (they acknowledge a separate Russian path to democracy independent of “the West”, noting that there are many forms on national democracy), and Christian identity (so it is not surprising to see Russia Blog funded by the creationist Discovery Institute; before criticizing this, some Russophobes should pause to note that such beliefs are shared by more than half of “real Americans”, and I say this as an atheist!). Carl Thomson (Moscow Tory) is the British representative of this set, a member of the UK’s Conservative Party (!) who largely rejects the Russophobia of his own party.

Barnett believes that Russia and the West have a common interest in advancing globalization so as to combat instability and extremism in the destitute “Gap” nations running across the Central Americas and vast swathes of the African and Eurasian Islamic belt. Charles Ganske and Eugene Ivanov are patriotic Republicans who lament what they perceive as the manipulation of Reagan’s legacy to advance an anti-Russian agenda. Many of these people tend to be very much part of the conventional, respectable American “establishment” in politics, business, religion and academia.

The main Western Russophobe argument against their brothers and sisters on the other end of the spectrum is that their position is untenable, riddled with contradictions. But this is based on their own belief that the “real” Russia and the “real” West are incompatible (a divide that cannot be bridged). The Western Russophiles do not believe this belief is valid, so their position is internally consistent and hence can only be discredited (or confirmed!) by objective developments in Russia itself, or rather by how these developments are perceived and interpreted in Western texts.

A more valid objection to the Western Russophile worldview is that they have a rather warped perspective on the “real Russia”, with a tendency to gloss over its defects (that is, defects from the Western perspective, because things like the abuse of administrative resources or the post-totalitarian (Vlad Sobell) nature of unreformed elements of its security, judicial and bureaucratic apparatuses do not much concern Slavophiles, Eurasianists and even most ordinary Russians). This is because they are Westerners catering to Western expectations of what Russia should be and serve a fundamentally political role in that their main task is to persuade Western politicians to go against the (Russophobic) Western consensus and seek rapprochement, understanding and co-operation with Russia.

The Skeptical Russophiles. I believe this characterizes the majority of Russia’s people today. They are proud of their nation in all its bittersweet glories and traumatic infamies and are deeply skeptical about the West’s poisoned chalice of absolutist political thinking (whether it is the neocon vision of US-directed democracy exports or the neoliberal dogma of free markets). They tend to see Russia as significantly separate from the West. Their recognition that Westernization is no universal panacea makes them skeptical towards democracy-freedom rhetoric and the overall desirability of pursuing some mythical “convergence” to the West. The fatal flaw of this approach, as alleged by the Western Russophobes, is that it is amoral and irrational (given that it stands in direct opposition to their belief in the Idea of the West). When the skeptical Russophiles screech about “double standards”, “Western hypocrisy” or “Orientalism”, the Russophobes chant “whataboutism”, “moral equivalence” and “tiresome pomo-ism” in retort.

Analysts who think along these lines include Peter Lavelle and the folks at Russia Today(its slogan “any story can be another story altogether” brilliantly illustrates their postmodern interpretation of truth, echoing former Economist journalist Gideon Lichfield who in one of his less cynical moments said, “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them,” in relation to Russia coverage), most prominent Russian politicians (including Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev), Nicolai Petro, Vlad Sobell, Eric Kraus, Fedia Kriukov (Russia in the Media), “Konstantin” (Russian Blog), Kirill Pankratov and yours truly, Anatoly Karlin.

A common Russophobe claim is that this position is inherently paradoxical (if you are skeptical, why only towards the West and not towards Russia?); this contradiction is resolved through re-definition of the terms – changing the Western-imposed definition of a “Russophile” as someone who uncritically praises Russia and its government, to a simple acceptance of it for what it is. Unlike the case for rational Western civilization,resolving its own contradictions is not part of Russia’s historical mission (and furthermore, attempts to do so on the parts of its elites usually led to tragic results).

This naturally results in an organic Russophilia tinged with skepticism towards the West on the part of the Russian people. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev managed to sum this up in just four eternal lines:

Умом Россию не понять, | You can’t understand Russia with intellect,
Аршином общим не измерить: | You can’t measure her with a common scale,
У ней особенная стать — | She has a special kind of grace,
В Россию можно только верить. | You can only believe in Russia.

Yet unadulterated belief is a luxury that cannot extend to those Russians forced to have dealings with Westerners on Western terms and the foreign Romantic intellectuals who empathize with the “real Russia”. This forces them into a sophisticated and Western-derived defense in the information war (much as Russians and other civilizations that wanted to preserve their sovereignty from the West were forced into adopting the West’s machine civilization and modern weapons to survive real wars). They are slaves to the West so that “real Russians” can live free.

This phenomenon is illustrated by my reply to Streetwise Professor’s aforementioned On Russophobia article with Deconstructing Russophobia, where I noted that a) his essentializing of Russia as anti-thetical to liberalism falls under the rubric of Orientalism, b) in support, there were numerous despotisms in Western history and in any case different Western states saw markedly different patterns of historical development, some more statist that others and c) “there many instances of democratic / liberal tendencies organically appearing in Russian history, from the Veche of medieval Novgorod to Putin’s consolidation of liberal democracy in the last 8 years”. Bearing in mind the centrality of belief to SWP’s position, I subjected it the following postmodernist assault:

And that’s really the difference between Russophobes and Russophiles. Russophiles know they live in the matrix; Russophobes think they’re free and laugh at the poor Russians, not realizing that they’re laughing at their own ugly reflections.

My basic assumption in making this argument (shared by many) is that the Idea of the West is based on the historical progress of Reason (or the Mechanism of natural science), a progress that advanced far enough as to rationalize itself – and consequently divine its own eschatology, starting from Hegel, the inventor of the modern dialectical theory. (This represents a profound break not only from the ancient myths and esoteric theo-philosophies which saw the world undergoing eternal cycles of progress and retreat, but also the Roman salvation cults and Chriatinity, which despite positing a linear time and an eschatology treated it as revealed knowledge, rather than building it up from reason).

Yet paradoxically, the Idea of the West (in its dialectical, universal sense) is ultimately a belief system itself, not based on rationalism as it would have you believe (even the axioms of mathematics are an object of belief, let alone something as artificial and unnatural as modern liberal democracy); and any belief system can be discredited by a) pointing out its inconsistencies in real life (this is the basis of the essentialist and Orientalist critiques) and b) exposing its contradictions – namely, by weilding the weapon of postmodernism, the West’s most fatal invention.

Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom. Relativism – the doctrine that maintains all values are merely relative and which attacks all “priveleged perspectives” – must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be fired selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the “absolutisms”, dogmas and certainties of the Western tradition, but that traditions emphasis on tolerance, diversity and freedom of thought as well.

Who wrote this? Francis Fukuyama, our Age’s prophet of the end of the history – and its unwitting nemesis.

(In his book, Fukuyama utilizes Hegel’s dialectics – that most Western of inventions – in an attempt to “prove” that liberal democracy is the final culmination of a linear history, not the withering away of the state and Communism as asserted by the Marxists. Yet this one paragraph, which I believe to be the most significant by far, contradicts his entire message; and from then on he becomes much less convincing).

The Western Russophobes characterize such attitudes as petulant, childish and nonconstructive (not to say Orwellian and totalitarian). And they are… because they are based on explicit denial of the West, and as such – they are caused by the West. Nazism, Stalinism, radical Islamism… these are hybrids of Western and traditional modes of thought, defined by a reaction to the West. For the defining essence of the West is that it is self-denying and self-refuting, unlike Russia (and traditional societies in general), which is self-affirming! This is the West’s greatest weakness… and its greatest triumph.

Two consequences follow. First, the Russophiles who are also firm believers in the West are viewed as misguided by the more extreme skeptical Russophiles (like Russian nationalists). However, they are useful tactical allies in the real struggle, which is between skeptical Russophilia and the Western Russophobe crusaders (the First Enemy).

Second, when Russia’s truest defenders (the skeptical Russophiles) use the weapons of the West against the West, this results in spiritual contamination which spreads throughout the entirety of Russian civilization, a contamination that skeptical Russophiles must constantly struggle against. For if they don’t, Russians end up deserting their unconditional faith in Russia and replace it with its simulacra – radical, self-refuting ideologies like extreme Slavophilia and Eurasianism, born of Western intellectual degeneracy and seduced by Western technics yet nostalgic for an imagined past of blood, soil and struggle to replace the gray disillusionment and sleazy decadence of the modern West.

