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Putin’s reelection, Larison says, “is a fact that should be viewed with some dispassion.” (Er, why exactly?) ~Michael Moynihan

Since Putin himself wasn’t being re-elected yesterday (it was the election for the Duma, and Putin headed United Russia’s list), as Moynihan knows, this sentence is strange enough, but the implication that non-Russians should have something other than fairly dispassionate reactions to an entirely unsurprising (and, yes, obviously rigged and inflated) United Russia election is stranger still.  The original article’s thesis didn’t really merit comment in my first post, because the thesis, particularly as it related to international affairs and Russian politics, was ridiculous.  I addressed his characterisation of Laughland’s TAC piece, because it seemed quite misleading and the article is not available online where it can be easily checked.  Here’s Moynihan’s opening line to his original article:

On December 2 voters in Russia and Venezuela will go to the polls, choosing to either accelerate the Sovietization and Sandinistaization of their respective societies or—an eventuality that seems less likely—to curtail the centralization of power in the hands of increasingly villainous chief executives. 

But a vote for United Russia wasn’t a vote for an accelerated “Sovietization” of Russian society.  Call it the entrenchment of Putinism or populist authoritarianism, or call it proof of illiberal democracy, but one thing it was not was an acceleration of “Sovietization.”  “Sovietization” is what you might expect from the Communists, who are now the lone opposition party.  The use of the word “Sovietization” in this context is absurd, and the statement in the concluding paragraph isn’t much better when he says, “Both Chavez and Putin are attempting to reset the clock on the Cold War…”  This takes symbolic use of Soviet nostalgia as proof of “Sovietization,” and seems to assume that this supposed “Sovietization” makes Russia into a threat and Putin into a villain, whom, it practically goes without saying, we are supposed to oppose.  The assumption behind the article seems to be that developments in the domestic politics of Russia and Venezuela pose some sort of threat to the West, presumably comparable to those posed by the USSR and its satellites.  This is basically fearmongering of the kind that has clouded our debates on foreign policy for years.  The generally awful results–for both America and the “beneficiaries” of our policies–of marrying power projection and “freedom agenda” meddling speak for themselves. 

We should view the Russian election results from yesterday with “some dispassion” for many reasons.  First of all, it is really none of our business and railing against it will change nothing, but more than that the proper approach to Russia that is clearly dominated by Putinism is to try to find some way to cultivate good relations with Russia, since it is obviously in the American interest to have good relations with a Eurasian power with which we have common security interests and whose continued political and economic stability we have an interest in supporting.  Continually lecturing the Russians on the deficiencies in their political system seems a good way to promote anti-Russian sentiment at home and give the impression that Westerners are intent on meddling in the internal affairs of Russia, which gives the Putin regime many pretexts for claiming that the West is trying to subvert and weaken Russia through the promotion of liberal political forces.  If Russian liberals are closely associated with the West and receive vocal support from Westerners, as they now are, they will never gain any traction inside Russia, and the attempted promotion of Russian liberals by outsiders will simply strengthen anti-Western attitudes within Russia that are also detrimental to the cultivation of good U.S.-Russian relations.  One of the points I was trying to make is that articles that try to revive Cold War mentalities, or articles that pretend that a new Cold War is upon us, as Moynihan’s certainly seemed to do, partake of an imprudent alarmism and vilification of other states that have very real damaging effects on the quality of foreign policy thinking in this country.  There are already voices in Washington who would like to imagine Russia as our enemy, and those who would like to avoid renewed confrontation and tension between our two countries should all do what we can to challenge what these voices are saying. 

Moynihan cites Laughland’s past works, which I was not defending in my post, but which he takes as vindication of his claim that Laughland is  writing as an apologist in this particular case.  Indeed, he can’t be bothered to find the article he was criticising.  The article in question was not an apology for Putin.  It was a corrective against the steady stream of vilification that we have become used to (and to which Moynihan’s article was another contribution), for the reasons I laid out before.  Moynihan needed to cite someone in the West as a “supporter” of Putin’s regime to show some relevance, and so he read into Laughland’s TAC piece the support he wanted to see in it.     

Another TAC piece from earlier this year by an author Moynihan will have a harder time trying to demonise was this cover article by Anatol Lieven:

And in contrast to the launching of the Cold War, for the U.S. to take these risks is not remotely justified by vital American interests. In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was the heartland of a revolutionary ideology that threatened to suppress free-market democracy, freedom, and religion across the world and, by dominating Western Europe and East Asia and fomenting revolution in Latin America, to pin the U.S. within its own borders, surround it, and eventually stifle it.

