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Johnson's Russia List


July 14, 1998  
This Date's Issues: 2263  2264  2265

Johnson's Russia List
14 July 1998


Date: Mon, 13 Jul 1998 
From: Anatol Lieven <> 
Subject: Introduction to my book, "Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power"

Dear David, attached is part of my book on Chechnya, for inclusion in your
List if you find it interesting and have room. You will at least agree with
the argument, or so I imagine! 
The relevance of the argument is demonstrated by the latest
article in the Economist: "Could Russia Go Fascist?" - which translates as
- "Shoudn't we give billions of dollars to support Yeltsin and our darling
Young Reformer Chubais because Russians are intrisically given to
imperialism and aggression and Chubais assures us that he and Yeltsin are
all that is standing between Russia and Fascism". Some of the people you
can indeed fool all the time.
Yours, Anatol Lieven

From: Anatol Lieven

(The following is a condensed version of the Introduction to my book,
"Chechnya: Tombstone of
Russian Power", recently published by Yale University Press)

"Russia: Still a Bear"
(Headline in the Washington Post, 9/7/96)

"Wooing a Bear"
(Headline in The Economist, 14/12/96)

"Still Within Reach of Russian Bear"
(Headline in the Washington Post, 5/1/97)

"There's more nonsense talked about the grizzly bear than any other animal,
barring the wolf. Grown men
will look you straight in the eye and tell of the hair-raising experiences
they've had with bears; how a
grizzly will charge a man on sight, how they can outrun a horse, tear down a
tree and create hell generally
with no provocation. The truth is that a bear is just like any other animal
and has more sense than to
tangle with a man without good reason. True, they're apt to be bad-tempered
in the spring when they've
just come out of hibernation, but a lot of people are like that when they've
just got out of bed.
And they're hungry in the spring, too. The fat has gone from them and their
hide hangs loose and they
want to be left alone to eat in peace, just like most of us, I guess...Most
of the tall tales about bears have
been spun around camp fires to impress a tenderfoot or tourist, and even
more have been poured out of a
bottle of rye whisky..."
Desmond Bagley, "Landslide". 12

