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RAS Issue No. 43 September 2008 JRL 2008-164
: Stephen D. Shenfield, sshenfield@verizon.net 
RAS archive: http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/jrl-ras.php
The Research and Analytical Supplement (RAS) to Johnson’s Russia List is produced and edited by Stephen D. Shenfield. He is the author of all parts of the content that are not attributed to any other author.

1. Israel and the war in Georgia
2. Significance of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
3. New book on the Northwest Caucasus
4. The debate about “Surkovism”
5. Vladimir Sirotin. A left program for today’s Russia
6. Empire of the periphery
7. Statisticians under Stalin
8. Jewish opposition to the Jewish oligarchs
9. Learning to read between the lines



The debate over whether a new Cold War with Russia is in the offing has been overtaken by events. No one can doubt that a new Cold War exists. Nevertheless, the new Cold War is not going to bear any close resemblance to the old one. Among other things, it will not shape the global interstate system as a whole. Of course, it is bound to have a certain effect on various world regions even outside Russia’s primary sphere of interest. Here I focus on the Middle East ­ in particular, on the joint efforts of Israel and Russia to insulate their increasingly close relationship from tensions between Russia and the West.

Israeli arms and training played a significant role in the war in Georgia: “Israeli companies are reported to have supplied the Georgians with pilotless drones, night-vision equipment, anti-aircraft equipment, shells, rockets and various electronic systems. Even more important may have been advanced tactical training and consultancy.” (1)

Saakashvili tried to create the impression of a close relationship between Georgia and Israel, and these facts helped him do so. The impression, however, is false. Saakashvili created a close relationship not with the State of Israel as such, but with a private network of Israeli mercenaries. This network included some highly placed figures, such as retired generals Israel Ziv and Gal Hirsh (known for losing the latest war in Lebanon) and Roni Milo, former mayor of Tel Aviv, making it influential enough to secure defense ministry approval for various arms deals. But it was by no means influential enough to shape Israel’s foreign policy, and in fact the foreign ministry and much of the country’s establishment regarded its activity with serious misgivings.

With a view to building such a network, Saakashvili filled two key positions in his government with Georgian Jews who had lived for a long time in Israel and spoke fluent Hebrew: Davit Kezerashvili was made defense minister and Temur Yakobashvili state minister for territorial integration, responsible for negotiations over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili was recently reported as “enthusing” that “both war and peace are in the hands of Israeli Jews” (2) ­ as though he himself had nothing to do with questions of war and peace. In medieval terms, they were “the king’s Jews” but he was the “king.” Not that I seek to play down Kezerashvili’s share of criminal liability for destroying Tskhinval, including the city’s ancient Jewish quarter. (3)

Over the Putin years, cultivating good relations between Russia and Israel has become a well-established element in the foreign policy of both countries. Medvedev and PM Olmert have taken care to prevent events in Georgia from damaging Russian ­ Israeli relations, staying in personal contact by phone for this purpose. (4) Israel has adopted a low-profile, “balanced” posture on the conflict: it has halted arms sales to Georgia, abstained from public criticism of either side, and offered humanitarian aid to North Ossetia as well as Georgia. It will not recognize South Ossetia or Abkhazia ­ or, apparently, Kosovo. (5) There are signs that as a quid pro quo Russia will exercise restraint in selling arms to Syria and may support further sanctions against Iran.

Netanyahu visited Moscow recently; a visit by Olmert himself is in the offing. In mid-September an agreement comes into force that abolishes visa requirements for Russians visiting Israel and Israelis visiting Russia. (6)

There is a certain amount of opposition in Israel to official policy on Russia. The Likud have criticized Kadima (Olmert’s party) for establishing ties with United Russia. (7) The Jerusalem Post’s Evelyn Gordon has difficulty making up her mind: she starts off by denouncing Kadima for sacrificing, betraying, and abandoning “a loyal ally,” but ends up concluding that this “betrayal” was “the correct realpolitik choice.” (8)

How do the million or so “Russian” Israelis fit into the picture? Putin has courted them as an important section of the Russian diaspora. Many still have strong links with Russia and a correspondingly strong interest in good relations with Russia (visa-free travel, for instance). Many still lack good Hebrew (or English) and rely on Russian TV for their view of world events. Israeli politicians who speak Russian (including Barak and Sharon) have got themselves interviewed on Russian TV as a way of reaching this part of their electorate.

As Russia and the West readjust to confrontation mode, Israel will find itself increasingly in a dilemma. It is hard to see how Israel can indefinitely remain neutral in the confrontation with Russia while retaining its valued status as a close U.S. ally. It is also hard to envision Israel giving up a partnership as valuable as the one it has been developing with Russia, even if this makes it possible for a wedge to be driven between Israel and the U.S. It is always unwise to have all your eggs in one basket, especially when the basket in question is in such a bad shape.


(1) Tony Karon, Time, 8/28/08
(2) Ibid.

(3) Before this war Tskhinval still had a Jewish community of 20 families. (In the 1910s 42 percent of the then population of 5,000 were Jews.) Only one family remains. Some Tskhinval Jews have survived as refugees in North Ossetia.