Today’s Russia is like many U.S. allies past and present: a corrupt, state-influenced market economy with a partly democratic, partly authoritarian system. Russia has no global agenda of ideological or geopolitical domination but mainly wants to exert predominant influence (but not imperial control) within the territory of the former Soviet Union and the centuries-old Russian empire [bold mine-DL]. Moves by the state to dominate the oil and gas sector are unwelcome to Americans but entirely in line with world practice outside the U.S. and U.K. Russian corruption is extremely serious, but on the other hand, the fiscal restraint of the Putin administration holds lessons for the present U.S. administration, not the other way around. Like India, Turkey, and many other democratic states, Russia has used brutal means to suppress a separatist rebellion.

Like Turkey for several decades when it was a member of NATO, Russia combines an increasingly independent judiciary and respect for the rule of law with selective repression (both formal and covert) against individuals seen as threats to the state or the ruling elite. The media scene is rather like India until the 1980s—a combination of state domination of television with a free and vocal, but much less influential, print media.

Above all, when it comes to the main lines of its foreign and domestic policy, the Putin administration has the support of the vast majority of ordinary Russians, while the Russian pro-Western liberals we choose to call “democrats” are supported by a tiny minority—mostly because of their association with the disastrous “reforms” of the 1990s. Thus, far from rallying democratic support in Russia, American attacks on Putin in the name of democracy only foment the anger of ordinary Russians against the United States.  It does not help when criticism of Russia’s record on democracy and freedom comes from that notorious defender of human rights Dick Cheney or when these statements are immediately followed by warm and public American embraces of even more notorious ex-Soviet democrats like President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.

Russia today is by no means a pretty picture, but to compare it in terms of repression and state control with the Soviet Union—or indeed with contemporary China—is grotesque [bold mine-DL]. We should remember that as late as the summer of 1989, a Soviet leader who envisioned Russia as it now exists would have been received with incredulous joy by the West as representing a future beyond our most optimistic dreams. And at that time a Western policymaker who advocated such megalomaniacal, horribly dangerous projects as drawing Ukraine and Georgia into an anti-Russian military alliance, and taking responsibility for their security, would have been regarded as completely insane.

That is the voice of intelligent realism speaking.  It is worth noting this last point about comparisons with the USSR being grotesque, since this is exactly what Moynihan was doing.  It was against just such grotesquerie, and the hostility to the Russian government that it represented, that I was objecting.

P.S.  Later in the piece, Lieven said this, which is especially relevant to the Laughland piece, since it was Putin’s pragmatism that Laughland was trying to stress:

In fact, we should be very glad that the Putin administration is as pragmatic as it is in its international policy and as relatively law-abiding at home. During the 1990s, given what was happening to both Russian living standards and Russian national power and prestige, I and many other Western observers in Russia feared an eruption of outright fascism, with catastrophic results for Russia and the world.

This is one reason that present U.S. attacks on the Putin administration are so over the top. The other is that the post-Cold war era should have begun with a presumption of Russia’s innocence on the part of the West. After all, two years before it collapsed the Soviet Union had already withdrawn peacefully from Eastern Europe on the informal promise that these countries would not be incorporated into NATO. This withdrawal removed the original casus belli of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, which began not because of anything that the Soviet state was doing within its own borders but because of its domination of European states beyond its borders in ways that were clearly menacing to Western Europe and vital American interests there.

This last sentence drives home the point that the success of United Russia on Sunday likewise has nothing to do with a restart or return of the Cold War, since the Cold War, if we are to be precise about what the name means, referred to U.S.-Soviet great power rivalry centered in Europe. 

Michael Moynihan’s article, framing Chavez’s power-grab and the upcoming Russian elections as evidence of “the Cold War’s return,” wouldn’t merit much comment, except that he makes this claim as he tries to tell his audience why they should care about what happens in the domestic politics of other countries:

Despite their obvious contempt for democratic institutions, both leaders still command a disturbing, though hardly overwhelming, level of Western support; defenders who will doubtless welcome a Chavez or Putin electoral victory and retrenchment.