These Russian nationalists don’t attack the West because they hate it, but because they love it too much. As such they are heretics and traitors to Russia, for in their absolute opposition to the West they ensure its spiritual triumph through suicide (paradoxical as the concept may sound to Westerners who have not delved too deeply into the spiritual foundations of their own belief system).

The Region of Disillusionment. These are the lonely souls cursed with an absolute love for truth. An excellent example would be Milan Kundera, who dislikes all kitsches, all totalitarianisms. From The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. And no one knows this better than politicians. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements. Whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch… In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.

Yet all societies need kitsch, a single dominant kitsch, in order to function; as such,these holy fools are spiritually rejected from all human societies. Yet this should not unduly bother them, for as Kundera insists: Einmal ist Keinmal – what is lived once might as well not have been lived at all, with all the moral and spiritual consequences that follow (”In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine”). Internalization of this concept is the road to spiritual freedom. This state of sublime oblivion is every believer’s unconscious dream of redemption.

The lack of belief that characterizes the Region of Disillusionment makes it profoundly unstable. The tortured souls caught up in there cannot resist the Romantic seduction of Russia’s Great March to the right, the iron rationalism of the West below or the radical nihilism (the belief in non-belief) of the top-left. They can either leave this hell (spiritual freedom) of their own volition, or be ripped apart by centrifugal forces and descend into madness, which is just another form of spiritual freedom and sublime oblivion.

There are no major Russia commentators in this quadrant. There are few absolute cynics, and even fewer people care to listen to their blasphemies.

EDIT: On reflection, I think the eXile fits the bill perfectly. They are irreverent court jesters talking truth to Russian, Western and any other power (see Ames’ review of Virtual Politics). Of course, almost no official figures ever cared to praise or even acknowledge them, even though some may have secretly admired them.

Extremists. Extremism of any kind is a profoundly unstable state. Not tied to any specific ideology, it is primarily a pattern of thought, moreover one now frequently reinforced by the phenomenon of Internet enclave extremism:

[O]n many issues, most of us are really not sure what we think. Our lack of certainty inclines us toward the middle. Outside of enclaves, moderation is the usual path. Now imagine that people find themselves in enclaves in which they exclusively hear from others who think as they do. As a result, their confidence typically grows, and they become more extreme in their beliefs. Corroboration, in short, reduces tentativeness, and an increase in confidence produces extremism. Enclave extremism is particularly likely to occur on the Internet because people can so easily find niches of like-minded types — and discover that their own tentative view is shared by others… There is a general risk that those who flock together, on the Internet or elsewhere, will end up both confident and wrong, simply because they have not been sufficiently exposed to counterarguments. They may even think of their fellow citizens as opponents or adversaries in some kind of “war.”

Anyone particular come to mind in the Russia debate? La Russophobe? Ed Lucas? The folks at InoForum? Russia’s liberasts? Myself? (I don’t think so, otherwise I wouldn’t have put myself up for consideration – but I’m interested in what my readers would say on this matter).

Ideological extremism is a fundamentally Western phenomenon, for it is something rationalized and artificial (whereas traditional societies are organic and conservative). I won’t dwell much on the intellectual foundations of various kinds of extremism (I’ve done that in great detail above), but I will mention one feature specific to all of them:they are unstable, with a tendency to flip to opposite extremes.

This is because of the artificial, one-sided manner in which extremists build up their beliefs. Though their belief systems are hard and uncompromising, they are also consequently brittle; given enough insults, they break down into a chaotic state (usually in the Region of Disillusionment). After a depressive, contemplative period, a new belief system takes form, which is frequently the polar opposite of their previous belief system. See for example David Horowitz, who metamorphosed from youthful limp-wristed liberal Marxism to bombastic ultra-conservatism. After several shocks, extremists tend to sink into the Region of Disillusionment, where some of them manage to find an indifferent happiness.

Hence the reason why it is actually Russians who have been exposed to the West make by far the best Russophobes (e.g. Kasparov, Latynina, Illarionov, etc), whereas virulent Russian nationalism typically arises after profound disillusionment with the West (e.g. Russia after the 1990’s smuta).

Russians. Russians have traditionally been accepting towards Russia in all its faults and glories. This is a default steady state that is only disrupted by severe socio-political breakdown. Their encounter with the West ushered in profound shocks, including the formation of the Russian intelligentsia – a civilizational defense mechanism to protect its spiritual sovereignty. They are in a profound predicament, however, since they are an inorganic cosmopolitan element, apart from the real Russia. Their assimilation of Western thought patterns in tandem with their retention of older Russian identities creates a profound internal conflict which further alienates them from the real Russia: either they desert to the West and become Western Russophobes, like the Bolsheviks and today’s liberasts; or they become spiritual cynics in the Region of Disillusionment, rejected by all except an inner God; or they flee into the comforting recesses of an imagined past, like the extreme Slavophiles or Eurasianists (their only disagreement with each other is on what the imagined past was like).

Most just about manage to remain in the spiritually unsettling void of skeptical Russophilia (this includes the Putin circle), fighting against both totalitarian temptations and Western Russophobe encroachments on two fronts. Since today more and more Russians are becoming Westernized in thought but simultaneously ever more disillusioned with the West, the consequences for the future may be dire.

Pray that Russia continues its insane struggle. For only suicide – universal suicide, can break the loop of the struggle. Much like Samson bringing down the Temple, a glorious nuclear conflagration will sweep the Faustian West with its machines and intellect and hypocrisy into the vortex of sublime oblivion, freeing it from the overlong, tyrannous daylight of the unnatural state and once again ushering in the primeval mysticism of the dark forests, where blood and instinct can once again reign dominant over the biosphere. As they should, according to the true dissident.

Foreigners. Amongst Western Europeans, Germans are probably the most disillusioned with the West, especially in its depopulating, depressed eastern regions. It is a spiritually bifurcated and psychologically tortured nation: though it played a major role in manufacturing the Faustian world of machines and the intellect, it is safe to say that a nation which produced the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler and Heidegger possesses a profoundly mystical soul. Given that the imposition of liberal democracy onto its soil was artificial rather than organic, and its deep spiritual affinity with the Russian soul in its worldview, the re-emergence of the Reich is likely. Many Muslims also view Russia positively (with the exception of Wahhabi extremists), unlike the West which they regard as arrogant (pretensions of universality), disruptive (of age-old traditions) and spiritually degenerate.

Peoples like the British, French, Poles and the Americans retain a large degree of belief in the West – the Poles and Americans to a greater extent, the British to a lesser (they are partly disillusioned, perhaps to a greater extent than the others, by the effects (ostensibly rational) neoliberal democracy has had on their nations – social breakdown, deindustrialization and paradoxically, a metastasized state with universal surveillance and databases, political spin, burgeoning bureaucracy and ever expanding welfare rolls to support the demoralized victims of market fundamentalism). Ultimately, throughout history the Idea of the West was sustained by economic growth; whenever it faltered, as in the 1930’s, the hyenas pounced and the temptations of simulated belief and of struggle reasserted themselves. Quoting Spengler in The Decline of the West:

…..The future of the West is not a limitless tending upwards and onwards for all time towards our presents ideals, but a single phenomenon of history, strictly limited and defined as to form and duration, which covers a few centuries and can be viewed and, in essentials, calculated from available precedents. With this enters the age of gigantic conflicts, in which we find ourselves today. It is the transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism, a general phase of evolution, which occupies at least two centuries and can be shown to exist in all Cultures…..

…..The last century [the 19th] was the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and scepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money. But in this century blood and instinct will regain their rights against the power of money and intellect. The era of individualism, liberalism and democracy, of humanitarianism and freedom, is nearing its end. The masses will accept with resignation the victory of the Caesars, the strong men, and will obey them…..