(4) Jerusalem Post, 8/21/08
(5) Jerusalem Post, 8/28/08
(6) Jerusalem Post, 8/25/08
(7) Jerusalem Post, 8/22/08
(8) Jerusalem Post, 8/21/08

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It will take us some time to grasp and assimilate the full significance of recent events in Georgia. Among many other repercussions, they are bound to have a major impact on the NORTH Caucasus.

As happened last time round, the large flow of refugees from South to North Ossetia is likely to intensity Osset nationalist feeling and reignite the Osset—Ingush conflict.

It must be kept in mind that both the Ossets and the Abkhaz have their closest ethnic and cultural connections with the peoples of the North Caucasus, with whom (for instance) they share the Nart sagas.

Thus the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia, followed by various other countries including Venezuela, is being celebrated not only in Abkhazia (1) but also in the North Caucasus and among the numerous North Caucasus diaspora, especially in Turkey (the descendants of 19th century deportees). About 1,000 Turkish Abkhaz and Circassians gathered in the village of Arap Ciftligi on August 31 to celebrate the independence of Abkhazia. (2)

For the Circassians, whose links with the Abkhaz are especially close, the independence of Abkhazia is an important step on the road to an independent state of their own in the Northwest Caucasus. The potential threat to Russia’s territorial integrity prompted some Russian analysts to advise their government against recognizing Abkhazia. The Russian leaders have taken this step nonetheless, evidently viewing the prospect of Georgia joining NATO as a more urgent threat.

The recognition by some countries but not by others of Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia marks the end of the international consensus on how to handle issues of secession. This consensus was maintained throughout the long first Cold War with the Soviet Union, but has collapsed right at the start of the second Cold War with Russia, opening up a whole new sphere of instability and rivalry ­ the competitive endeavor to foster the disintegration of states on “the other side.”

The previous consensus was very much disposed against secession and aimed to make it as difficult as possible, but was prepared to accept breakaway states that had clearly and irreversibly accomplished secession and established effective control over their territory (as in the cases of Bangladesh and Eritrea). Under the terms of this consensus, Georgia ­ embroiled in the civil war between Gamsakhurdia and his opponents within a few months of declaring independence from the USSR ­ would hardly have qualified for international recognition.

The disintegration of the USSR, and before that of Yugoslavia, led to the emergence of a new norm for deciding which fragments of a collapsed multi-ethnic state should receive recognition. The norm was that the only territories to be recognized would be those that corresponded exactly to first-level administrative subdivisions of the old state (the Union Republics in the Soviet case). This was an arbitrary norm in many respects. It was at variance with the disaggregation of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in the post-WWI settlement, which did not treat internal administrative boundaries as sacrosanct. Its main advantage was its simplicity: it kept a lid on the number of successor states and avoided the complicated business of considering historical rights and wrongs. In any case, you can argue that any norm is better than none.

The West, having itself invented and imposed this “first-level subdivisions” norm, has now undermined it by recognizing the independence of Kosovo, which was subordinate to Serbia within Yugoslavia ­ i.e., a second-level subdivision. (3) To restore international consensus we need a new norm, a new general rule that applies a single standard to all situations without reference to “our side” and “the other side.” What general rule will justify the secession of Kosovo from Serbia while condemning the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia? Or vice versa? There should be big prize money for anyone who provides a plausible answer to this question.


(1) I haven’t seen reports of celebrations in South Ossetia. It is doubtful whether anyone there feels like celebrating quite yet.

(2) Turkish Daily News, September 2

(3) I am talking about the diplomatic formality of recognizing independence. How independent any of these mini-states are in real terms is another matter entirely. Kosovo, in particular, is being run by officials from the European Union.


I recently posted a new essay on THE ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION OF THE GEORGIAN ­ ABKHAZ CONFLICT at the following URL:


Some people may find it useful background reading.

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Walter Richmond. The Northwest Caucasus: Past, Present, Future (London and New York: Routledge, 2008)

The part of the Caucasus that has received the least attention from scholars and analysts is the northwest. This book is the first sustained account of the history of the Northwest Caucasus, from ancient times to the 21st century, and will serve as a starting point for many future researchers.

RAS 42 was devoted to the deportation of the Circassians following conquest by Russia in the 18th ­ 19th century, and this is a major theme of Professor Richmond’s work. But he fills in for us the history that preceded these events, which includes a lengthy period in the 16th ­ 17th centuries during which the Circassians were ALLIED to Russia (against the Crimean Khanate). With the aid of some excellent maps, he clarifies the rather confusing tribal composition of pre-conquest Circassia and the evolving social structures within each tribe, and also brings the other indigenous peoples into the picture: the Karachai-Balkars and the Abaza.

I learned a lot from the chapters about what happened to the indigenous people who remained after the deportations, in the late tsarist and early Soviet periods. One astonishing revelation concerns the campaign initiated by the Soviet authorities in the mid-1920s to destroy the traditional veneration of elders by labeling the elderly an enemy class and sending them off en masse to the camps.