He cites John Laughland’s TAC article on Putin (not available online) and a couple HuffPo columnists.  I’ll leave the latter until another time or perhaps to someone else, because the columns are available online and can be judged for themselves.  Moynihan attributes to Laughland “support” for Putin that would make him “welcome” electoral victory and retrenchment for United Russia, when Laughland’s article is an attempt to provide some balance and perspective about Putin’s regime, about which there have been more than a few breathless and hysterical Reason articles in the past.  There was no question of welcoming or dreading United Russia’s victory, since every informed person knows it is certain to happen and is a fact that should be viewed with some dispassion.  For some people, attempting to understand foreign governments and leaders in a sober way–free of provocative references to the start of another Cold War–is evidence of endorsement and support and “defense” of a foreign government.  To the extent that these observers want to avoid hostility and conflict between the West and these other governments, they will try to get past the (frequently self-serving) propaganda that would seek to make every insufficiently (or, in the case of Russia and Venezuela, arguably excessively) democratic government around the world into a dire threat or villains to be opposed. 

We should be clear about a few things.  No one needs to applaud Putin’s authoritarian populism (and no one is applauding it) to understand why it prevails in Russia and will continue to do so, no matter how many hectoring Western articles are writtenn against it, and that it is part of the political reality of our time.  We can respond to it rationally and according to our interests, which dictate that we do not get into another escalating confrontation with Russia, or we can respond to it viscerally and stoke such fruitless confrontation by making the internal politics of Russia our business. 

Since Laughland’s article isn’t online, it is difficult for non-subscribers to check Moynihan’s claim that it offers support and defense of Putin.  It seeks to get past caricature and vilification, yes, but the article is generally descriptive, not apologetic.  It allows Putin to speak for himself, rather than having Western pundits impute motives to him based on their own preoccupations with curtailing Russian power and backing U.S. hegemony in Eurasia.  If I were someone preoccupied with vilifying a foreign government, I might also find this “disturbing,” since it interferes with the generally unified message from Western media that we must fear and loathe Russia under Putin.   

Laughland starts by noting the excessive demonisation that seems to be focused on certain Slavic nations (typically when their governments do not play ball with Washington):

Is there such a thing as Slavophobia?  To be sure, not all Slavic nations are vilified in the West, but the recent demonization of the Serbs and Russians has an especially vicious quality….the Western mind attributes to them the most sinister of motives, as  if they were the embodiment of evil itself.

He then describes a meeting he had with Putin, noting:

The contrast between the image of Putin in the West and Putin in the flesh could hardly be greater.

This would almost have to be true, since the image promoted by many Western pundits is that of Stalin risen from the grave. 

Laughland says later:

Lack of ideology is the new Russian ideology, and Putin has a lot to be non-ideological about.  In his eight years in power, Russia has gone from being a semi-bankrupt state to having the largest gold reserves in the world and some $300 billion in foreign currency reserves besides….The Putin boom cannot be reduced to oil and gas revenues alone, for it has lifted many sectors and many different regions of this, the largest country in the world….Putin specifically referred to the abandonment of ideology during his long talk with us [bold mine-DL]Asked what Russia’s role should now be in the world, he replied that neither the Tsarist model of support for Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire nor the Soviet model of support for socialism were remotely appropriate for Russia today.  Lenin, he said, had cared nothing for Russia itself but only for world revolution.  Putin spoke firmly to as he told us, “I have no wish to see our people, and even less our leadership, seized by missionary ideas.  We need to be a country that in every way has a healthy self-respect and can stand up for its interests but a country that is at the same time able to reach agreements and be a convenient partner for all members of the international community.”  Putin sees it as his mission to make Russia a normal country.

Again, this is not “lauding”–it is describing what has happened and quoting what Putin says.  Now you can be skeptical, and we should always be skeptical when politicians say any of these things, but the point of Laughland’s article is to report what Putin said at this meeting, to try to understand the current Russian government as one that is not nearly so far removed from modern Europe as its critics would make it out to be and to appeal to people in the West to be more reasonable in their attitudes towards the Russian government.  As both Moynihan and Laughland would acknowledge, the current form of regime in Russia is not going anywhere anytime soon.  It is realism and common sense to see Putin and Russia as something other than “villainous” (Moynihan’s word for Putin) enemies to be thwarted and checked.  Putin and Putinism will remain, so it is probably wiser to seek a modus vivendi rather than endlessly provoking and perturbing Moscow.  If that constitutes a “defense” of Putin, we have watered down the meaning of apologetics pretty thoroughly. 

