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Foreign Affairs: book reviews for Russia today

May 22, 2015

Summary: Book reviews of post-modern Russia – oligarchs, political facades, media, manipulation, exploitation, history, Presidents, authoritarianism, ideology – its all there...

OK, so now I am doing book reviews of book reviews.

In Foreign Affairs I have come across a very interesting and thoughtful review of two new books on modern Russia, one of which is on my bed-side table ready for reading.  Joshua Yoffa contemplates the conclusions of Bill Browder’s “Red Notice” and “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” from Peter Pomerantzev.  These two authors describe their own close up and painful experiences in the financial and media whirl of early 21st century Putin-era Russia.

Surely a Millwall supporter: "No one likes us,  We don't care"

Surely a Millwall supporter: “No one likes us, We don’t care”

Browder, an American investor, was happy to amass millions in the rule-less wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, only to have the hand that was feeding him turn against him, leading to the death of Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in police custody.

In the vacuum created by the Soviet collapse, unabashed opportunism and a limitless sense of the possible became the closest thing the wounded country had to a collective ideology. There were few consequences and everything was pretend—except, of course, for the massive sums of money. And as long as Russia, after Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, kept up its winking nod toward modernization and democracy, it was easy enough to play along without too much of a drag on your conscience.

Pomerantsev was a UK-born television producer observing at close hand the co-option of the media in the Putin recreation of reality:

Soviet-era doublethink, whereby people had no qualms about saying one thing and believing another, was updated for the twenty-first century, fueled by high production values and slick PR. In such a climate, to believe in anything with sincerity was to be naive…

Yoffa distinguishes different phases of the “Putin-era”.  The first phase – the one experienced by Browder and Pomerantsev was very open and slightly crazy – money was sloshing around and little care was paid to the darker political machinations behind the scenes.   From around 2011/2012, Yoffa suggests, the climate was different.  Money was drying up and the Putin “ideology” was taking on stronger anti-Western, socially conservative and orthodox postures.  In this atmosphere Russia is happily rushing to embrace isolation.

Whereas for the first decade of Putin’s rule, the state preferred a passive and disengaged population, over the last year, it has sought to keep society antsy and militarized, on something approaching a war footing—even if the war itself remains technically undeclared. The faction in the Kremlin that long wished for more control, over everything from the newspaper business to the agricultural sector, has found its excuse in the arguments of geopolitics and national security.

Finding – or creating – an external enemy is a classic from the playbook.  Russia is no longer bothering to pretend to be democratic.  “If anything, it prides itself on its pariah status”.  And the anti-Western ideology being created by nationalist “academics” and shaped by Russia Today can actually be quite potent, as it finds favour with a lot of the world (including in Europe and the West) for a lot of different reasons. But cracks in the facade are appearing now as the money dries up and Putin has to juggle resources, priorities and interests – frozen conflicts are costly.

Yoffa helpfully flags up and explores two misconceptions that the West has about Russia today (sorry), both originating from a short-termist rush to deal with the crisis over the Ukraine while failing to consider Russia’s history, culture and experiences.

  1. It is not all about financial gain and media control for the powerbrokers in Russia.  Western responses to, for example the conflict in Ukraine, should not simply be about raising the financial cost for Putin
  2. It is not all about understanding and dealing with one man and a correctly-applied “Putin policy” will remove the problem.

Putin perhaps as symptom rather than cause.

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