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Source. Russkaya politicheskaya kul’tura. Vzglyad iz utopii. Lektsiya Vladislava Surkova. Materialy obsuzhdeniya v “Nezavisimoi gazete” [Russian Political Culture: The View from Utopia. A lecture by Vladislav Surkov and discussion material from Nezavisimaya Gazeta] (Moscow: Izd-vo NG, 2007)

Vladislav Surkov is (since 1999) a deputy head of the presidential administration with special responsibility for development of Russia’s political system. He has often been called Putin’s “chief strategist” or “main ideologist” or “gray cardinal”; the last two of these epithets imply that his role is similar to that of Mikhail Suslov under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. In the 1990s he was head of advertising and PR in the business empires of Khodorkovsky and Fridman. He also writes songs, e.g. for the rock group Agata Kristi.

In June 2007 Surkov delivered a lecture at the building of the presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The influential newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, currently owned and edited by former government adviser Konstantin Remchukov, published the lecture and a series of responses to it by more or less prominent readers. This source brings together the lecture and a dozen selected responses in book form.

Surkov’s major theme is as follows. There is no abstract universal democracy. Democracy takes different forms in different countries, depending on their national traditions, psychology, and political culture. Attempts to create democracy without taking these factors into account inevitably fail. This is what happened in Russia under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but the “sovereign democracy” (a term that Surkov invented) emerging under Putin is a true reflection of Russia’s historical uniqueness.

What are the connections between specific national characteristics and traditions and specific features of “sovereign democracy”? Here, critics complain, Surkov is vague. For instance, he makes approving reference to the definition of the typically Russian outlook given by the now fashionable émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin: “contemplation of the whole.” (1) What political implications can be drawn from this formula? The argument seems to be that the Russian craving for wholeness or unity can only be satisfied by a centralization of power like that undertaken by Putin.

The centralization of power is certainly part of Russian political tradition, but the forms it took under the tsars and the Bolsheviks were far from democratic. Yet Surkov is trying to convey a conception of democracy, albeit of a special Russian kind. It would help if he explained what he means by democracy, but he never does. Perhaps Putin’s Russia is to be considered a democracy by definition. Surkov implicitly appeals to the tradition of autocracy, but he also mentions the semi-democratic institutions that arose under Alexander II (the zemstvos in regional government) and after 1905 (the Dumas). So presumably he wants a system of strong presidential rule modified by certain democratic elements.

Toward the end of Surkov’s lecture a minor theme emerges: the need to look beyond the past and focus on the likely needs of future development. Like so many before him, he bemoans Russians’ lack of initiative and technological backwardness. But, as one critic remarks, he fails to reconcile the forward orientation of his minor theme with the backward orientation of his major theme. It is as though by the time he reaches the end of the lecture he has forgotten what he said at the beginning!

The 12 responses selected for publication in the book fall into three groups:

Four are mostly or wholly supportive of Surkov. Here we find:

-- Boris Gryzlov, leader of United Russia. This article is useful because it spells out official positions in clearer policy terms, without Surkov’s amateur philosophizing.

-- Sergei Stepashin, currently chairman of the Audit Chamber

-- Dmitrii Orlov, director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications

-- LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who remarks that he and his party have been saying the same things as Surkov all along.

Five responses are sharply critical of Surkov’s arguments:

-- Mikhail Barshchevsky, chairman of the Supreme Council of Civic Force (Grazhdanskaya sila)

-- Nikita Belykh, leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS)

-- Andrei Bogdanov, chairman of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Russia

-- the veteran publicist Anatoly Strelyanov

-- Alexei Malashenko from the Moscow Carnegie Center

Strelyanov challenges official hypocrisy by proposing (tongue in cheek?) to drop democratic pretenses and adopt laws that codify real power relationships. Malashenko offers some amusing comparisons between Surkov and Suslov. (2) He sees Surkov as a transitional figure who tries to reconcile democracy with authoritarianism. He prophesies that Surkov will be followed by ­ and fall victim to ­ more consistent authoritarians.

Among the sharply critical writers we find two divergent approaches to the question of tradition. Some (e.g., Barshchevsky) view the Russian political tradition as anti-democratic and argue that Russia needs to break free of it. Others stress the complexity and diversity of Russia’s political traditions, which make possible a discriminating approach to the past. Belykh points, in particular, to the strong liberal tradition in Russia’s regions. He accuses Surkov of deliberately ignoring this tradition because it does not suit his political purposes.

The remaining three responses may be described as mildly critical. They are mild, above all, in their carefully respectful language; in substantive terms much of the criticism is quite penetrating. Here we have the political scientist Georgy Bovt; the former PM Academician Yevgeny Primakov, now president of the Chamber of Trade and Industry; and NG editor Remchukov himself.

The most interesting of the mild critics is perhaps Primakov. While expressing great admiration for Putin as a leader, he objects to Surkov’s attempt to construct a state ideology around Putin’s person. He suggests that Putin adopted centralizing measures not under the inspiration of historical tradition but in order to solve practical problems that had arisen in the 1990s. Now that those problems have been resolved, it is possible to proceed cautiously to a measure of decentralization, especially in the economic field.

In Primakov’s opinion, Surkov exaggerates the importance of the national factor. In Soviet times, he recalls, we had to look at everything through a “class prism”; are we now going to be required to look at everything through a “national prism”? He also dislikes the term “sovereign democracy”: it has no scientific value and is open to propaganda exploitation by Russia’s adversaries.

One of Surkov’s “theses” is that political parties must unite and not divide the nation. This means that interparty competition must be confined to the middle of the political spectrum. Gryzlov and Zhirinovsky (also posing as a “centrist”) chime in on the same note. Permissible differences between parties are likened to “nuances” or to preferences for different architectural styles or for single-breasted versus double-breasted suits.