For the record, I don’t approve of Putin’s squelching of independent media and most of his so-called “managed democracy,” and I don’t approve of Saakashvili and Musharraf’s declarations of emergency rule and everything that goes with them, but what ought to matter most in determining our relations with all these states are our interests and theirs and the points of agreement between them.  Where Putin’s rule has been promoting stability in Russia, Saakashvili and Musharraf have promoted instability and have in the process jeopardised real U.S. interests in their respective regions.  It seems to me that Americans should be a great deal more concerned with what our feckless client states are doing that may harm U.S. interests, and we should be much less concerned with what a very powerful potential ally does within its own borders.  Most pundits and politicians in America seem to have this exactly backwards.

The main goal is to entirely eradicate European mechanisms of power transfer in Russia and to consolidate the Byzantine model of succession. ~ Sergei Kovalev

Really?  The “Byzantine model”?  Putin wants to create a system in which the previous ruler is either blinded or exiled to a monastery following debilitating civil war?  That was, as often as not, the “Byzantine model” for succession, since there wasn’t actually a “Byzantine model” for succession to the throne.  (Only in the last three centuries was there regularly a reasonably stable hereditary dynasty, which still didn’t necessarily stop the civil wars and assassinations, but simply limited it to members of the same family.)  It was in this respect much like the old Roman system, where contingents of the army rose up around a general or rival claimant and then knocked off the emperor to put their leader in his place.  In fact, I am positive that Putin does not want to institute such a system, since it means that his prime minister will be forced to have him blinded and tonsured in a little over a year.  The system Kovalev is actually describing is actually very unlike the way transfers of power were handled in Byzantium: the transfer promises to be peaceful and ratified by a formal popular vote.  There will be, I expect, no palace coups, no poisonings and no tongue-slitting.

Yes, I know Kovalev is just using Byzantine in the pejorative, ill-informed way that modern people often do–they use it to describe whatever it is they don’t like about another country or, in the case of some modern Russians, whatever they don’t like about their own.  Do you see how Kovalev uses it?  It is the opposite of European, the antithesis of the way things are supposed to be.  Along with the “Mongol yoke” thesis, the Byzantine role in creating modern Russian political culture is another preferred cop-out for explaining why Russian politics has been the way it has.  To refer to what is happening in modern Russia as a revival of Byzantine political practices would be like describing the schemes of Hu Jintao with references to the Tang dynasty.  We would all, I think, see the transparent silliness of that.

P.S. The article reached this silly claim about Byzantine models by trying to tell us about the deep and ancient servility bred into the Russian people (a trait, we are supposed to believe, that none of their Slavic and Baltic neighbours shares), which is the classic Westerniser’s complaint about why Russians don’t like people like him.  The truth is that mass democracy will favour candidates who can provide, or be perceived as providing, security and some measure of stability, because these are the political goods that most people expect from government above all else. 

The new advocacy of containment may stem from a substantial gap between Russian and U.S. aspirations. U.S. diplomacy seeks to transform what Washington considers “nondemocratic” governments around the world, reordering entire regions in the process. Russia, with its experience with revolution and extremism, cannot subscribe to any such ideologically driven project, especially one that comes from abroad. The Cold War represented a step away from the Westphalian standard of state sovereignty, which placed values beyond the scope of intergovernmental relations. A return to Cold War theories such as containment will only lead to confrontation. ~Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Putin observers have been banging their heads against a wall in frustration as they try to understand his selection of Viktor Zubkov to head a new government as prime minister.  Rather than look for the simple explanation that you might use for any other quasi-democratic authoritarian regime (the last government was not seen to be performing well and needed to be replaced), the move has spurred on endless speculation: what does it all mean?  The Rise of Zubkov has become the latest in a string of events that serves as the pretext for trotting out all the old cliches about Russia–it’s baffling!  it’s mysterious!–which never seem to embarrass the people who employ them.  It means that Viktor Zubkov will be prime minister.  That’s what it means.  Mystery solved. 

It seems to me that everyone has become so caught up in the idea that the FSB runs everything that it genuinely stuns people when Putin chooses a non-silovik for a job.  They had finally come up with an explanation for how the Russian state worked, and a lot of it even seemed to make sense, and then Putin goes and makes a perfectly boring, non-sinister choice for prime minister.  How do you fit that into the narrative of Putin the Monster?   

Why does any executive choose a nonentity who will do his bidding?  So that he will have a nonentity who will do his bidding.  It’s really very simple.  Why did George Bush select Alberto Gonzales to be Attorney General?  It wasn’t because of his great legal mind.  He had Gonzales’ loyalty right to the end, and knew that Gonzales would do as he was told.  He might do his job very badly, but he would not do it with any trace of independence! 