The war between Russia and the Chechen separatist forces, which lasted
from December 1994 to August
1996, may be seen by future historians as a key moment in Russian and
perhaps world history; not
because of its consequences, which are likely to be limited, but because of
the stark light which this war
has thrown on one of the most important developments of our time: the end of
Russia as a great military
and imperial power.
The impossibility of Russia maintaining the Soviet Union's global role
was obvious even before the USSR
collapsed; what Chechnya has shown is that even the Russian effort to
maintain herself as the hegemonic
power within the former Soviet space will for the forseeeable future labour
under very severe constraints
of strength and even more importantly of will. 
A much greater threat to Western interests is posed precisely by Russian
state and military decline - if this were to lead to the illicit sale of
nuclear materials or even weapons to rogue regimes. For this reason, the
suicide on October 30th 1996 of Professor Vladimir Nechay, director of a
formerly secret state nuclear
research station at Chelyabinsk-70 (Snezhinsk), should have attracted more
Western press attention and
concern than all the endless column inches about a "Russian threat to the
Baltic States" and so on. Dr
Nechay killed himself out of despair because the pay for his staff and the
money for the upkeep of his
centre was months in arrears; even more sinister are the indications that to
cover expenses he may have
borrowed money from "commercial structures" (most likely mafia-linked) which
he was then unable to
repay. In July 1997, Izvestia reported that 141 officers of Russia's
Northern Fleet (controlling most of the
nuclear missile submarines) attempted suicide in 1996. The navy itself
admitted 32 suicides and attempted
suicides, above all because of lack of pay.3
The reasons for the Russian defeat in Chechnya therefore go far deeper
than the specific problems of the
Russian armed forces in the 1990s; they reflect both longstanding processes
in Russian demography,
society and culture, and fundamental weaknesses in the contemporary Russian
state. The latter are the
result not merely of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attendant
convulsions and changes, but of a
process of the privatisation of the state and state power which in its
origins goes back more than thirty
The depth of the weakness of the Russian state has however been partly
masked because of the equal or
greater weakness - due to 70 years of Communist rule - of Russian society,
which can generate neither the
forces of protest which elsewhere in the world might already have brought
the whole structure crashing
down, nor the forces of national mobilisation (especially among the Russian
populations outside Russia's
borders) which would have compensated for the state's inability to project
its power.
It follows that those who believe strongly in what they call the process
of "economic reform" in Russia
and her neighbours ought to be very grateful for the absence of a civil
society in these countries: because it
is very unlikely that a population possessed of spontaneous means of
socio-political organisation and
mobilisation would have tolerated either the sufferings they have endured or
the deeply rotten nature of
the new order.
A central thesis of this book is that rather than making comparisons
between the Russia of today and
either the Soviet Union or the Russia of the Tsars, which one hears so
endlessly from so many expert and
non-expert observers, it would make more sense to look for parallels and
models for understanding Russia
today in the "liberal" states of southern Europe and Latin America in the
later 19th and early 20th
Century, and among developing countries in other parts of the world today -
with the key difference that
while their populations are growing, that of Russia is falling steeply. I
shall suggest therefore that
Gramscian concepts like "passive revolution" and "hegemony" (when adapted of
course for Russian and
late 20th Century conditions) can provide a more useful prism for
understanding Russia today than
theories concerning the Tatar influence on the Muscovite tradition, or the
ideology of Tsarist autocracy.
In particular, the rise to Russian state power during the period under
study of a group of business and
media magnates marks a completely new epoch in Russian history. Apart from
the fact that several of
them are Jewish, the nature of their power and influence is totally unlike
anything which has previously
existed in Russia. While in Washington I repeatedly had to listen to
parallels between the Russian state
today and that of one or other of the Tsars, with the implication that
Russia is "only returning to its
ancient patterns of autocracy" (or anarchy, or corruption, or feudalism, or
whatever). The sketchiest
knowledge of Russian history ought to be enough to tell one that Mr Boris
Berezovsky would not have
become a senior security official in any government of Nicholas II.
Nationality aside, a figure of this type is however extremely typical for
the political elites of many
"developing" countries; and insofar as this is to a considerable extent an
elite of a traditional Latin
American "comprador" type (with of course specific post-Soviet features),
dependent for most of its wealth
on controlling the state so extract soft loans, evade taxes, and allow the
unrestricted export of raw
materials, it may very well play a key and malignant role in frustrating
constructive economic growth. 
But as political developments in Russia contemporaneous to the Chechen
War - especially the Presidential
elections of June 1996 - have demonstrated, while the Russian state today
is weak, like many such states,
it is probably also relatively stable. The coming years may see considerable
political instability among the
ruling elites, local mass protests, and possibly even coups d'etat. Unless
however the new elites prove so
greedy and incompetent that they drive a majority of the population to sheer
desperation, they are very