I am struck by the fact that none of the responses published express even a moderate left-wing view. This may not be a coincidence. Gryzlov and Zhirinovsky dwell much more on the evils of left than of right extremism. In particular, the advocacy of “class struggle” is not to be tolerated. The main purpose of official “anti-extremist” policy appears to be to ward off potential threats from the left (in all its old and new varieties).


(1) As Belykh points out, Ilyin was no democrat. At a certain period he was even an admirer of Hitler. Probably aware of this, Surkov and Gryzlov both dilute their references to Ilyin by also citing several other Russian thinkers whose legacy allegedly inspires them (especially Berdiaev). The choice of appropriate names is something of a problem: they must be neither too liberal nor too reactionary.

(2) He praises Surkov as more interesting than Suslov, recalling that people dozed off during Suslov’s speeches and did not read his works. However, does this comparison really work in Surkov’s favor? If no one read or listened to Suslov, that limited the harm he could do ­ as an ideologist, at any rate.

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Vladimir Sirotin

Introductory note: This is my translation of a text sent by a colleague in Russia, entitled “On the question of a program for the left in today’s Russia” [K voprosu o programme levykh v sovremennoi Rossii].

What is the possible content of a positive program for Russia’s democratic left today?

First of all, it is necessary to define completely clear positions on many realities, whether or not these positions are to anyone’s liking. And for this it is necessary to dispel a whole series of absurd and extremely dangerous myths that do enormous harm.

For example, the myth of “socialism” in the USSR and the so-called “socialist” countries. The myth that our so-called “communists,” including the CPRF, are on the left. There is no such thing, there can be no such thing as leftists who are traditionalists, chauvinists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, racists, or nationalists. Certain things are absolutely and fundamentally incompatible.

It is necessary to dispel the myth of the “strong hand” that can allegedly bring the country out of crisis and impose order. On the contrary, we must introduce into the public mind the idea of the unacceptability of any kind of dictatorial regime, of dictatorship in any form.

Until we establish the unconditional priority of democracy, freedom, human rights, and inviolability of the personality, we shall not drag ourselves out of barbarism and become a normal country. The task of the left is to make the fight for human rights all-encompassing in character. Human rights in general, political, civil, and socioeconomic rights, the rights of women, young people, children, and students, the rights of all cultures, of ethnic and sexual minorities ­ all this is very important and necessary. Democracy must be extended to all spheres of life ­ from politics to the school and the family. Freedom, pluralism, respect for the rights of others! There will be no guarantees against obscurantism and extreme reaction until this is understood by the broad masses.

We must understand that whether or not human rights are observed is not the internal affair of each country. In cases of serious violations of human rights and of repressive dictatorships, outside interference is not just permissible but desirable, even obligatory. Diplomatic protests, economic sanctions, blockade, reduction in the level of diplomatic relations (or even their rupture) ­ various measures, depending on the situation. Naturally, human rights organizations and democratic media must be involved.

Not a single dictatorship should feel at ease in the international arena!

We must finish with the mythology of repression. By means of a stricter punitive policy it is supposedly possible to eliminate or sharply reduce crime. Historical and world practice demonstrates just the opposite.

Not only must we stop emphasizing the mythical “virtue” of Russia’s colonial expansion. We must acknowledge, clearly and unambiguously, that the Russian Empire was an empire that arose as a result of the predatory conquests of the metropolis, that Russian imperialism and colonialism are not a whit better than any other. Official apologies should be made to peoples that have suffered from conquest, genocide, and oppression (in particular, to the Chechens). Germany has apologized to the peoples that experienced occupation and genocide; many Germans feel repentance and have overcome chauvinism. In 1992 the King of Spain sought the forgiveness of the Jewish people for events that happened 500 years ago. So precedents exist.

And what about us Russians? Does our national conceit not permit it?

However, it must be said that under the current regime nothing of the sort is conceivable. To make forward movement possible, this regime must be removed by revolutionary-democratic action from below.

The slogans of the left must be concrete. For a high, progressive tax on the rich and on big business, in order to raise the level of social welfare. Introduce a 35-hour working week without delay. Protect immigrants in need of refuge. The unconditional right of all ethnic territories to self-determination up to the point of secession (with obligatory observance of all democratic rights and freedoms). End the war in Chechnya immediately, withdraw Russian troops, and grant Chechnya independence (if desired) on a democratic basis and under international supervision.

Human rights, humanism in everything ­ these are the fundamental values of genuine leftists. An end to all discrimination ­ against racism, xenophobia, sexism, ageism, homophobia. For education financed in full by the state, by society. Far-reaching humanization of education and upbringing. A sharp reduction in the load on students, their participation in decision making, development of the creative capabilities of the personality. The complete dismantling of hierarchical-patriarchal structures in all areas of life ­ above all, in the family and the school. Reform of the prison system, its humanization and contraction (through a broad amnesty). Against privatization of healthcare, for a universal healthcare system fully financed by the state. Raise pensions and make them index-linked. Raise the minimum wage.

Sharply reduce housing prices and initiate a broad program of housing construction, end homelessness, ameliorate and solve housing problems. Expand the rights of trade unions. Fight environmental pollution. Nationalize oil and gas.