Because Zubkov is not from the inner circle or an old secret police man, people are perplexed, apparently forgetting that Putin was mayor of St. Petersburg and probably wants to have someone from that city running the government. 

P.S.  It turns out that he and Zubkov are old colleagues from city government days.  The great riddle has been answered. 

Someone will need to explain this to me: why do certain Westerners claim to care so much what happens inside Russia (or replace Russia with any other country you’d care to name)?  I’m serious.  This is the second prominent op-ed about the youth group Nashi in the last week, and it is written in that same tone of alarmed concern.  It seems to me that Westerners look at Russia with the same kind of myopia with which Americans look at Europe or Europeans look at America or coastal liberals look at people in “Red” America.  The critics always latch on to those elements of the country that they purport to find sinister (usually because the “sinister” elements have different political views from themselves) and then generalise about the condition of the entire country based on this.  Where the secular European quakes in dread of American megachurches, or the religious American shudders at the thought of empty churches in Europe and godless Frenchmen cavorting on their long weekends, certain Westerners are filled with horror at the thought of Russian nationalists. 

Better yet they are disturbed by things like this:

But it is one thing for French kids to be told about Joan of Arc’s heroism or American kids about Paul Revere’s midnight ride; everyone is entitled to a Robin Hood or William Tell or two. It’s a bit more disturbing to learn that the new Russian history manual teaches that “entry into the club of democratic nations involves surrendering part of your national sovereignty to the U.S.” [bold mine-DL] and other such choice contemporary lessons that suggest to Russian teenagers that they face dark forces abroad.

The textbook’s phrasing is a bit blunt, but I can’t say that I find this statement to be all that inaccurate.  Entering the “democratic club of nations” in practice frequently means having your policies dictated to you by foreign governments, the U.S. being chief among them, which offer the “incentives” of gaining membership in other clubs (the WTO, NATO, the EU) and receiving support from the IMF.  Once you have joined these organisations, your sovereignty is reduced even more and your policy options are even more constrained.  In practice, it often is the case that these nations yield up some of their sovereignty to Washington as an “ally” or to institutions where Washington’s influence is very great. 

The legitimate criticism here should be that this statement has little or nothing to do with the study of history.  If it were a political science book, it might be different, but there is certainly a level of gratuitous politicisation here in any case.  It is the politicisation, and not the message’s content, that we should find objectionable.

It is worth noting that none of this fundamentally changes what our attitude towards the Russian government ought to be.  Cooperation with Russia is in the best interests of both our countries.  The more people in the West rile themselves up over what the Russians are doing with their textbooks and the like, the harder it becomes to foster good relations with Moscow.  The Japanese, of course, have engaged in some of the most appalling revisionism about WWII in their textbooks, but very few people seem terribly upset by this these days such that they try to encourage fear and loathing of Japan. 

The current demonization of Russia in some American quarters is thus incomprehensible, unless one keeps in mind the particular conceit of democracies at war that Kennan, following Tocqueville, pointed out long ago: “There is nothing in nature more egocentrical than the embattled democracy. It soon becomes the victim of its own propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision of everything else. . . . People who have got themselves into this frame of mind have little understanding for the issues of any contest other than the one in which they are involved.” ~Tony Corn

It is an interesting, albeit rather long, article, and I can’t agree with everything in it (who can actually be surprised by neocon tunnel vision?), but most of the sections on Russia and Central Asia seem fairly sound. 

Cathy Young is worried about “a generation that is being taught to see national greatness in a bully state that inspires fear abroad and tramples the individual at home.”  Surprisingly, she isn’t talking about the College Republicans, and the “bully state” she mentions is not the U.S. government.  She refers instead to Russian youths who belong to a group called Nashi, and the state is the Russian Federation (which has not, strangely enough for a bully state that spreads fear abroad, invaded even one other country in the last 15 years).  From her description, this group sounds as if it has many of the vices that would be associated with any group of nationalists.  It isn’t clear why it merits this much attention.  Think about it: Putin theoretically has at his disposal the entire military, intelligence and internal security apparatus of the Russian government, so how on earth could a band of occasionally thuggish nationalist youths be of greater concern to someone who opposes Putin?  

If you want to get exercised about the treatment of Estonia (whose own government’s removal of a Soviet war memorial started the whole fracas), you might focus on the massive cyber-war waged against E-stonia rather than the bussed-in protesters who threw rocks at an embassy.  But there’s no anti-Nazi cachet in that.  Drawing attention to Russian cyber-warfare would emphasise that these are not just some dusty bunch of old commie-Nazis, but represent something different.  Writing an article about “Putin’s young brownshirts” is much catchier, because it allows the audience to avoid thinking. 