unlikely to see either a complete failure of the state, or its
transformation by some revolutionary force and
the recreation of Russia as a great military, expansionist and ideological
In examining the reasons for the political passivity of most ordinary
Russians, I shall suggest that Francis
Fukuyama's vision of the triumph of liberal democracy in the contemporary is
a good way of looking at
Russia and the world today - but only if heavily diluted with a mixture of
Antonio Gramsci, historical
experience, and plain historical horse-sense.
Of secondary importance for world politics, but of very great interest
both to military men and
anthropologists is or should be the nature of the war on the ground and the
character of the Chechen
resistance. Russian weakness aside, the victory of the Chechens against such
tremendous odds is a striking
moment in military history, with lessons to teach on matters as diverse as
military anthropology, national
mobilisation, the limited effectiveness of airpower, the nature of urban
combat and indeed the nature of
warfare itself. 
The victory of the Chechen separatist forces over Russia has been one of
the greatest epics of colonial
resistance in the past century. Whether it will be comparable in its
historical effects to Dien Bien Phu or
the FLN's victory in Algeria will depend on what now happens within Russia.
In terms of sheer military
achievement, however, the Chechens have already equalled the Vietcong, and
Colonel Aslan Maskhadov
has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath with General Giap,
as a commander of rare and
original genius.
I have dwelt at some length on these questions in part because during a
year spent in Washington DC it
has struck me with increasing force how few American military analysts and
advisors today have any
personal experience of combat or even of being and commanding soldiers; and
of course only a miniscule
number have themselves been exposed to prolonged and heavy aerial
bombardment. In particular, many
have no understanding whatsoever of the factors which make individual
soldiers fight or run away, and of
the whole nature of morale. Moreover, some of these people, it has seemed to
me, have a psychological
aversion to thinking about real battle at all, preferring to deal in
sanitised abstracts like "security". This
leads to distortions in their analysis, with potentially serious
consequences for Western policy. 
The Chechen War is also of significance and interest for historians, and
not just Soviet or Russian
specialists: for it involved a clash, epochal in its implications, between
two utterly different nations,
representing forces the clash between which goes back to the very beginnings
of recorded human history:
the Russians, whose national identity has long been subsumed in a series of
bureaucratic states; and the
Chechens, who have barely had any state at all in their history, and whose
formidable martial attributes
stem not from state organisation but from specific ethnic traditions. In the
streets of Grozny, the
demoralised conscript armies of Babylon, commanded not by warriors but by
eunuch courtiers and corrupt
officials, under the images of gods who had manifestly failed them, went
down once more before the
tribesmen from the hills.
To find a parallel for the triumph of such seemingly "disorganised" ,
"primitive" forces over a modern
European army one would have to go back to the defeat of the Italians by the
Ethiopians at Adowa, or of
the Spanish by the Moroccans at Annual, or even to Red Indian victories over
the British and Americans.
On the one hand, of course, this says a great deal about the Russians - for
if the Russian army of today is
no better than the Italians or the Spanish of the past, then the world
military order really has been turned
upside down; but on the other, the Chechen victory is a testimonial to the
extraordinary military qualities
and fighting spirit of the Chechen tradition, as worked upon by 20th Century
influences and events.
In emphasising the unique and striking nature of the Chechen victory, one
must also remark the small
size of the Chechen population and of the separatist armed forces. Consider:
apart perhaps from during
the Russian assault on Grozny at the beginning of the war, and the Chechen
counter-attack of August
1996, when the Chechens forces in Grozny and elsewhere may have numbered up
to 6,000 men, the most
common estimate is that the Chechen independence forces never had more than
3,000 fighters actually in
the field at any one time, as against up to 15 times that number on the
Russian side.
Of course, the total number of Chechens who have fought at one time or
another is very much larger.
Nonetheless, in most battles the Russians have enjoyed a vastly greater
superiority in numbers than was
possessed by the French and Americans in Indo-China, the French in Algeria,
or for matter the Soviet
forces in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the usual problem for armies fighting against "primitive" or
guerrilla enemies - from the
Romans to the US Rangers - is to get the enemy to stand and fight. According
to Colonel Sir Charles
Callwell's maxim: "Tactics Favour the Regular Army While Strategy Favours
the Enemy - Therefore the
Object is to Fight, Not to Maneouvre". The Chechens accepted this challenge
- and beat the Russian
regulars, fair and square.4
Their triumph therefore is a reminder that because war for the individual
fighting soldier so often comes
down to a test of spirit and morale, the victory of the "civilised" and
"modern" side can never be taken for
granted. There will be room in the future of warfare for more Adowas and
Little Big Horns.
This book aims therefore both to mark this "clash of civilisations" and
to make a small but I hope useful
contribution to the continuing academic debate on the origins of nations and
nationalisms. To be quite
honest, while maintaining I hope a due scholarly and journalistic
objectivity, I also wanted to honour the
unique courage and tenacity of the Chechen people, for whom I have developed
a deep admiration.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * *

Much of the thrust of this book - and, I would say, of the obvious facts
themselves - are directed against
three closely intertwined and extremely influential Western schools of
thought concerning Russia: the first
- associated above all with the name of Professor Richard Pipes, but very
widespread indeed (in more or
less vulgarised forms) in the worlds of academia, journalism and government
- sees deep continuities
running through and even largely determining the course of Russian history
from the Middle Ages
through the Tsarist Empire and the Soviet Union to the post-Soviet present.
The second school, which
obviously derives to a great extent from the first, sees the Russians and
Russian culture as deeply,
perennially and primordially imperialist, aggressive and expansionist.
A third school appears to be absolutely opposed to the first two, but in
fact frequently plays into their
hands. This is the approach characteristic of the more optimistic Western
economic commentators on
Russia, like Anders Aslund and Richard Layard, who deny that Russian history
and special characteristics
of contemporary Russia are of major importance when it comes to the nature
and progress of Russian
reform. They assert by contrast that Russia is in fact well on the way to
becoming a "normal" country.
To dissect these approaches in order: In a 1996 article, Professor Pipes
wrote of an apparently fixed and
unchanging "Russian political culture" leading both to the adoption of the
Leninist form of Marxism in
1917 and to the problems of Russian democracy in 1996 - as if this culture
had not changed in the past 80
years, and as if the vote of ordinary Russians for the Communists in 1996
were motivated by the same
sentiments which drove Lenin's Red Guards.5 This approach obviously leads
to extreme scepticism about
whether Russia can ever be a "normal" country - "normal" of course meaning a
country situated in the
North-Western part of the Northern hemisphere in the last quarter of the
20th Century.
Pipes also makes no distinction between the Communists and the
"nationalists" (by which he presumably
meant Lebed), "since both wish to reconquer the lost empire" - differences
over economic policy, and
attitudes to private property, it seems, are simply not issues to be
considered when such primordial ethnic
forces are at work. 
So influential is this historicist mode that even Western observers who
know better sometimes feel obliged
to use it. Thus Professor Tim McDaniel, in an article entitled "Out of the
Past: Why Russia is No
Democracy", 6 wrote that,
"The current conflicts in the Kremlin are as redolent of the old Russia
as a Mussorgsky opera, an
Akhmatova poem, or Alexei Tolstoy's play about Ivan the Terrible..."
- which might to an unwary reader suggest that Anna Akhmatova - an
entirely European 20th Century
cultural figure whose concerns before 1917 were wholly unpolitical - was a
16th Century poetess.
Criticising such approaches, Dr Michael Mcfaul wrote with exasperation in
1996 of one collection of
essays and remarks on contemporary Russia that,
"By my count, the present day [in Russia] is (1) just like the Brezhnev
era, (2) just like Krushchev in '57,
(3), just like the Stalin era [this one was the most outrageous; comparing
Chubais with Stalin and Lebed
with Trotsky is one of the worst misuses of historical analogy I have seen
in a long time], (4) just like the
pre-revolutionary period and (5) similar to feudal Russia. It's as if we
analysts only know the history of
one country..." 
Representative of the second school, which believes in a unique and
uniquely malign Russia, are the
words of Dr Ariel Cohen:
"It is not prudent to deny or forget a thousand years of Russian 
history. It is replete with wars of imperial aggrandizement, the
Russification of ethnic minorities, and
absolutist, authoritarian, and totalitarian rule." 7
(neither the USA nor any other Western country having of course ever
expanded, conquered indigenous
peoples, or imposed on them its language and culture, or been under an
authoritarian regime). 
The historicist fallacy and that of Russia's uniqueness have often been
accompanied by a tendency to
exaggerate first Soviet and now Russian military strength. In the USA, this
is associated with numerous
"analysts" - like General William Odom, for example - and indeed with the
now highly discredited
portrait of the Soviet Union drawn by the Central Intelligence Agency in the
1980s, under William Casey
and Robert Gates.8