Real chances of accomplishing all this will come after the democratic revolution!

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Source. Boris Kagarlitsky, Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System. Translated by Renfrey Clarke. London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2008

Do we need yet another history of Russia? Perhaps we do, if the approach is really distinctive and stimulating.

This is not a factual account. It is assumed that the reader already knows the basic facts of Russian history. The focus is on explaining key developments by reference to economic factors, with a special emphasis on economic relations between Russia and other countries.

In broad terms, then, the approach is Marxian. More specifically, Kagarlitsky (1) takes as his starting point the work of Mikhail Pokrovsky (1868 ­ 1932) and his school of historical scholarship, which was suppressed by Stalin and has not been revived until now. He is equally influenced by the “world systems” theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. (2) His view of the evolution of capitalism is influenced by the theory of “long cycles” of Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev (1892 ­ 1938).

Besides Pokrovsky, the author draws extensively on primary sources, such as old chronicles and archival material, and also on archeological evidence, although only in respect of those periods which he studies most intensively. He avoids reliance on the “classical” 19th-century Russian historians, considering them biased by their engagement in the dispute between Westernizers and Slavophiles. For Kagarlitsky both sides in this dispute, which is by no means over even today, are confined within the framework of certain erroneous assumptions about Russia. His book can be read as a sustained polemic against Westernism AND Slavophilism.

What are these shared assumptions that Kagarlitsky challenges?

First, that Russia is and has always been ESSENTIALLY different from Western Europe or “the West” ­ different in some deeper sense than that in which France is different from Germany, say, or Britain from Italy. For example, Kagarlitsky disputes the view that Russia had a special kind of absolutist monarchy unknown in Western Europe (France, say).

Second, this essential difference is attributed to the supposed isolation of Russia from the West ­ not at all times, but over long periods. For Kagarlitsky isolation from the outside world has been the exception rather than the rule in Russia’s history. In particular, he stresses that Peter the Great was not, as he is often presented, the first tsar to establish close ties with Western Europe: that honor belongs to Ivan the Terrible, whose relations with Britain were so close that he was known as “the English tsar.”

Third, that Russia’s supposed essential difference and isolation from the West have been reflected in persistent economic backwardness vis-à-vis the West. The Slavophiles considered Russia superior to the West in culture, morality, and religion, but they did not deny that Russia lagged behind in material terms.

For Kagarlitsky, by contrast, Russia’s backwardness dates only from the beginning of the rise of the capitalist world system in the 17th century. In the late middle ages Russia and Western Europe were on roughly the same level of development, while in the early middle ages Kievan Rus was actually far in advance of Western Europe. (3) Moreover, Russia’s development in the early modern period was held back not because the country was isolated (it wasn’t) but because it was integrated into the rising world market in a certain mode ­ as a “periphery” exporting raw materials such as furs, wax (4) and ship’s timbers, and later iron and grain.

The serfdom of the 18th and first half of the 19th century is usually viewed as an archaic survival that went along with backwardness and isolation. Kagarlitsky makes a sharp distinction between the old medieval serfdom, which was part of the natural economy of feudalism, and the serfdom of the early modern period, which served to extract grain for export and thereby pay for goods imported for upper class consumption. In other words, Russian serfdom, like slavery in the Americas at the same period, was an element in the formation of the capitalist world system.

The author suggests that Russia had a chance to break out of its peripheral niche and embark on the path of autonomous industrial development after the Napoleonic wars and that the Decembrists, whose conspiracy he considers “serious,” might have taken the country in this direction. In the event, it was the Bolsheviks and above all Stalin who eventually established Russia as an independent industrial power. Russia has now returned to its traditional place on the periphery of the world system.

Kagarlitsky’s book has some weak sections (for instance, the discussion of the 1917 ­ 21 period), but taken as a whole it is an impressive achievement. In contrast to many writers on Russia, Kagarlitsky knows not only Russian but also world history, and this enables him to view Russia in context as part of the world, not as a world apart. In conclusion he responds to the “accursed question” whether Russia should seek to join the West (in its present incarnation) or keep its distance by rejecting both the alternatives offered: “The fate of Russia is inseparable from the fate of humanity, and we can struggle for a better world for ourselves only through trying to build a better world for everyone. And this, of course, can also be said of any country.”


(1) Kagarlitsky was a key figure in the “new left” dissident group “Left Turn” in 1978 ­ 82 and in the “informal” movement during perestroika (Moscow People’s Front). He is currently director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements. Several of his books have appeared in English.

(2) However, Kagarlitsky is willing to take issue with Wallerstein and Pokrovsky on important points. He is not the sort of “Marxist” who argues that if Marx or anyone else said something it must be right.

(3) At this period not just Rus but other Eastern lands -- Byzantium, Persia, China -- were more developed than Western Europe.

(4) Wax was a very important commodity at a time when people relied on candles for lighting.