Presumably Ms. Young is no more of a fan of our own President-worshipping, ”national greatness” chauvinist, rights-trampling and Constitution-shredding types in this country, but when I read things like this I am tempted to ask: “Why does this matter?”  Or, more to the point, I am compelled to reply: “Why do you suppose a generation who grew up in chaos would rally around an authoritarian populist who shakes his fist defiantly at foreigners and seeks to restore national prestige?  Could it be that incredibly bad U.S. Russia policy, the follies of Russian liberals and the rampant criminality of the ’90s taught a generation that the liberalism being offered them was designed to ruin and humiliate their country?”  It’s a bit like the growing revolt of my generation against the GOP because of its failures and corruption, but multiplied by a factor of ten.   

No doubt many of the young nationalists Ms. Young mentions here are making standard nationalist errors: you can see the reflexive attachment to the state, the confusion of government and country, the conflation of patriotic love and nationalist hatred, and the overcompensation for an awareness of vulnerability with bluster and tough talk.  Above all, the source of this nationalist zeal is a sense of rage caused by past humiliations and the focus of that rage on those who are believed to have been responsible for that humiliation.  It occurs to me that if the popularity of authoritarian nationalism in another country disturbs you, you would want to be someone who very actively denounces all of your own state’s policies that contribute to the fear, anger and resentment that fuel that nationalism.  Perhaps that will be Ms. Young’s next column.  For some reason, I won’t be holding my breath.   

My Scene colleague Cheryl Miller points to these three items.  Despite what seems like a perfectly crafted attempt to bait me into an extremely long response, I would make just a few points.  First, Ms. Grabar’s article was not “preposterous,” though it was weaker than it should have been.  Second, a Jane Austen Christianity is the Christianity of the safe, the unremarkable and the ordinary.  I do not claim that there is no need for such a thing or that it is unimportant, but the idea that it is actually more profound or more powerful than Dostoevsky’s vision seems, well, just silly. Third, no one who understands anything about Dostoevsky would say the following, as Tom West does:

Dostoevsky’s solution, for all its anti-European sentiment, seems to take its departure from the same post-Hegelian premise: only will, and not reason, can guide us.

The principal error of both Peter Verkhovensky (Demons) and Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) is to place their trust in the power of the will and the willingness to overstep the boundaries of the law, both human and divine.  Plainly, for Dostoevsky will alone cannot guide us, and in Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy–heavily influenced by the Slavophiles and indirectly by the Fathers–there is the understanding that will apart from or in opposition to God is death and isolation.  Willfulness against God is a mark of the demonic; it is at the heart of our ancestors’ rebellion in the Garden.  Further, it is the one-sidedness of reason alone, reason without faith, reason against God, that Dostoevsky, like the Slavophiles, repudiates when he critiques reason.  Likewise, no fair and accurate reading of The Grand Inquisitor could lead anyone to conclude the following about Dostoevsky:

For Dostoevsky, then, either we accept the absolute authority of the father and king and church, or we repudiate human reason and follow nothing but arbitrary will, personal or collective.    

Amazing.  This is totally wrong.  It is entirely backwards.  West claims to be reviewing a work by Joseph Frank, but the Frank works on Dostoevsky I have read would never have made such a claim.  In the story, who represents the (for Dostoevsky) unholy trinity of authority, miracle and bread?  The Grand Inquisitor.  Who represents a religion in harmony with human freedom in this story?  Christ.  Those who have read Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary cannot miss his frequent, polemical equations (in which he again echoes the Slavophiles) between socialism, Catholicism and rationalism.  The first two, in Dostoevsky’s view, both share a devotion to authority, miracle and bread.  Dostoevsky’s Christianity, his Orthodoxy, is the Orthodoxy in which Christ did not come down from the Cross because He so respected man’s freedom.  This is the same Dostoevsky who does not have Fr. Zosima’s body exuding the scent of myrrh after his death, because Dostoevsky does not wish to make faith an automatic response to a miracle, but a freely chosen embrace of the Incarnate Truth.  (A good argument can be made that Dostoevsky has gone too far in his opposition to both authority and miracle, since the Orthodox Church acknowledges the importance of both, but that is not at issue here.)  Dostoevsky’s vision is the one in which evil is the proof of human freedom–suffering will exist if man is to be free–and appeal to authority is the mark of a Christianity that seeks to supplant Christ.  His Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is another valuable source for understanding his priorities.  This was someone who did not discard the old scheme of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but rather refused to let it be defined by liberals and socialists according to their lights.  Setting up Dostoevsky as some embodiment of the most ultra of reactionaries is satisfying to someone already intent on belittling traditionalism (so intent that he misses that Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn hold positions very close to one another in the end), but it does no justice to the complexity of Dostoevsky’s works and the mixture of his liberal background, his later Slavophile-inspired romantic conservative nationalism and renewed acceptance of Orthodoxy.     