With the coming of energetic and environmental limits to growth, mass cynicism is inevitable. Cynics, including skeptical Russophiles, will have an easier time everywhere. Let us hope they do not dare storm the heights and attempt to reinvent the past, using all the powers of the modern Megalopolis (cybernetics, WMD’s, virtual politics, relativism, etc) at their disposal – to destroy the Megalopolis.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Ever since the publication of Filippov’s (in)famous textbook A History of Russia 1945-2006 in 2007, the state of Russian history teaching drew a fair degree of negative commentary in the West, some of it reasonably lucid, most of it superficial or hysterical. What the latter have in common is that they almost invariably haven’t read the actual, controversial chapter in question (Debates about Stalin’s Role in History), let alone the textbook itself, and as such can do little more than spout inane rhetoric about the imminent “rehabilitation” of Stalinism. As such I thought it fitting to do what the pundits should have done long ago, but couldn’t be bothered to – actually translate the chapter in question so that Anglophone readers could make up their own minds. Now that I’ve done so (scroll below), and bearing in mind the recent furor over Medvedev’s commission to battle the falsification of Russian history, I would like to make several comments of my own:

First, it is flat-out wrong to say that this textbook is the new standard of history teaching in Russia. It is just one of dozens of merely “approved” history textbooks (whereas the vast majority of Russian schools use a few “recommended” texts), has had only a very limited print run and was being trialled in only a few schools in four Russian regions as of the 2008-2009 academic year. Nor is it true that it received approval from the Presidential administration – in 2007 when it came out, Putin’s aide Dzhokhan Pollyeva criticized it for unprofessionalism (and I quite agree with her – the text is turgid and belabors its points using questionable examples). The most controversial authors, Filippov and Danilin (the latter of whom wrote the chapter on sovereign democracy), were not present at the meeting when Putin aired his views on how Russia was unfairly castigated for its history by professors and Westerners whose heads were filled with “porridge”.

Second, the book’s major sin is one of presentation – not omission. Dark chapters in Russia’s history like collectivization, the Gulag and political repressions are covered in both this chapter, and the preceding ones on Stalin’s postwar rule. As such, it is either dishonest or ignorant to focus on out-of-context sound bites like how Stalin was an “effective manager” or the “greatest Soviet leader”. The main issue the more serious critics have with it, is that instead of issuing blanket condemnations, it seeks to “rationalize” Stalin’s decisions within the as Filippov himself replies to this charge, “I was always annoyed by the belabored moralizing foisted on us in Soviet textbooks. I wanted to avoid this. And it seems I’ve over-succeeded in this, seeing as folks are now accusing me of amorality. I really wanted to avoid phrases like, “and this is the lesson we must take from this episode”, and it seems I may have tried too hard”. Though its inherent patriotic bias and you-can’t-be-neutral-on-a-moving-train-like approach is undeniable (in this respect, Filippov actually jumped Putin’s gun), it constantly urges its readers to make their own conclusions – an attitude far less Stalinist than that of some of his liberast and Western critics. Also, as Sean Guillory pointed out, many of its eyebrow-raising claims can act as good springboards for class discussion.

Third, contrary to Western claims, the fact of the matter is that history is politicized everywhere – and I’m not even talking of Japan’s reluctance to acknowledge its war crimes in the “East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”, or Turkey’s de facto criminalization of Armenian genocide affirmation. Closer to home, as argued in Patrick Armstrong’s essay Airbrushing History, the Visegrad nations, Ukraine and the Baltics are busy rewriting their histories to create national victimization myths based on Russian occupation – while airbrushing prominent local Communist collaborators and anti-Semitism out of their rosy, kitschy paintings of the past. An example is Latvia calculating a bill of Soviet-incurred losses to present to Russia, while eliding over the contribution of the Latvian Rifles and non-Russian internationalists to the establishment of Communism in Russia; or Ukraine’s criminalization of denying the genocidal nature of the Holodomor, a risible view in light of the fact half its casualties were in non-Ukrainian black earth regions. Even in Western nations there is a strong prevailing belief in the absolute validity of their historical missions that frequently diminishes their less positive manifestations (though it is true that they are modulated by anti-colonialist, Marxist and postmodern views on the part of some of their intelligentsia, they do not present an existential spiritual threat as in Russia).

Since every country needs a national belief to flourish, this (limited) “patriotic reaction” in Russia to fifteen years of liberal indoctrination on the part of Western-funded ideologues, that seeks to deny it an honorable history, foist feelings of guilt on its people and invalidate its geopolitical interests, is completely understandable and to be expected. Despite being a murderous maniac, Stalin did industrialize the country and played an important role in securing Victory in the Great Patriotic War (and thereby saved Europe’s Slavs from extermination and slavery). Contrary to anti-Stalin ideologues, even on purely objective grounds choosing which of these to emphasize is an immensely difficult undertaking in moral terms. Yes, it would be nice if history were to be left to the historians everywhere, but it’s not. The Western-liberals have staked out their position – unambiguous condemnation of Stalinism, while relaying its achievements to the margins, and arrogantly insisting that Russians toe their line, while consigning to oblivion the (more positive) memories and attitudes of their grandparents to Soviet power. In a sense, Russia’s choice was thus forced – narrowed down to participation in the info-war, or spiritual suicide. For better or worse, it has embarked on the former with the mass support of its population.

TRANSLATION: Alexander Filippov on ‘Debates about Stalin’s Role’ in A New History of Russia 1945-2006

(; accessed May 25, 2009)

Information for reflection: Debates about Stalin’s Role in history

Iosif Vissarianovich Stalin (Jughashvili) remains one of the most polarizing figures in the politics and history of our country; it is difficult to find another personality in Russian history who is subjected to so many contradictory interpretations, both during his rule and after. For some, he is the hero and orchestrator of Victory in the Great Patriotic War; to others, he is the embodiment of evil itself.

One of the most famous views on the historical significance of Stalin was held by Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War Two, a man hardly known for his pro-Stalin sentiments: “Stalin came to Russia with a wooden plough and left in it possession of nuclear weapons”. The other point of view is represented by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, the son of a major participant in the 1917 Revolution and Civil War who was repressed under Stalin: “bloody tyrant”.

During Stalin’s life the first view predominated; after his death the second became conventional wisdom, primarily because of revelations about Stalin’s organizational role in the political repressions of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Evaluating Stalin’s historical significance requires looking at him in a wider historical context, beyond just the chronological framework of the Soviet period. This approach reveals many similarities between Stalin’s policies and those of preceding Russian sovereigns.

Analysis of the historical evolution of the Russian state over the past 500 years through three different forms of statehood – Muscovite Tsarism (15th-17th centuries), the Russian Empire (18th century to the start of the 20th century) and the Soviet Union – reveals a certain continuity in political characteristics, albeit with significant changes in external form. The similarities between these states could be explained by the historical constancy of the political-organizational principles on which they were built.

The guiding light of these principles was concentration of authority in one center and strict centralization of the administrative system. The power of Russia’s paramount leader was traditionally absolutist, drawing in all resources and subordinating all political forces to itself.

Adverse conditions for the development of the Russian state required the concentration of resources, including executive, in one center and their centralized distribution in key sectors. As such, people capable of forcing through such centralizations repeatedly came to power. However, it’s necessary to note that these centralizations were inevitably accompanied by distortions, the most important of which was the transformation of the real need for strong authority into a habit for its own sake, and to such an extent as to be beyond all necessity. This interpretation holds equally for the reigns of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Iosif Stalin. Even during the 19th century, the famous Russian thinker Konstantin Kavelin remarked, “Peter’s Tsarism was the continuation of Ivan’s Tsarism”. Stalin saw himself as the heir to his Tsarist forebears on the Russian throne; he knew Russian history well and respected the aforementioned men, regarding them as his teachers and consciously using their ‘historical recipes’.

It is thus erroneous to restrict our search for the causes of power centralization to the characters of Russia’s rulers (though this does not mean we should ignore the influence of their personalities on the formation and function of their states) and to explain the stability of Russian political traditions exclusively in terms of the personal and psychological idiosyncrasies of the Russian princes, Emperors and Secretary-Generals. Or as the famous philosopher Blaise Pascal put it, “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed”.