At its crudest, this attitude can take forms which are virtually
racialist; as for example in the words of the American conservative
columnist George Will, "Expansionism is in the Russians' DNA" (An index of
anti-Russian prejudice is the fact that the Russians are among the last
national groups about whom a
mainstream American columnist can make such remarks and get away with it.
Try delving into some
other traditional White American prejudices and exchanging a couple of the
words: "Cruelty is in the
Chinese DNA"? "Crime is in the Blacks' DNA"? If Mr Will had said these
things in print, can you
imagine what would have happened to him and his reputation?)9 
Or Peter Rodman: "The only potential great-power security problem in
Central Europe is the lengthening
shadow of Russian strength, and NATO has the job of counter-balancing it.
Russia is a force of nature; all
this is inevitable." 10 The tone of such statements is partly due to the
influence in America of ethnic
minorities from the former Russian empire, who have retained bitter memories
of past oppression, and in
consequence a deep, abiding and seemingly unchangeable hatred for Russia and
These are extreme versions; but something very like this attitude
underlies the whole approach to Russia
of Western journals like The Wall Street Journal.
Even a milder and more balanced version of Russian preoccupations can be
seriously misleading. Thus in
the words of Professor Pipes (1996),
"Nothing so much troubles many Russians today, not even the decline of
their living standards or the
prevalence of crime, and nothing so lowers in their eyes the prestige of
their government, as the
precipitous loss of great power status." 11
This would appear to be borne out by the statements of Russian
politicians, the behaviour of the Russian
government, and the heavy vote (albeit only in one election) for Vladimir
Zhirinovsky. One of the points
of my book however is that the statements of politicians, and even of
ordinary Russians, on this score,
need to be taken with a massive pinch of salt. The question is: they talk
the talk, but do they walk the
walk? For the world is full of nations which regularly indulge in outbursts
of nationalist rhetoric, and still
more of elites who use such rhetoric to mask their real and ugly motives for
holding onto state power.
How many however actually have the ability or the real will to act out their
rhetoric in reality? After all, if
the test of national strength and determination were the amount of noise a
country makes, Argentina
would long ago have conquered not merely the Falklands but much of the world.
An example closer to home is that of the Hungarians. Hungary was
notoriously the biggest loser from the
First World War, losing two thirds of its territory and millions of ethnic
Hungarians. In the interwar
period the slogan of "No, No, Never", in response to the question of whether
Hungarians would accept
this was a key determining element in Hungarian politics and indeed culture,
and ultimately helped bring
Hungary into the Second World War on the German side. 
Since the East European revolutions of 1989, Hungarian politicians, and
sometimes even governments,
have made noises suggesting that this sentiment is still very much alive;
but from 1991 to 1994, Serbia's
involvement in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, and consequent international
pariah status, gave the
Hungarians a magnificient chance to attack Serbia and recover the
Vojevodina; and the Serbians even
provided a casus belli by harassing and expelling ethnic Hungarians. Did the
Hungarians go to war?
Absolutely not. The fact is, nations can grow out of warlike nationalism -
or grow tired, fat, lazy and
decadent, whichever you prefer.
And every single reputable opinion poll in Russia in the years 1994-96
showed exactly the opposite of
what Pipes is alleging about the priorities of ordinary Russians. They all
put living standards, job security
and crime at the top of ordinary Russians' concerns, far above questions of
foreign policy or great power
Thus in answering the open-ended question, what is "the single most
serious problem facing the country"
in an opinion poll of April 1996, 56 percent of respondents pointed to
various economic problems, 17
percent to ethnic conflicts, 8 percent to crime and corruption, and less
than one percent the issues related
to national security and similar issues.
It is true that polls have always shown a very strong desire for the
restoration of the Soviet Union - but