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Source. Alen Blium and Martina Mespule, Biurokraticheskaia anarkhiia: Statistika i vlast’ pri Staline [Bureaucratic Anarchy: Statistics and Power under Stalin] (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2006). Translated from French: Alain Blum et Martine Mespoulet, L’Anarchie Bureaucratique: Statistique et pouvoir sous Staline (Paris: Editions la Decouverte, 2003)

Blum and Mespoulet have provided us with a splendid study of the fate of statistics and statisticians under Stalin. (1) The Soviet regime inherited from the late tsarist period the very strong and sophisticated legacy of zemstvo statistics. The statistical departments of the zemstvos ­ provincial organs of self-government established by the reforming tsar Alexander II ­ employed staff of many different political persuasions, including Bolsheviks, but they all came to share a culture of professional integrity.

The Bolshevik leadership made persistent efforts to bring the work of the Central Statistical Administration (CSA) under their full control ­ first by placing “reliable” outside officials in leading positions at the CSA (they “went native”) and eventually, from 1937, by means of repression. And yet the professional culture of the statisticians demonstrated astonishing resilience in face of this onslaught.

There was always a tension between the need of the regime for accurate statistics as a basis for planning and administration and its demand for statistics consistent with the current ideological representation of reality. You might think this would lead to a sort of double bookkeeping: one set of statistics for internal use, another for propaganda. But evidently this did not occur. At the time of the post-collectivization famine, for example, Stalin and his colleagues were reluctant to believe the mortality figures that the CSA was reporting to them. They responded by instructing that the figures be checked in selected regions with the participation of officials from the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, whom they supposed to be more party-minded. But the results that came back were even worse than the first time.

The book contains a number of fascinating (to me, anyway) case studies pertaining to specific statistical issues, such as the definition of social and ethnic categories and the use of sampling.


(1) Alain Blum is director of the Center for Russian, Caucasian, and Central European Studies in Paris. Martine Mespoulet is currently on the faculty of the University of Poitiers.

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Under Yeltsin a number of financial “oligarchs,” most of them of Jewish origin, acquired great wealth and power by highly predatory means. The period came to be known in Russian folklore as “the rule of the seven bankers” (semibankirshchina) ­ an allusion to the “rule of the seven boyars” (semiboyarshchina) during the Time of Troubles in the 17th century. These oligarchs (2) were targets of widespread popular hatred. Often, though far from always, this hatred took on anti-Semitic forms.

With the rise of Putin and the subsequent exile or imprisonment of three of the Jewish bankers (Berezovsky, Gusinsky, and Khodorkovsky), the oligarchs became both less “Jewish” and less powerful relative to the state. Strictly speaking, there are no longer any oligarchs. Therefore I place this item under the heading of history rather than current politics.

One aspect of the situation in the 1990s that did not attract much attention was the fact that very many Russian Jews themselves hated the oligarchs. They hated them for the same reasons as everyone else, but in addition for a specifically “Jewish” reason ­ they held them largely responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism.

The danger that popular hatred of Jewish oligarchs would be extended to Jews in general depended, inter alia, on the extent to which the Jewish oligarchs appeared as symbols, representatives, or leaders of Russian Jews as an ethnic or religious community. There was reason to fear that, as Sergei Pogorelsky put it, the ugly image of the post-Soviet Jewish banker was displacing the benign images of the Soviet Jewish scientist, musician, or physician:

“Who in the ‘Jewish family’ today are its ‘elder brothers’? Not the composer Shostakovich or the aircraft designer Mil. They represented the Jewish family in Soviet times, but their time has passed. Today the ‘elder brothers’ are the bankers.” (3)

In fact, most of the Jewish oligarchs did not seem to attach much significance to being of Jewish origin. Like the great majority of Jews in Russia, they were highly Russified, and their identity as Jews was weak. They were not religious. (Berezovsky ostensibly converted to Orthodox Christianity.) They showed little or no interest in Jewish causes. In short, they pursued no specifically Jewish goals, only their own aggrandizement.

This generalization did not, however, apply to one of the Jewish oligarchs, Gusinsky, who created and financed his own Jewish organization, the Russian Jewish Congress. A widely based Russian Jewish organization, the Va’ad (whose name means “council” in Hebrew), had already been in existence for several years. The Va’ad, an umbrella organization bringing together Jewish communities from across Russia and Jewish groups of varying orientation, was the creation of Mikhail Chlenov. As a researcher at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Chlenov was the only professional ethnologist specializing in the study of Jewish culture and customs at a time when such a choice of specialization required a certain moral courage. The Va’ad had a much more valid claim to represent Russian Jews than any other organization.

When Chlenov objected to the attempt of the Russian Jewish Congress to usurp the status of the representative body for Russian Jewry, Gusinsky summoned him to a meeting and offered him the choice between “cooperating” and “being destroyed.” After that, when Russian or Western journalists wanted quotes from a “representative of Russian Jews,” it was Gusinsky whom they interviewed.

The power of the repulsive image of the new “elder brother” was reduced somewhat through the efforts of Russian Jews who as leftists or “patriots” took a public stand against the oligarchs. An important example was that of Yevgeny Primakov, who was known to be of Jewish origin. During his brief tenure as prime minister in 1998 ­ 99, he defiantly excluded the oligarchs from policy making, even instructing that they should not be permitted to enter the building where he had his office.