The Bush administration’s plans for the missile-defense shield call for a radar-tracking station to be built in the Czech Republic and for 10 interceptor missiles to be placed in Poland. The Czech and Polish governments have signaled their support even though national opinion polls in both countries show strong opposition to the U.S. plan. ~The Seattle Times

Yet dislike of Russia’s current path does not create unity. Both France and Germany are unenthusiastic about America’s planned missile-defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. President George Bush continues to protest that these are aimed at Iranian nuclear weapons, not at Russia. But with the exception perhaps of Britain’s Tony Blair, a lame-duck ally who will shortly leave office, he will find little support from his western counterparts. ~The Economist

It turns out that the idea is wildly unpopular across Europe, especially in those countries where the interceptors are going to be based.  The Polish and Czech governments are in favour of it, just as they have been supportive of the war in Iraq against the explicit wishes of their citizens.  Had Putin held off with his confrontational bluster, he could have easily detached most European countries from the U.S. on this particular issue.  Most Europeans don’t believe that there is a threat from Iran in any case, and they’re the ones who would be protected under any missile shield.  Iran does extensive business with Europe.  To launch missile strikes on any EU country would mean greater economic ruin for their country.  What is this strange American habit of seeing dangers in other parts of the world that the people in those other parts of the world do not see? 

If we took the government at its word, this missile shield would be built to counter threats from mighty Iran (whose Shahab missiles can probably only barely reach some parts of Europe).  However, it seems rather obvious that the current plan has nothing to do with countering an Iranian threat.  For instance, Voice of America tells us:

The U.S. plan suggests deploying 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. The system would cover NATO members except Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and parts of Romania [bold mine-DL].

In other words, the allies closest to Iran that would be the most easily targeted by any Iranian attack would have no protection whatever under this plan.  This plan does cover all ex-Soviet and former Warsaw Pact states now in NATO that border on or are closest to Russia.  It also protects the rest of the alliance west of Poland and the Czech Republic, but our easternmost NATO allies would be out of luck.  What were the Russians supposed to conclude from the obviously two-faced nature of the official justification for the missile shield? 

Just as democracies do not make war on each other, they do not point nuclear warheads in each other’s direction. ~The Economist

This, of course, is utter rot.  Democracies do make war on each other.  They have done so before, and as more nations become democratic it is inevitable that it will happen in the future.  The second part is particularly absurd.  If Pakistan became a genuine liberal democracy tomorrow, does anyone believe that it would not ”point” its nuclear weapons at India?  This is a question of perceived strategic necessity–nations with weak or smaller conventional forces will rely on nuclear deterrents to check foreign threats, and they will target perceived enemies that have made their hostility clear.  This remark about democracies and nuclear weapons is like saying that France and Germany, both states with constitutions and universal suffrage in 1914, could not possibly have been preparing for war with each other.  It is a fantasy about the virtues of democracy and one that will only become more dangerous with time.  Does anyone believe that a liberal democratic regime in Moscow would have responded to the anti-Russian moves of the last 10 years with significantly less suspicion and wariness?  The responses of governments to perceived threats have less to do with regime type than they have to do with the prevailing foreign policy faction in influential positions in the government.  If “hawks” and nationalists are ascendant, democracy is no guarantee that a less belligerent, confrontational policy will result.  Indeed, democracy combined with a consensus political culture of “hawkishness” and nationalism often has explosive, terrible consequences.

France would never have targeted America with its nuclear weapons because…wait for it…France is an ally of the United States.  Russia has been, or at least could have been, a real ally of the West.  Russia has been led to believe with increasing frequency that both Washington and Brussels regard it as a serious and growing threat.  Finally, after the last provocation of proposing the missile defense system into central Europe, Moscow has pushed back hard in a tragic and futile worsening of relations.  Western governments are not solely to blame for this dramatic souring between Russia and the West, but they have contributed more than their share.   