this has also been true among many Ukrainians, Caucasians and Central
Asians; the key reason,
especially among the elderly, is a desire not for empire and glory but for a
return to security. Furthermore,
both most Russian politicians and the vast majority of ordinary Russians
stress that re-unification must be
voluntary or at least peacaeable. Less than ten percent of Russians,
according to polls conducted in 1996,
were willing to contemplate the use of force either to recreate the USSR or
to "reunite" Russia with
Russian-populated areas beyond her borders.
This book is also intended as a form of accounting with my own previous
mistakes in analysing
contemporary Russia (Could we have a little more of such accounting by other
analysts, please?). Many
readers of my previous book, "The Baltic Revolution", written in 1992, have
felt that, in the light of
subsequent events, I exaggerated the degree of threat to the Baltic States
both from Russia and more
importantly from their own Russian minorities. In the run up to the Chechen
War, like every other
observer I also greatly over-estimated the strength of the Russian army - or
rather under-estimated its
extreme decline. 
If I write with a certain bitterness about the more russophobe or
paranoid Western school of thought
concerning Russia, this is partly because these errors on my part stemmed
precisely from my having been
too much influenced by the picture of Russia and Russians drawn by analysts
like Richard Pipes, Zbigniew
Brzezinski, Paul Goble and Ariel Cohen.13
For it is crucial to remember that if the kind of Russian nation which
these men portray had really existed
- if indeed the contemporary Russians had resembled other European imperial
nations in the past - then
the history of the former Soviet Union in the mid 1990s would have been very
different and very much
nastier. Would Russians in the Baltic States who were obsessed with national
power and status have sat so
quietly while their civic rights were severely restricted and their language
driven from public life? If
national pride and identity had been the top concern of Russians in Crimea,
would they not have struggled
very much harder for their independence? Would Russian elites for whom the
restoration of imperial
power was of paramount importance have starved the Russian army until it
could be defeated by the
Chechens? And even if starving, wouldn't ordinary Russian soldiers fired up
with real national feeling
have fought hard and well at least to preserve Russian territorial integrity
against Chechen secession?
Even after Chechnya, Western belief in and fear of Russian military power
remains extraordinarily
tenacious. Thus on January 5th 1997, the Washington Post published an
article on the former Western
Soviet republics entitled "Still Within the Reach of the Bear", datelined
Kiev. It spoke of Russia
"projecting its military power" throughout the region and menacing its
neighbours, of the Baltic States' 
"utter military vulnerability" to Russia, of the "heavily militarised"
enclave of Kaliningrad "effectively
encircling" Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (the correspondent in question
needs a geography lesson, but
we'll let that pass). All this is tied to a historical process by which
"Russian rulers from Catherine the
Great to Stalin [sic]" "seized these lands" for "Russia".14 
Actually, this was pretty mild stuff by the standards of much American
reporting. The really extraordinary
thing was the date. January 5th 1997 was one day after the last Russian
troops were withdrawn from
Chechnya, after having been humiliatingly defeated by an apparently
hopelessly outnumbered and
outgunned adversary; and after months of reports in the US press about the
hunger, demoralisation,
deteriorating equipment and generally terrible state of the Russian armed
forces; and indeed, after years in
which Russia had not in fact attempted military coercion of any of its
Western neighbours.
For the correspondent of the Post, all of this evidence counted for
literally nothing compared to his own
ingrained prejudices and the uncritically accepted arguments of his
Ukrainian and Baltic hosts. It is also
entirely typical that he automatically saw Kaliningrad as "surrounding" the
Baltic States, without
considering, or even imagining the fact that from a Russian point of view,
it is Kaliningrad which is
"surrounded" by Lithuania, a deeply unstable Belarus, and a Poland which is
about to enter NATO, with
no direct link to Russia at all.15