That anti-oligarchic Jews may have had some modest success in holding anti-Semitism in check was suggested by responses to their public statements that appeared in the Russian nationalist press. Thus, in 1998 Yuri Mukhin, editor of the Russian nationalist journal Duel, opened a debate on Russian—Jewish relations in its pages. A number of Jews as well as Russians contributed to this debate. Summing up, Mukhin concluded that “good Jews” do exist, albeit not many of them, and he invited them to “stand side by side” with their Russian fellow patriots. The Russian nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin and leader of the National-Bolshevik Party Eduard Limonov likewise revised their Eurasianist ideology to allow for the existence of pro-Russian “Eurasian” Jews. True, even in the process of making such concessions these people continued to sound like anti-Semites, but the virulence of their anti-Semitism was blunted.

It is true that Jews were ­ and no doubt still are ­ on average less likely than Russians to adopt “patriotic” positions. They are more likely to have relatives abroad, and the experience of sometimes feeling rejected as different naturally generates a sense of alienation from Russia. A survey conducted by sociologist Dmitry Furman in 1991 confirmed that Jews were the most Western-oriented of Russia’s ethnic groups. Only 13 percent of ethnic Russians but 52 percent of Russian Jews agreed with the statement: “The best of possible societies has been created in the West, and we must imitate the West.” (4)

Such relative differences, however, should not be absolutized. After all, Furman’s survey also showed that almost half of Russian Jews were NOT so clearly oriented toward the West. There were many political activists of Jewish origin whose loyalties lay with the leftist and/or “patriotic” sectors of Russia’s political spectrum. Many such individuals had a strong dual identity as both Russians and Jews, so that they felt offended equally on encountering russophobia and anti-Semitism. (5)

Some of these points were nicely illustrated in an exchange that took place in 1998 between Berezovsky and Eduard Topol, a popular Russian-Jewish writer known mainly for his detective fiction. Topol interviewed Berezovsky in connection with a book he was writing about Russia at the end of the 20th century. Topol then made excerpts from the conversation public as part of an “open letter to Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Smolensky, Khodorkovsky, and the other [Jewish] oligarchs” that appeared in the magazine “Argumenty i fakty” (no. 938, Sep. 16, 1998) under the title “Love Russia, Boris Abramovich!”

Topol, by his own account, confronts Berezovsky in the following terms:

“For the first time in the thousand years since Jews settled in Russia, we have acquired real power in this country… How do you intend to use it? What do you intend to do with this country? … And do you feel responsibility to our people [i.e., Jews—SS] for your actions?”

Topol’s confusion is evident here in his switch from the first to the second person. He says “WE have acquired power” but asks “How do YOU intend to use it?” He imagines that he, too, shares in some sort of Jewish power, but then suddenly realizes how absurd it would be to ask Berezovsky, as though they were equals: “How shall WE use it?” The power in question, after all, belongs to Berezovsky, not to Topol.

Berezovsky replies by regretting the “disproportion” between the numbers of Jewish and of Russian bankers and pondering why it should exist. There are, he opines, Russians with the requisite talent, but they lack the necessary strength of will. He admits that the question of “responsibility to our people” is not one that he or the other Jewish bankers have considered. The question of what Berezovsky “intends to do with Russia” remains unanswered.

The leading Russian nationalist newspaper Zavtra (no. 40, Oct. 1998) published a reaction to Topol’s open letter from the Russian “native-soil” writer Vladimir Bondarenko, who expressed regret only that Topol had rebuked the Jewish oligarchs more out of fear of the anti-Jewish pogroms that they might provoke than out of sympathy for the Russians whom they had reduced to penury.

Thus, the conflict between the oligarchs and their opponents was basically a political and not an ethnic conflict. However, the Jewish origin of many oligarchs inevitably had the effect of giving the conflict the appearance of an ethnic conflict between Russians and Jews. The strength of this effect depended on various circumstances. In particular, any claim of the Jewish oligarchs to lead or represent Russian Jewry greatly strengthened the effect, while the public activity of anti-oligarchic Jews tended to erase the ethnic coloration of the conflict.


(1) This item draws on material that first appeared in my essay: “Foreign Assistance as Genocide: The Crisis in Russia, the IMF, and Interethnic Relations,” originally published as Chapter 7 in Milton J. Esman and Ronald J. Herring, eds. “Carrots, Sticks, and Ethnic Conflict: Rethinking Development Assistance” (The University of Michigan Press, 2003). I reuse the material with the kind permission of the publishers. My excuse is that the original source is not widely known among Russia specialists.


Copyright belongs to the University of Michigan 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher.

(2) The term “oligarchs” was sometimes used in a narrow sense to refer only to the seven bankers, sometimes in a broader sense to include other powerful figures, notably the oil and gas “barons” (mostly not of Jewish origin). Here I use the word in its narrow sense.

(3) Sergei Pogorelsky, “Russkie i evrei: Shans dialoga” (Moscow: Informpechat, 1999), p. 53. Shostakovich was actually of Polish origin.

(4) Pogorelsky, p. 57.

(5) Dmitry Shlapentokh, Washington Quarterly, Fall 1998, no. 4, pp. 107—126.

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As a teenager I first acquired an interest in Soviet politics reading the newspaper columns of the brilliant Sovietologist Victor Zorza. (2) I found his complicated analyses of the conflicts between different power factions fascinating. But one thing annoyed me: he never let slip a clue about how he knew all this stuff. Not citing sources broke all the rules of proper scientific inquiry. How could anyone check up on him? You either believed him or you didn’t.