One interesting perspective on Stalin’s policies comes from the famous Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, a convinced opponent of the USSR’s historical continuity from imperial Russia: “The Soviet Union is not Russia…not one achievement of the Soviet state…qualifies as an achievement of the Russian people,” Ilyin wrote. A hard-line opponent of Communism, Ilyin supported the rebirth of the Russian Empire, which he believed possible on the fulfillment of three conditions: Orthodoxy, monarchy and a unitary state guaranteeing the unconditional equality of all peoples within the Empire. Paradoxically this is exactly what Stalin created. He resurrected the monarchy under the guise of his cult of personality. He strengthened belief – not in God, but in a new, red faith: Communism in the early Soviet period became a new religion with its own symbols and martyrs. And it was he, Stalin, who in opposition to the Leninist concept of the right of nations to self-determination instead created a state close to the unitary ideal.

A significant factor behind the strictly centralized nature of the econo-political administrative system during the Soviet period was the already obvious inevitability of a big war with Germany in the 1930’s, the war itself, and the accelerated pace of postwar reconstruction. It is this that defined the forced rates of antebellum industrialization and economic resurgence in the postwar period. No wonder foreign observers labeled the 1930’s as a ‘race against time’. The concept of accelerated modernization amidst a deficit of historical time was voiced by Stalin in February 1931: “We are 50 to 100 years behind the advanced countries. Either we make good the difference in ten years or they crush us”. Events in summer 1941 would confirm his prescience.

The ‘race against time’ in connection with the threat of war not only meant a time deficit as regards carrying through industrialization, but also exacerbated the problem of inadequate existing means of modernization – for that required an exceptionally high share of the national economy be devoted to both capital investment and military spending. Regardless, according to the then People’s Commissar of Finance, Arseny Zverev, even during the Great Patriotic War the USSR continued accumulating gold reserves, refusing to sell a single gram. All this implies that just as with Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century, the state forced development, through the total mobilization of everything at its disposal, while simultaneously shouldering huge military expenditures and refraining from foreign loans.

Not only was the savings rate extremely high, but so was the pressure on labor and the exploitation of human resources, which were impelled to remain in a state of permanent mobilization.

How things were…

Every director of an enterprise had a package with five wax seals. That in turn was enclosed in another sealed package. This was the so-called ‘mobilization package’. The director was only allowed to open it up during a state of emergency. And inside, there were instructions for what to do in the case of war… These packages detailed where to make your new base: some were to be sent off to the Volga, some to the Urals, some beyond the Urals, as well as who would be producing what during the war,” – remembers A.F. Sergeev, the son of the famous Bolshevik, F. A. Sergeev (Artem). His mother, E. L. Seergeva, a director of a textile factory, had such a packet from as early as 1937.

There is political and historical evidence that when faced with serious threats even ‘soft’ and ‘flexible’ political systems will, as a rule, evolve towards a harsher form of political organization, including towards the restriction of the rights of citizens vis-à-vis the state, just as happened, for instance, in the US after the events of September 11th, 2001.

Therefore, this analysis of external and internal factors allows us to ascertain that the Soviet period saw a recurrence of an older state of affairs that cropped up frequently in Russian history – the necessity of survival and development while in the situation of a ‘besieged fortress’ (threat of foreign invasion coupled with temporal and means-of-development deficits). In these conditions the formation of a harsh, militarized political system emerged as a solution to extreme problems and extreme circumstances, and this system itself was but a modification of those which existed under Muscovite Tsarism and the Russian Empire.

This allowed the renowned Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev to tie up the sources and spirit of Russian Communism with the Russian national idea. In his 1937 book The Origin of Russian Communism, Berdyaev wrote that instead of “the Third Rome, Russia managed to bring about the Third International, on which were imprinted many of the features of the Third Rome… The Third International is not an International, but the Russian national idea”. Therefore the Soviet state represents a transformation of the “ideas of Ivan the Terrible, a new form of the old hypertrophied state of Russian history…Russian Communism is more traditional than people usually think, and is nothing more than a transformation and distortion of the old Russian messianic idea”.

This view was shared by many thinkers in the Russian diaspora. The philosopher Georgy Fedotov, characterizing the rise of the Soviet system, wrote about the similarity of the Soviet and Petrine states, “…the new Russian regime in many ways takes us back” to the 18th century, and viewed the transfer of the capital from Petrograd to Moscow and the government’s relocation to Moscow as a “symbolic act”.

At this point it would be fitting to quote the poets:

What really changed? Just signs and symbols,

Same storms sweep all our myriad paths:

The commissars succumb to fell autocracy,

And fires of revolution consume the Tsarist heart.

– Maximilian Voloshin

Lenin has the spirit of an Old Believer,

Proclaims decrees with abbatial gravitas,

As if the causes of our ruin and collapse

He seeks within the “Pomorian Answers”.

- Nikolai Kluyev

Of course Stalin’s personal qualities informed the intense drama and stresses of the Soviet period. Contemporary accounts and later psychological investigations show that the defining feature of Stalin’s personality was his black and white worldview (which explains his perception of the people around him as either friends and enemies), a perception that he was in a permanently hostile environment, cruelty, and a drive to dominate.

However, the influence of Stalin’s psychological idiosyncrasies was most likely of secondary importance relative to the role of objective factors. Carrying through a program of accelerated modernization required a certain system of power and the creation of an administrative apparatus up to the task. In many ways these reasons explain the scale and spirit of Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’. In their recognition of the Stalinist revolution, authors as different as Leon Trotsky and Georgy Fedotov, or the American political scientists Stephen Cohen and Robert Tucker, were at one despite approaching this subject from highly divergent positions. They noted that though the first decade of Stalinist transformations had historical precedents and roots in Leninist Bolshevism, it was “not its continuation to a predetermined outcome, but a revolution with its own specific features and dynamic”.

In many ways this revolution substantially repeated the political experience of the Petrine reforms. One of the main goals of Peter the Great, together with the development of domestic industry, the Army and Navy, and the attainment of recognized imperial status, was to draw members from all social groups into state service, including the hereditary nobility (i.e. securing ouniversal social obligations before the state), and the maintenance of meritocratic criteria in the formation of the new administrative system.

The realization of universal social obligations before the state in the Soviet period is evidenced, for example, by the fact that not only the offspring of simple families directly participated in military operations during the Great Patriotic War, but also those whom we today would call the ‘golden youth’. Many of them who went off to the front never came back. Stalin’s eldest son Jacob Jughashvili, Mikhail Frunze’s son Timur, one of Anastas Mikoyan’s sons Vladimir, Kliment Voroshilov’s nephew Nikolai Scherbakov died on the battlefields of the Great Patriotic War, just like many other sons of high-placed functionaries. “Many families then living on Rublyovka had funerals,” A. F. Sergeev writes.

As for the measures of control undertaken in relation to the ruling nomenclature, their aim was to mobilize the administrative apparatus so as to guarantee its effectiveness both during the industrialization process and during postwar economic reconstruction. This problem was partially resolved through political repressions, which not only used normal citizens for mobilization, but also the bureaucratic elites.

A good example of elite mobilization can be found in the memoirs of Nikolai Baibakov, Forty Years in Government. In 1942, during his spell as Deputy People’s Commissar of the Oil Industry, he received orders from Stalin instructing him to leave for the North Caucasus, to be ready to blow up Soviet oil installations if the Soviet armies failed to stand fast. Stalin’s framing of the problem is remarkable – he said, “We have to do everything to make sure Germans don’t get a drop of our oil…So I warn you, if you leave the Germans even a single ton of oil, we will shoot you. But if you destroy the oil installations, but the Germans don’t come and we end up without fuel, we will also shoot you…”

The drive to squeeze out maximum effectiveness from the administrative apparatus is further evidenced by the fact that the upper and middle levels of the bureaucracy were one of the groups subjected to repressions.

Practically all members and candidates for membership of the Politburo, selected after the XVII Party Congress, suffered to some extent in the ‘Great Purge’ of the late 1930’s. That the strike was carried out against the nucleus of the Bolshevik Party – the old Leninist vanguard, is confirmed by a multitude of historical sources: “The first to be destroyed were the old Bolsheviks of Lenin’s generation,” Khrushchev recalled. According to the writer Yevgenia Ginzburg, who spent many years in prison, membership of the Communist Party was a “burdening condition”, a point of view that by 1937 had “already firmly seeped into everyone’s consciousness”. Ginzburg’s prison neighbor, the young post-graduate student Ira, firmly insisted on her lack of affiliations, which she thought gave her a colossal advantage relative to Party members.