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * *

The third approach, which believes that there is little to stop Russia
becoming a "normal" country, has
recently been summed up by Richard Layard and John Parker. In a chapter
entitled, "Is Russia
Different?", they briefly discuss the way in which previous attempts to
"liberalise" Russia have failed, and
ask whether this means that contemporary Russian reform and democracy are
doomed. They reply:
"The short answer is that "history is bunk", that the historical record
provides no real guide to present
behaviour and that historically-formed cultural characteristics do not
necessarily stand in the way of a
country's ability to change. If culture is so important, how can they
explain a culture's success in one era
and failure in another?"16
On the one hand, this approach is obviously more rational than the
historicist one; but it also risks leading straight back to it. This is
because of its very culturally constrained and indeed time-bound version of
the "normality" towards which Russia should be working, with "normal"
defined as a sanitised and
homogenised version of the late 20th Century West. For while there is no
unique or mysterious historical,
cultural or spiritual reason why contemporary Russia should not be able to
achieve an effective free
market system that will lead to prosperity for the mass of her population,
there are an awful lot of good
reasons which far from being uniquely Russian, are present in many countries
of the world: a weak state
and legal order, a weak civil society, extreme and cynical individualism,
corruption, the entrenched rule of
economically counter-productive elites. Unfortunately, over the past 150
years there has been nothing
whatsoever "abnormal" about such states with politically apathetic or
disorganised populations, ruled by
small elites who derive their wealth from the export of commodities, and
from their ability, through
control of the state, to evade taxation; and who spend that wealth on
property abroad or the consumption
of foreign luxuries; and who sometimes whip up chauvinist nationalism to
consolidate their own rule and
mask its vices.
Thus I once asked a British colleague who had expressed doubt about
whether Russia could be a "normal"
country which countries in the world he did in fact think were "normal" in
their external behavior. After a
certain amount of humming and hawing, he replied, "well, you know, Denmark,
New Zealand, places like
that." This suggests a new variant of an old joke: an Englishman and a
Frenchman are sitting in a bar.
The Englishman says to the Frenchman, "You know, the whole world's abnormal
except for you and me,
and sometimes I'm not so sure about you...".
The risk is of course that when Russia falls short, as it is bound to, of
this version of "normality", this
approach automatically goes to strengthen the historicists and russophobes.
This is related to the question,
"is Russia a European state?" When the answer comes, "no, not exactly", the
tendency then is to assume
that Russia must be anti-European. There is no room for subtlety in this
kind of mid-set; and indeed, a
sort of disappointed calf-love can lead the proponents of such views of
Russia's "normality" themselves
swing to an exaggeratedly anti-Russian view. This has been characteristic
for example of much of the
West's perception of Russian foreign policy in the period 1991-94, which
first exaggerated how much
Russia was joining an idealised (and be it said, unreal and hypocritical)
version of Western international
behaviour, and then swung to violent criticism and hostility when Russia
returned to a policy of national
A huge proportion of the Western and especially the American press tends
to take such a "monolinear"
approach to the "transition" of Russia and the other former Communist
states, whereby they are all on one
"path" to "democracy and the free market". They may proceed at different
speeds, stop, or even go
backwards, but the assumption is that the ultimate goal is one and
indivisible, and you can take only one
monorail route to transit there. The most sophisticated contemporary version
of this is of course Francis
Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis - much scorned by academic critics, and
in part deservedly; though
his analysis is useful as a basis for argument, and he is careful to give a
sophisticated and fair analysis of 
various challenges to his position.17
In the American media, by contrast, a shallow, bland version of
Fukuyama's thought is so omipresent 
that it is rarely noticed, let alone analysed or criticised. A classical,
and typical, example was in a
Washington Post article of 1996. The subject was Armenia, but exactly the
same formula has been used
about all of the former Communist countries which have undergone "reform":
"After 70 years of Soviet tyranny, Armenia is once again on the path to
democracy and the free market,
albeit with growing pains."18
Leaving aside the truly horrible mixed metaphor - for after all, what do
you do if you suffer growing pains
while on a path? Retire behind a tree? - this sentence in its short life
succeeds in promiscuously coupling
with no less than four ideological assumptions, all of them of doubtful
character :
The first is the religious and mystical imagery bound up with the
metaphor of a "path", evocative of
spiritual quests, pilgrimages, adventures and the pursuit of various species
of Grail. Now, it may be unfair
to compare President Ter-Petrossian, or any other post-Soviet politician, to
King Arthur and his knights
(and for that matter, maybe King Arthur would have looked less impressive if
he had had journalists to
deal with and not just dragons); nonetheless, it must be pointed out that
except for rare revolutionary
moments, the use of religious metaphors for political processes is usually a
Everywhere and most of the time, the principal business of politics is
politics: it is the process by which
people try to acquire and keep some form of power, the wealth that comes
from power, or the power to
protect wealth. We all know this instinctively when we look at our own
politicians (breathes there a
journalist in the USA, however young, who thinks that Bill Clinton is mainly
driven by ideology?); but too
often, when reporting on other countries, the assumption is made that their
political processes are
somehow much more driven by ideological "quests". 
In general, they are not; and in particular, the history of Russia and
other former Soviet republics since
the end of the Soviet Union needs to be viewed much less in poster-art,
journalistic and ideological terms
of "reform" and "reformers", or "democracy" and "democrats" against
"Communists", "nationalists" and
so on, and much more in terms of how various groups and individuals have
sought first economic and
then political power.