I soon discovered that this was a problem with all Sovietologists. They might offer evidence of a kind: who stood where on the May Day review stand, subtle distinctions between the phraseology used by different leaders ­ but the momentous conclusions they sometimes drew from such evidence seemed out of all proportion to its apparent weight. No wonder that Sovietology was so often a target of ridicule!

Only much later did I come to understand why Sovietology was like this. Even after going into Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies in 1979, it took me quite a while to understand. There was one person above all who helped me understand: the Soviet journalist, political scientist, ideological innovator, and reformer Fyodor Burlatsky.

Burlatsky visited England in 1983 and spent two or three days at our university. I was asked whether I would like to act as his guide, interpreter, and assistant while he was at Birmingham. I accepted with alacrity. I heard that a recent article of Burlatsky’s in Novy Mir was creating a big stir, so I read it in preparation for his arrival. It was a long article entitled Mezhdutsarstvie (Interregnum), ostensibly all about the post-Mao transition in China.

The afternoon of his arrival, Burlatsky gave a seminar at our center. We were all very impressed, especially by his openness and by the reasonableness of his tone. I for one was not just impressed. I was astonished and mesmerized. After the seminar I showed him round the campus. Raising the subject of his article in Novy Mir, I said that we had a shared interest in China, or something of the kind.

“You know, it isn’t about China.”

“Ah,” I replied cautiously. “I realized that it might not be ONLY about China.”

“It isn’t about China AT ALL.”

I recall Burlatsky showing me a paper he had written (it had been published in English by UNESCO) about “the absolute value of peace.” He explained that the ideas in the paper, though not presented as such, were part of a Soviet ideological dispute between the “class approach” and the “panhuman approach.”

These conversations with Burlatsky sensitized me to the importance of reading between the lines of Soviet sources and gave me confidence in my ability to decode their almost-concealed meanings. Now I could detect all sorts of differences between texts that to the uninitiated seemed to be repeating standardized propaganda clichés. An apparently minor variation or omission might be highly significant. I set out my conclusions in a series of articles on Soviet approaches to nuclear winter, the militarization of space, international crisis, etc., and in my book-length study of the “new thinking”: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (RKP, 1987). This book owed quite a lot to my conversations with Burlatsky, but I knew not to mention them. Some reviewers, and no doubt many readers, reacted to the book as I had once reacted to Zorza: the conclusions I was drawing were more far-reaching than the evidence justified. I could not explain why I knew I was right.

Burlatsky was taking a big risk in being so open. In fact, he was in trouble when he returned from this visit to England because he had been reported as saying something that the party bosses found objectionable. He had intended to IMPLY what was reported, but had taken care NOT to say it so many words. The journalist should have reported the exact words Burlatsky used and then interpreted them on his own responsibility, so that if necessary Burlatsky could claim that he had been misinterpreted. The journalist either did not understand the situation or did not care if he compromised Burlatsky.

People often thought Burlatsky was putting on airs when he boasted about his influence on Soviet leaders, but there is good reason to think that he did have an indirect influence on Khrushchev and a direct influence on Andropov. Through Kuusinen he was involved in initiating proposals for important ideological changes that Khrushchev agreed to adopt ­ in particular, the redefinition of the Soviet state as a “state of the whole people” instead of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” of Lenin and Stalin. (4) He also belonged to the small personal “brains trust” that Andropov first convened when he was head of the Central Committee department for liaison with socialist countries (1957 ­ 67). So when I met Burlatsky, during Andropov’s short reign as Gen Sec, he probably was a person of influence.

Even as a foreigner mixing with Soviet people, you had to be careful about how you talked ­ not so much to protect yourself as to protect Soviet friends. The worst thing likely to happen to you was not to get any more entry visas, possibly forcing you to leave the field of Soviet Studies, but you might well come to regard that as a positive outcome in terms of mental health. When I was on a Russian language course in Leningrad I made friends with a young woman who told me that her friends had advised her to have nothing further to do with me. From the way I had been talking they suspected that I had connections with left opposition groups in the city. I was flabbergasted ­ first, because I had not even been aware that such groups still existed; second, because I had fondly imagined that I WAS talking carefully. Carefully perhaps, but evidently not carefully enough to be sure I was not endangering anyone.


(1) This piece concludes a series of reminiscences about my early encounters with Soviet reality. See, in particular: RAS 25 no. 15 (on my visits to Esperanto clubs), RAS 27 no. 9 (on my first experience of doing academic research in the USSR), and RAS 31 no. 6 (on a visit to relatives).

(2) Zorza, who died in 1996, was not only a Sovietologist. In the early 1990s, he introduced (reintroduced?) into Russia the institution of hospices for the dying. His biography (Michael Wright, Victor Zorza: A Life Amid Loss) was recently published by Observatory Publications.

(3) I did not support the “let my people go” campaign because it seemed to me that it had more to do with Israeli demographic politics (increasing the share of Jews, and of European Jews in particular, in the population) than with human rights.

(4) For Burlatsky’s own account, the title of which does somewhat exaggerate his role vis-à-vis Khrushchev, see: Khrushchev and the First Russian Spring: The Era of Khrushchev Through the Eyes of his Adviser (Scribner, 1992).

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