The political repressions of the postwar era had a similar character. Those swept up in the ‘Leningrad Affair’ at the end of the 1940’s included Second Secretary of the All-Union Communist (Bolshevik) Party and Chairman of Gosplan Aleksei Kuznetsov, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Nikolai Voznesensky, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the RSFSR Mikhail Rodionov; ministers, secretaries of big Party organizations, other influential managers. There were almost 2,000 victims of the ‘Leningrad Affair’, many of whom were shot. Domestic and international research confirms that the foremost victim of the 1930-1950’s repressions was indeed the ruling class.

How things were…

The historian Roy Medvedev wrote on the following point: “It’s no secret that in the 1940’s many feared promotion to high government posts. Itjustseemeddangerous. Of course…nobody was safe from the Terror during the Stalin years, and it was particularly the upper echelons of the Party apparatus who were subjected to the harshest purges…It was obvious even to the majority of non-Party folks, who in those years slept much better at night than the Communists, that the ‘Great Terror’ was for the most part directed against the Party itself”.

We should also note it was Khruschev’s report to the XX Party Congress which laid the foundations for the interpretation of the Great Terror as an exclusively Stalin-inspired phenomenon, due to his cruelty, arbitrariness, intolerance of other opinions, and so on. Meanwhile, the famous poet David Samoylov wrote: “One would have to be a complete indeterminist to believe that the strengthening of Stalin’s power was the sole historical purpose of 1937, that with the sole force of his ambition, vanity, harshness, he could turn history where he wanted, to individually will through the monstrous happenings of that year”.

Contemporary researchers tend to see rational causes behind the use of violence to ensure the effectiveness of the ruling class, as a means of social mobilization for the fulfillment of impossible tasks. Stalin followed the logic of Peter I: demand the impossible from your subordinates, to get the maximum possible. It was no accident that physical health and the ability to handle high workloads was one of the key things required of People’s Commissars. According to Nikolai Baibakov, prior to his appointment as head of the oil industry, Stalin told him of his requirements of People’s Commissars, the most important of which were – a “bull’s nerves”, optimism and physical health.

The result of Stalin’s purges was the formation of a new administrative class, adequate to the tasks of modernization in conditions of resource deficits – unconditionally loyal to Soviet power and irreproachable in their executive discipline. This was achieved through a tariff-qualification system (a descendant of the Petrine Table of Ranks), which offered significantly differentiated labor compensation levels corresponding to differences in qualifications.

Georgy Fedotov wrote about the importance Stalin staked on quality: “Stalin’s real support came from that class, which calls itself ‘distinguished persons’. They are those who made their careers by their own talent, energy or lack of scruples, rising to the crest of the revolutionary wave. Party membership and past achievements now mean little; personal usefulness coupled with political reliability is all important. This new ruling class is populated with the crème de la crème of the Party, weeded out for their unscrupulousness, commanders of the Red Army, the best engineers, scientists and artists of the country. The Stakhanovite movement aims to draw into this new aristocracy the upper layers of the worker and peasant masses, to declass them, to seduce their most energetic and vigorous with high salaries and place them on a pedestal inaccessible to their former comrades. Stalin tentatively, instinctively repeats Stolypin’s bet on the strong. But since it is no longer private, but state business that is the new arena of competition, Stalin creates a new service class, a class subsumed to the people, thus reliving even the more remote experience of the Muscovite state. Life experience showed him the weak side of serf socialism – the lack of personal, egoistic incentives to work. Stalin searches for socialist stimuli for competition, corresponding to bourgeois profits. He finds them in a monstrously differentiated compensation scale, in material inequality, in personal ambition, in orders and distinctions of merit – ultimately, in the elements of a new class system. The word ‘distinguished persons’ is already a whole class program by itself”.

We can find an example of this set-up for support of the ‘strong’ in the memoirs of Andrei Gromyko, who managed Soviet foreign policy over the course of several postwar decades. Gromyko remembered how he, a commoner from a Gomel village and a graduate of a Minsk agricultural institute and post-graduate study in Moscow, came to work in the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

How things were…

I never got an ‘understanding’ hand from anyone in the capital; I achieved everything on my own. They harp on about how I was Molotov’s protégé. Sure, I was, since he nominated me for diplomatic work. Itwouldbestupidtodenythat. But it’s important to understand why it was me, along with a few other people, whom the commission picked. Remembering that interview, I am of the firm opinion that it was not my social origin that played the decisive role, but my answer to the question: “What were the last books you read in the English language?” After I casually replied, “Rich Man, Poor Man”, I felt, that they would take me in.

Thus in this fashion, similar to how Chancellor Bismarck through ‘blood and iron’ consolidated the German lands into a united state in the 19th century, Stalin harshly and mercilessly reinforced the Soviet state. He viewed the strengthening of the state, which encompassed the strengthening of its military-industrial potential, as one of the principles of his politics. This attitude is indirectly evidenced in the memoirs of his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, who wrote about how her father, looking over her dress and frowning, always asked her the question: “Is it foreign what you have on?” – and lightened up, when she answered, “No, it’s ours, domestic make”.

One of the most prominent manifestations of the highly-centralized nature of Stalin’s power became his cult of personality. The German writer Lion Feuchtwanger, visiting Moscow in 1937, was struck by the ubiquity of Stalin’s portraits. That said, according to both L. Feuchtwanger, and S. Alliluyeva, these displays of reverence irritated Stalin.

How things were…

Father couldn’t bear the view of the crowds, applauding him and shouting, Urrah!” – his face warped from annoyance… “They just open their traps and holler, like idiots!” he said angrily… When I have to…read and hear, that during his life my father considered himself as something like God, – I find it weird, that people who knew him well could insist on this,” wrote Svetlana Alliluyeva.

And indeed, at the start it is likely Stalin’s relation to his cult was shaped by utilitarian concerns, in that he viewed this mass support as a useful asset in the political struggle. “Bear in mind…that the Russian people spent centuries under a Tsar. The Russian people – they’re Tsarist. The Russians, Russian folks, they’ve gotten used to there being one person in charge,” he said. However, as is well known, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There are many examples in Russian history of how degraded a personality could become given a long enough spell at the reins of power. This is partially evidenced by the biographies of rulers even as distinguished as Peter I or Catherine II. Though initially irritated by his cult, in time Stalin became accustomed to it. The Leader’s closest comrade-in-arms, Vyacheslav Molotov, admitted that although at first Stalin battled his own cult, he eventually came to like it: “He was very reserved in the first years, and then…it all got to him”.

We can judge how Stalin remained in people’s memories by consulting a Public Opinion Foundation poll from February 2006: Everything considered, do you think Stalin played a positive or negative role in Russia’s history?

In conclusion, it’s obvious why views on Stalin’s historical role are so contradictory. On the one side, he is regarded as the most successful Soviet leader. It was during his rule that the country expanded its territory, reaching the borders of the former Russian Empire (and sometimes exceeding them), achieved Victory in the greatest of wars – the Great Patriotic War, accomplished industrialization of the economy and brought forth a cultural revolution, as a result of which the percentage of people with higher education soared and the country acquired the world’s best education system. The USSR entered the league of advanced states in the sphere of scientific progress and eliminated almost all unemployment.

But Stalin’s rule had another side. His successes – and they are acknowledged by many of the Leader’s opponents – were achieved through the ruthless exploitation of the population. During Stalin’s rule the country went through several waves of large-scale repressions. The initiator and theorist behind this ‘heightened class struggle’ was Stalin himself. Entire social classes like the landed peasantry, the urban petit-bourgeoisie, the priesthood and the old intelligentsia were liquidated. Furthermore, on occasion many people completely loyal to power suffered from the harsh laws. It is not even worth going into the safety of life during the Stalin years. Quality of life remained low, especially in the villages. All this did not promote the strengthening of the country’s moral climate.

This is the most controversial chapter of the most controversial history textbook in Russia, which critics have accused of trying to rehabilitate Stalinism and justify Russia’s (alleged) drift into authoritarianism. Read and decide for yourself. It should be noted that, to date, it is just one of dozens of “approved” history textbooks (whereas the vast majority of Russian schools use a few “recommended” texts) and has had only a very limited print run.