Secondly, reinforcing the religious metaphor in this passage, with its
implications of the nobility and
grandeur of the aim, is the organic metaphor of "growing pains", which
implies an inevitable and
scientifically determined process, by which a life, unless artifically "cut
short", develops according to
certain fixed rules towards an inevitable end. (The rather comical thing of
course is that this end is death,
which was presumably not what the writer meant to imply.) Actually, states
and nations, while they may
well develop in some sense organically, do not do so after the fashion of
individual human organisms.
Rather they are like complex ecosystems, in which one element changes,
unpredictably influencing the
rest, and so on, until in the end the whole system has been transformed.
Thirdly, there is the assumption that before this organic process was
temporarily interrupted by the
arrival of "Soviet (or Russian) tyranny", Armenia and other nations in the
region were in fact proceeding
along this path to "democracy and the free market". This was true of
Estonia and Latvia, and possibly of
Georgia; but in the case of Armenia and other areas, the briefest knowledge
of their actual history before
the Soviet annexation, and the ideology of their leading nationalist
parties, allows no such confidence.
Finally, there is the monolithic attitude that colours the entire passage
and approach. It speaks of the path to democracy (evidently viewed as a
single form, already fixed and fully understood) and the free market.
Now it is obviously true that modernising and globalising tendencies both
in economics and American
culture is leading to a certain homogenisation of human society. It is also
true that ostensibly free
elections are now very widespread. 
But that said, it is equally obvious that the way that capitalist
economies work and are influenced by
states differs immensely from country to country;19 that the paths by which
countries have developed
capitalism are highly varied; and that for every truly "free" electoral
system (whatever free really means in
this context), there is one which in one way or another is rigged, bought,
managed, guided or shaped
according to local patterns and traditions. It is also true of course that
for every fully successful capitalist state there are two or three where for
many decades progress has proved halting and ambiguous. especially as far as
the mass of the population is concerned. There is nothing "abnormal" in the
world today about the states of Egypt, Mexico or Pakistan.
In the words of Professor Jim Millar, "the default mode in today's world
is not a market economy. It is
stagnation, corruption and great inequalities of income." And ironically, as
David Hoffman's article on
Armenia with the above passage appeared, the Armenian government was itself
following a "normal"
pattern by rigging the Armenian elections and cracking down on the opposition.
Analysis based on the monolinear view of developments is mistaken with
regard to most countries in the
world. In the case of Russia, it can become actively dangerous, because it
can so easily tie in with
prejudices about the "perennial" Russian character, criticised above. This
is because if there is only one
path forward, then this logically means that there is only one path back;
hence all the talk that if Russia
fails to "establish democracy", she may "revert to totalitarianism". The
line about a reversion to
totalitarianism was very widespread in the run-up to the 1996 presidential
elections. The Communist
defeat has obviously diminished it, but fears of a "reversion to
dictatorship" remain common. 
In the USA, the Russophobes, and anyone with a domestic political or
economic interest in russophobia,
are still trying to terrify American taxpayers with tattered Halloween masks
portraying a monstrous
Russian threat to her neighbours and the world; but many Russian
sympathisers also pursue a version of
this - they just project it into the future, warning of all the terribly
horrible and dangerous things that will happen if we Westerners do not pay
to defend the virtue of "Russian democracy" against her would-be
violators - when in fact the poor creature has not just been living in a
brothel for years, she was actually
born there.
Both are conducting their respective public dances against a political
background overwhelmingly focused
on the shortest-term considerations of American electoral politics; and
against a rigid and simplistic
ideological background which employs brightly coloured poster concepts
(brave, benignant Western-style
"democrats"and "reformists" versus wicked "Communists", "nationalists" and
"authoritarians"). This
frankly childish frame of analysis seems to be believed in implicitly by
most senior members of the
Clinton foreign policy establishment, and it guides their policies towards
Russia and the Yeltsin
Underlying this often is also the naive belief that true Russian
democrats must always and of their very
nature be defenders of American foreign policy and American national
interests. Contrary to all
appearances, however, this last belief is actually a force for international
understanding - as one point at
least on which American conservatives and Russian communists can agree. 
This also leads to the incessant repetition of a black-and-white, and
completely mistaken set of
alternatives for Russia's future: either the development of a pro-Western,
free-market democracy, or 
reversion to "dictatorship and aggressive external policies". Whereas the
fact is that both a Russian
"democracy" and a "dictatorship" would desire to restore Russian hegemony
over the other states of the
former Soviet Union, but both would be headed by pragmatists (this is clear
from the present line-up of
potential future leaders - Lebed, Chernomyrdin and Luzhkov may be personally
disagreeable, but they are
all in their different ways rational and sensible men, and certainly not
fanatics) and these pragmatists will
realise that Russia has to operate under the most severe economic, military,
social and international
constraints on her behaviour.
And because of all the changes that have taken place, any dictatorship
in Russia today would not be a
"reversion" to the past but something qualitatively different from any
previous Russian authoritarian
regime, with a new nature and a new power base. When this Western attitude
becomes mixed up with the
ideological belief that "democracies do not go to war with each other",
whereas dictatorships are naturally
prone to aggression (as in the common journalistic formula concerning
Russia, "revert to dictatorship and
an aggressive foreign policy"), then the layers of mystification become
almost impenetrable. This book is
an attempt to pierce through some of these mists.


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