His other big idea is the concept of “conscience of law” (правосознание), which is a key theme of Medvedev’s thinking.

“новую, красную веру” – lit, “new, red faith”. In Russia, “red” also has connotations of beauty (красота)

керженский дух” – lit, “spirit of a Kerzhak”; refers to a tributory of the Volga traditionally settled by Old Believers, dissenters from mainstream Orthodoxy.

Поморские ответы” – lit., “Pomorian Answers”, a key Old Believer religious text from 1723.

“золотой молодежью” – lit., “golden youth”, referring to the gilded youth / frequently pampered children of the elite.

“знатными людьми”

“мохнатой руки” – lit., “furry arm”, signifying a friendly, helping hand offering to pull you up to higher places.

An oft-quoted phrase typically taken out of context to condemn this textbook.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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In April 2007 Peter Zeihan of Stratfor wrote a thought-provoking article The Coming Era of Russia’s Dark Rider, which tries to pin down the metahistory of Russia’s socio-political evolution and perhaps even inspired a book. The basic idea is that following its cyclical collapses (the Mongol conquest, The Time of Troubles, the Civil War and the post-Soviet transition), there eventually emerges a messianic “white rider” who heavy-handedly restores order and national morale (the early 16th C princes of Muscovy, Peter the Great, Lenin). Putin is the current white rider, intimately cognizant of Russia’s weakness from his intelligence background and determined to once again play state-driven catch-up to the West.

Disappointed by slow and stunted progress, the white rider “realizes that the challenges ahead are more formidable than he first believed and that his (relative) idealism is more a hindrance than an asset”. In steps the “dark rider”, who unburdens himself of the white rider’s moral restraints in an all-out drive to fulfill the state’s goals through strict internal controls, subjugation of the economy and military expansionism. The most famous examples are Stalin and Ivan Grozny in their later years. Yet the dark rider sows the seeds of destruction by overextending his realm, ushering in a period of stagnation and increasing socio-economic strains. Half-hearted attempts at reform fail and the country slides from decline into a new collapse, thus closing the cycle.

Mostly agreed so far, even despite the latent simplifications and semi-mystical approach to history, but we diverge on the interpretation of the current situation. Zeihan now writes “Putin’s efforts to stabilize Russia have succeeded, but his dreams of Westernizing Russia are dead. The darkness is about to set in”. The main evidence? The crackdowns on liberast protesters in Moscow and St.-Petersburg, in the same month that the article was written. But as I’ve pointed out many, many, many times, these folks are by and large jokers who enjoy no support from mainstream Russian opinion – points that Zeihan actually concedes. Yet though undoubtedly heavy-handed, there is absolutely no evidence for interpreting this as an omen of impending despotism.

Instead, I think the Putin circle of siloviks (Sechin, Ivanov et al) and patriot-liberals (Medvedev, Surkov, etc), constituting an organic whole whom I’ll henceforth refer to as Putvedev – was, is and will remain a white rider for at least the next decade. In support of this view I’ll draw in the ever incisive Nicolai Petro, or rather his most recent article The Great Transformation: How the Putin Plan Altered Russian Society.

The Putin Plan - Russia's victory; an ever better life; the success of every Russian citizen.

The Putin Plan – Russia’s victory; an ever better life; the success of every Russian citizen.

As a presidential candidate, Medvedev said that as early as 2000, the government had begun to “think seriously about how we might work for decades ahead thinking also about morality and values”. This would later metamorphose into the Putin Plan – a strategy for building an advanced industrial economy by 2020. Though pessimistic commentators dismissed it as a Kremlin dream reminiscent of the vision of building Communism by 1980, the objective evidence – Russia’s high human capital, energy wealth and already existing basic infrastructure – suggests that this is entirely feasible.

According to Petro’s reading of the situation, there are two pillars of the Putin Plan – (1) stable economic growth; and (2) a stable legal environment. Each one is in turn divided into two phases, the first of which is “consolidation” and the second “reconstruction”. The first phase, which I would consign to 1998-2008, is largely completed; the second began around 2006 (coinciding with a sustained rise in national morale and demographic indicators) and should last well into the 2010′s, despite the economic crisis.

In the late 1990′s, Russia may have been at real risk of collapse. According to Vladimir Popov, the state needs to have a monopoly on three things – legitimate violence, tax collection and monetary emissions. All of these were seriously undermined in the transition period. Murder rates soared, Chechnya was afflicted by violent separatism and mafias controlled several cities. Until the financial collapse of 1998 the country ran perpetual budget deficits, with state spending shrinking slower than plummeting revenues. State servants turned into stationary bandits. The 1990′s were marred by hyperinflation, barter and chronic payment arrears. To restore law and order, Putin re-centralized power in time-honored white rider fashion, and by 2007 Popov was writing, “the first signs have appeared of a real, rather than an ephemeral, stabilization”. This conferred legitimacy on the Putin system, explaining its consistently sky-high popularity ratings – returning to Petro, “in a survey taken at the end of 2008, 80% cited the Putin era as the best Russia has had in a century”.

These kinds of headlines were typical in the 1998 to mid-2000's period.

These kinds of headlines were typical in the 1998 to mid-2000′s period.

Aware that the old system was bankrupt, the Putin government introduced tax reductions (including a flat tax on personal incomes of 13%), insisted on budget surpluses, repaid foreign debts and declared a tax amnesty in 2006 so as to encourage the shadow economy to come into the light. Industry went from being fully state-owned in the early 1990′s to 90% private by 2002.

(The period since 2003 saw a partial reversal, with the state clawing back a portion of the oil sector and consolidating several heavy industrial conglomerates under its wings. That said, both steps are rational. It is a wise idea to extend control over diminishing energy resources in the coming post-peak oil world, especially when its prior owners like Khodorkovsky defied national security plans and sought to undermine the state with foreign backing. And many of the formerly private industrial enterprises were inefficiently run by managers more interested in asset stripping than international competitiveness. There are long-term plans to re-privatize these enterprises in the mid to late 2010′s once the Russian economy matures.)

Petro points out that the extent of re-nationalization should not be exaggerated. State support for industry is statistically no higher in Russia than in the US. The coal industry, electricity sector and numerous mid-sized airlines, banks and car plants were privatized in the last decade. As I wrote a year ago on Russian corporatism, the private sector of GDP only declined from 70% to 65% since 2007 – the main structural change was that a big chunk of strategic industries particularly in energy, minerals, defense and aerospace) came under the control of Kremlin-connected oligarchs in place of old “offshore aristocrats”.

Whether these new captains of industry are conscientious patriots or state bandits is a matter of heated debate, running as it does through the heart of the Putin system. My view is that they’re somewhere in between, and certainly better than the old red directors, not to even mention the straight-out thieves like Berezovsky – and ultimately probably little different in terms of corruption or venality than Westerners, who just conceal or legitimize themselves better. Speaking of whom…

The spirit of corruption fuels all societies - it's just that not everyone can call a spade a spade.

The spirit of corruption fuels all societies – it’s just that not everyone can call a spade a spade.

The ongoing Great Recession is throwing doubt on the real degree of transparency and accountability at the heights of the US economy. Some revealing quotations from The Quiet Coup in The Atlantic by Simon Johnson, former IMF director:

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them… [AK: entrenched elites, institutional myopia, shadowy state capture - where have we seen that before? More support for my USA 2009 = USSR 1989 thesis and Fedia Kriukov's idea of Western convergence with Brezhnev era USSR. I should also point out that Johnson is hardly alone in raising this point about systematic corruption - William Buiter has written prolifically on this]

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. [AK: Sounds like Ukraine, 1990's Russia, etc] Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. [AK: Again, much like Soviet socialism. All nations run on hard (but fragile) belief systems. Incidentally, I agree with those analysts who believe Putvedev is resurrecting the belief in Russian exceptionalism - most of them think it's a bad sign, I believe it's natural and inevitable. Yet another example of Russian-Western convergence] Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world…

…everyone has elites; the important thing is to change them from time to time. If the U.S. were just another country, coming to the IMF with hat in hand, I might be fairly optimistic about its future. Most of the emerging-market crises that I’ve mentioned ended relatively quickly, and gave way, for the most part, to relatively strong recoveries. But this, alas, brings us to the limit of the analogy between the U.S. and emerging markets.

Emerging-market countries have only a precarious hold on wealth, and are weaklings globally. When they get into trouble, they quite literally run out of money—or at least out of foreign currency, without which they cannot survive. They must make difficult decisions; ultimately, aggressive action is baked into the cake. But the U.S., of course, is the world’s most powerful nation, rich beyond measure, and blessed with the exorbitant privilege of paying its foreign debts in its own currency, which it can print. As a result, it could very well stumble along for years—as Japan did during its lost decade—never summoning the courage to do what it needs to do, and never really recovering. A clean break with the past—involving the takeover and cleanup of major banks—hardly looks like a sure thing right now. Certainly no one at the IMF can force it. [AK: Well, what can one say? Let's hope The Atlantic is as prescient on US prospects as it was in 2001 when it headlined the article Russia is Finished].

Back to Petro. He believes the crisis will not be protracted in Russia – as pointed out here (and by Eric Kraus), state and household debt is minuscule; the peak of the repayments crisis has passed and a positive current account means there’s little chance of a balance of payments crisis. The main task now is to develop sources of financing independent of the sinking Western financial system, which would require cleaning up and consolidating the currently fragmented Russian banking system.

In the legal sphere, in his firm term Putin introduced habeus corpus, trial by jury, reformed juvenile justice and legal aid for the indigent. The second term saw landmark court decisions strike down compensation limits in the case of government disasters, expanded the rights of defendants to gather evidence, alibis and witnesses and ordered the state to pay compensation for those wrongfully detained. A network of free legal aid centers is being created. Citizens win 80% of suits against the government and the numbers of people going to the courts for redress of grievances increased sixfold in the past decade. The new code of criminal procedure raised acquittal rates from just 0.2% to 10% under Putin. Another whimsical observation of mine is that the drug laws were liberalized, with up to 6g of personal marijuana possession now legal. These are all hardly the actions of a state pining for theocratic totalitarianism.

Now we are moving into Phase 2, what Petro calls “reconstruction” or the “Medvedev Liberalization”. This emphasizes personal opportunity and responsibility, with the sole aim of government being to help Russian companies become globally competitive and to alleviate poverty – according to Medvedev, “if government participation is not essential, then the government involved” (see Conservative Russia by the Parallax Brief). There is a renewed anti-corruption drive and measures to ease the regulatory environment for small businesses.

Ushering in the new era of legality, markets and social activism is the so-called Putin generation, which has vastly differing values from those of older generations – initiative, boldness, hierarchy, individualism and Westernized patriotism (consult Economic Modernization and System of Values by Evgeny Yasin for an interesting study that shows that the values of the new Russia differ much more from traditionalist / Tsarist and Soviet values, which are surprisingly similar).

The Putin Generation.

The Putin Generation.

In 2008, Petro wrote an excellent article The Putin Generation: How Will Its Rise Affect US-Russian Relations?

…what young people admire most about the past is not the regime or its ideology – words like “socialism,” communism,” and even “USSR” are perceived positively by less than five percent of young people, and only six percent say they would have liked to have lived in Soviet times… [but] the sense of common purpose their grandparents shared and how it united the country and made people feel proud. Young Russians growing up during the 1990s saw this inheritance trashed in the mass media and along with it any sense of pride in the country’s history. Not surprisingly, as these young people matured, it has spawned a counter-reaction.

…During his travels across the country lecturing to young audiences, Tsipko said he was struck by their yearning for a contemporary patriotic agenda. His own generation, the generation of the Sixties, discovered patriotism “through books, through the beautiful minds and words of pre-revolutionary Russian thinkers.” By contrast, the current generation has 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. “Just as Christian asceticism was a moral protest against the debauchery and dissipation of decrepit Rome,” he writes, “our youth conservatism and youth patriotism is a protest against the defeatism of the liberal elite. We now see the emergence of a Russian conservative elite that we didn’t have in late 1980s and early 1990s, when the fate of the country was hanging in the balance…

The Putin Generation is the first politically active post-Soviet generation. According to Alexander Oslon, general director of the Public Opinion Foundation, they are “entirely different” from previous generations. A 2006 survey conducted by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) focused on some of the personality traits that set the Putin Generation apart. They tend to be bolder than their parents, viewing aggressiveness as a manifestation of self-confidence and initiative. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who are appalled by the emergence of the “super rich,” they are proud that Russia has the world’s second largest number of billionaires and either hope to make the list of Russia’s richest individuals themselves or see their children on it.

Having only the vaguest memories of the end of the Soviet era, they have little or no nostalgia for it and are quite comfortable in this new era of capitalism, electoral and media pluralism, and travel abroad. They shift primary responsibility for economic welfare from the state to the individual. In morality and religion, they “demonstrate almost Protestant attitudes,” emphasizing personal salvation and communication with God much more than participation in church life and the observance of religious customs. A 2007 study of 17-26 year olds, conducted by the Russian Academy of Sciences, concludes by describing them as “relaxed about planning for the future. They not only talk of wanting to achieve success in various forms – they actually believe they can do it.”

The emergence of this new personality type was foreshadowed by a little noted 2005 survey of college educated young persons, aged 18-31…It compared young people in Russia to their counterparts in seven West European countries and came to some startling conclusions. Young Russians turned out to be much more optimistic about their future than their European counterparts (79 percent to 46 percent), and more motivated to achieve their ambitions. While their European counterparts wanted to earn just enough money to retire as early as possible, young Russians were described as “active and optimistic. They are insatiable and they like the word ‘more’: more work, more money, more sex.” Notably, personal ambition was matched by a greater sense of patriotism, as well – 64 percent of young Russians said they would be willing to protect their Motherland, nearly twice as many as in Western Europe.

The next phase of the Putin Plan is to to create an “an effective civil society composed of mature individuals ready for democracy”, according to Medvedev – as noted by Popov, introducing full democracy before law and order have been established is not going to produce positive results, as testified to by post-Orange Revolution Ukraine.

He ends by cautioning the West against self-righteously pressing its own (ever more bankrupt, in substance as in spirit) belief systems on Russia to avoid alienating it – particularly in light of its own numerous hypocrisies, from economic neo-imperialism (see Those Russian Bastards by Jon Weiler) to their own human rights violations.

Russia is developing an increasingly mercantile, heavily state-influenced industrial policy geared towards achieving import substitution and an innovation economy. It is frequently condemned as antithetical to Pareto optimality and hence detrimental to the welfare of ordinary Russian citizens, even hinting it is all a huge scam to enrich corrupt Kremlin insiders. Though this viewpoint no doubt contains a kernel of truth, it misses out two big things:

1. Historically, all of the major industrial powers today rose to prominence through selective protectionism – especially those paragons of neoliberal capitalism, the US and the UK. From Kicking Away the Ladder by economist Ha-Joon Chang:

Contrary to the popular myth, Britain had been an aggressive user, and in certain areas a pioneer, of activist policies intended to promote its industries. Such policies, although limited in scope, date back from the 14th century (Edward III) and the 15th century (Henry VII) in relation to woollen manufacturing, the leading industry of the time. England then was an exporter of raw wool to the Low Countries, and Henry VII for example tried to change this by taxing raw wool exports and poaching skilled workers from the Low Countries. [AK: There is an analogous situation with Russian raw timber exports, hence plans for an 80% export duty on them from 2009 so as to shift production to higher-added value paper, pulp and other mananufactured goods. See the article The Medvedev Economy by Josh Wilson for Russian state plans for the development of the agricultural and forestry sector, which are potentially very profitable but currently too risky for individual private entrepreneurs to undertake]

Particularly between the trade policy reform of its first Prime Minister Robert Walpole in 1721 and its adoption of free trade around 1860, Britain used very dirigiste trade and industrial policies, involving measures very similar to what countries like Japan and Korea later used in order to develop their industries. During this period, it protected its industries a lot more heavily than did France, the supposed dirigiste counterpoint to its free-trade, free-market system. [AK: very true - the ancient regime was liberalizing rapidly at the dawn of the French Revolution] Given this history, argued Friedrich List, the leading German economist of the mid-19th century, Britain preaching free trade to less advanced countries like Germany and the USA was like someone trying to “kick away the ladder” with which he had climbed to the top…

In protecting their industries, the Americans were going against the advice of such prominent economists as Adam Smith and Jean Baptiste Say, who saw the country’s future in agriculture. However, the Americans knew exactly what the game was. They knew that Britain reached the top through protection and subsidies and therefore that they needed to do the same if they were going to get anywhere. Criticising the British preaching of free trade to his country, Ulysses Grant, the Civil War hero and the US President between 1868-1876, retorted that “within 200 years, when America has gotten out of protection all that it can offer, it too will adopt free trade”. When his country later reached the top after the Second World War, it too started “kicking away the ladder” by preaching and forcing free trade to the less developed countries.

The UK and the USA may be the more dramatic examples, but almost all the rest of the developed world today used tariffs, subsidies and other means to promote their industries in the earlier stages of their development. Cases like Germany, Japan, and Korea are well known in this respect. But even Sweden, which later came to represent the “small open economy” to many economists had also strategically used tariffs, subsidies, cartels, and state support for R&D to develop key industries, especially textile, steel, and engineering. [AK: Russia's key (non-extractive) industries are things like electricity-generating equipment, nuclear technology, aerospace, etc - hence the greater role of the state in them. This accords well with long-term plans for their re-privatization, by which time it is hoped Russia will have developed a modern, international competitive economy]

There were some exceptions like the Netherlands and Switzerland that have maintained free trade since the late 18th century. However, these were countries that were already on the frontier of technological development by the 18th centuries and therefore did not need much protection. Also, it should be noted that the Netherlands deployed an impressive range of interventionist measures up till the 17th century in order to build up its maritime and commercial supremacy. Moreover, Switzerland did not have a patent law until 1907, flying directly against the emphasis that today’s orthodoxy puts on the protection of intellectual property rights (see below). More interestingly, the Netherlands abolished its 1817 patent law in 1869 on the ground that patents are politically-created monopolies inconsistent with its free-market principles – a position that seems to elude most of today’s free-market economists – and did not introduce another patent law until 1912. [AK: Though I was always intuitively against IP laws, here's a good argument for Russia's, and much of the developing world's, unofficial disregard for the IP scam]

That said there are two other prerequisites for successful catchup. One is you need the enterprising culture and institutional framework. Second, you need a high enough level of human capital as embodied in skills and education, as I wrote here and here. The book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes illustrates well the follies of ignoring the intricate linkages between social modernization, industrial policy and economic development.

Glory to Soviet science! The Kurchatov Institute at the heart of Russia's nanotechnology program.

Glory to Soviet science! The Kurchatov Institute at the heart of Russia’s nanotechnology program.

2. A typical, succinct criticism of the Russian state’s approach by George Handlery:

Could it be? The instinct-driven policy objective of Russia for more recognition as a major world power, is realizable only if pursued by system akin to that of the Tsars or the Commissars. In this case, the limited existing resources allotted by lacking development (not the country’s unused potential) need to be enhanced by dictatorial methods. These can concentrate the available means to overcome qualitative handicaps. Essentially, like the sun’s ray’s are concentrated by a magnifying glass, “limited” resources become bundled by dictatorship to achieve maximal effect at a chosen point. The problem with using autocracy as a multiplier of laggard means pit against an advanced opponent, are twofold. (A) It diverts energies from stimulating general internal advancement for the pursuit of domination abroad. Thereby the developmental lag is perpetuated. (B) Playing a power-role not commensurate to the country’s comparative modernization, and not corresponding to her development, risks destroying the system. (World War One, Cold War.)

First, the same arguments apply here as above. You can use the magnifying glance to turbo-charge general internal development itself, as seen in the state capitalisms of East Asia, China and arguably Russia today, by intelligently concentrating resources into things that may have small short-term payoffs, like education and nano-technology, but are game changers in the longer term. Russia has a long tradition of using the state to leverage resources to catch up with more developed nations (the West), never mind the costs in inefficiency – otherwise, nothing would happen at all.

Second, whenever Russia tries to become less “authoritarian”, it devolves into illiberal anarchy and is taken advantage of by predatory foreign powers, an old lesson that was reinforced during the 1990’s. (This is not a xenophobic victimization complex – moving in to take advantage of a power vacuum is completely natural and understandable, and this indeed what they did by expanding NATO into eastern Europe and subverting Russia’s financial sovereignty – paradoxically, much like a white rider they were actually attempting to restore order, albeit one arranged to serve their own interests). It should be noted that Russian and Japan, nations which realized the necessity of sovereign economic development and military modernization, were the only two civilizations never to be properly colonized by the West.

Third, due to its geography, climate and derived cultural traditions, Russia’s natural state is the natural state. The cold winters, vast distances and unlinked rivers discouraged economic activity and created strong centrifugal tendencies. The hand of the state lay heavy on a people traditionally at the edge of subsistence. As such the past and future path of the Eurasian landmass is bifurcated into a) illiberal anarchic stasis – its natural state, and b) a higher degree of centralization and coercion, which is nothing more than a Russian social preservation mechanism for allowing them to enjoy the benefits of sustained social complexity – security from foreign marauders, a big enough contiguous market-space to enable autonomous economic development and imperial pride.

The reasoning behind Catherine the Great's claim, "I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them".

The reasoning behind Catherine the Great’s claim, “I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them”.

As such, it is delusional to think that the loose and responsive self-correction mechanisms that work in Western Europe or the US, such as full democracy and strict adherence to the rule of law, could work in today’s Russia. Its traditional self-correction mechanism – strong personalities and a fluid, flexible system of understandings – is strong and rigid, but fatally unresponsive. This means that not only are crises rarer in Russia than in the West, they paradoxically become all the more catastrophic when they do occur, because of the unusually big “potential gap” inherent in Russia’s Sisyphean struggle against dissolution. This is the root cause of highly cyclical history – times of trouble followed by consolidation, reassertion, over-extension, stagnation and collapse.

The correct response is to try to find a golden mean between the state and society, between authoritarianism and democracy, so as to allow for an optimally quick but self-correcting development path (incidentally, this is also the gist of Surkov’s much misaligned political philosophy). This is the essence of the Putin Plan.

There is very little evidence Putvedev is preparing to change his colors. The terrain in front of him is still relatively even, and though he recently stubbed his toe against a hidden rock, the peak of the mountain is clearly visible and he is making good progress. The last time the rock slipped in the late Soviet era, it resulted in an avalanche of chaos and destruction; he had spent the 1990′s in sullen despondency. But now his faith that he would one day push the rock to the top of the mountain – by around 2020, in his estimation – was growing. And in any case it is necessary to stay happy and continue to believe – otherwise, your life has no point and you might as well commit suicide.

(Even though the struggle is futile, it is too Romantic to abandon – indeed, Russia does not want to abandon its endless, sordid and tiring, but ultimately uplifting and self-defining struggle towards universal utopia. And when it does commit suicide, it will just be replaced by another Eurasian civilization which, younger and more naive, will continue doing the same until it too realizes the meaningless of its existence)

Uncertainty looms beyond 2020. By that time Russia may start to experience increasing problems due to adverse demographic trends (an aging population and a much smaller cohort in their childbearing years), slowing growth due to, paradoxically, successful “catch-up”, and perhaps waning European demand for its natural gas and dissatisfaction with an increasingly atrophied descendant of the “Putin system”.

It is at this time that there may come a dark rider. One who realizes that the only terminal solution to the struggle is to just dynamite the whole mountain – perhaps by initiating a full-scale nuclear exchange with the rest of the world. That would be the rational response of a suicidal Russian civilization.

Pray that Russia continues its insane struggle. For only suicide – universal suicide, can break the loop of the struggle. Much like Samson bringing down the Temple, a glorious nuclear conflagration will sweep the Faustian West with its machines and intellect and hypocrisy into the vortex of sublime oblivion, freeing it from the overlong, tyrannous daylight of the unnatural state and once again ushering in the primeval mysticism of the dark forests, where blood and instinct can once again reign dominant over the biosphere. As they should, according to the true dissident.

(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.