The inclination of most Western leaders most of the time has been to coddle or appease Mr Putin, rather than confront him—because they have been deluded about his real goals and motives, or distracted by other crises, or divided by the Kremlin’s gas deals. ~The Economist

The European response to Putin is more complicated (they are over a barrel because of oil and gas supply dependency, but they are ideologically hostile to Putin as much as anyone in Washington), but when it comes to Washington’s approach this is an amazing description.  On the surface at an official level, there has not been much confrontational and inflammatory rhetoric coming from administration officials, but to understand actual Russia policy you have to follow the old “watch what they do, not what they say” rule.  First, there was the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which the Russians viewed harshly, and there was also NATO expansion into eastern Europe, which Russia took very poorly.  Then there has been repeated meddling by Washington, the EU, the OSCE and Western NGOs in Russia’s near-abroad: Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan being the most oustanding examples.  Criticism about Chechnya also rankles, especially when it comes from those states that invade other countries.  The government was not quite as bad about excuse-making for the Beslan murderers as some pundits and journalists in establishment circles, but the general response to the Beslan massacre in the West was a mix of indifference and a sense that the Russians brought this on themselves, and the perception of a double standard about terrorism here is very hard to shake. 

To Putin, who was the first to offer aid to the United States after the 9/11 attacks and who put up no barriers to American deployments all over Central Asia in the campaign that followed, Washington’s actions have been obnoxious, pointed incursions on Russia’s sphere of influence and demonstrations of impressive ingratitude.  The targeting of regimes that have long-standing ties to Moscow on grounds of halting weapons proliferation must strike the Russians as oddly convenient, since it was our ally in Pakistan that has been responsible for most of the nuclear and missile technology proliferation of the last ten years.  The deployment of “missile defense” systems in central Europe, contrary to past commitments made to Moscow, has been something of a final straw, precipitating a series of more and more confrontational moves from the Russian side to make up for what I suspect the Kremlin regards as its excessive indulgence of Western encroachment.  The idea that the current situation has come about because the West has been soft and indulgent towards Russia is simply bizarre and I don’t know how anyone could make successful policy recommendations based on such a skewed view of the situation.

Referring to its behavior while still enslaved by the Soviet state, she writes that “[t]oday’s Moscow Patriarchate is the as-yet-unrepentant inheritor of this legacy.” I would suggest Prof. Kizenko read the “Basic Social Concept,” adopted by the MP’s Council of Bishops of 2000, in which subservience by the church to a state hostile to Christianity is unequivocally rejected, and in great detail. As for repentance, that is a private Christian podvig, or spiritual deed, made before one’s spiritual father (as the daughter of a venerable ROCOR priest, Prof. Kizenko is certainly aware of this). Still, 16 years ago, Patriarch Aleksy performed an open act of repentance in an interview published many times since then: “It is not only before God, but also before all of those people to whom the compromises, silence, forced passivity or expressions of loyalty that the church leadership allowed themselves to make in those years brought pain that I ask forgiveness, understanding and prayers.” ~Nicholas A. Ohotin

Read the entire response.  It is good to see that the Church has challenged and corrected the misrepresentations of the earlier article.

News media world-wide described the event as a step in overcoming Russia’s tragic history. The New York Times called the merger “the symbolic end of Russia’s civil war.” But the reality is far more complicated. Not only are there theological and moral issues at stake, but there is also the suspicion among some that Mr. Putin is building new networks of influence by using the church to reach out to Russian émigré communities all over the world. ~Nadia Kizenko

I imagine that there will be a more proper official response to Prof. Kizenko’s unfortunate article than my various blog posts, but until then I want to say a few more things about this.  People at church on Sunday who had seen the article were upset by this, and they regarded it very poorly.  While Prof. Kizenko may encourage those intent on breaking away from the Russian Orthodox Church, which would be a terrible thing for all, she has certainly not persuaded anyone.  One reason is that her article is so thoroughly inaccurate.  Perhaps she felt the need to give the story a political spin to make it attractive to the editors at WSJ.  Perhaps those editors twisted or manipulated her words to give them the worst possible meaning.  I do not know the full story about that, but what I do know is that Prof. Kizenko has misrepresented or misunderstood central issues and matters of fact in the reconciliation of the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The reality is complicated and the history of the negotiations much more involved and drawn out than she claims, but it is Prof. Kizenko who has opted to tell a simple story of political meddling and “Putin’s acquisition.”

As for the charge that Mr. Putin would like to reach out to emigre communities, I’m sure this is true.  This is hardly some sinister plot.  Many countries often look to build up networks of communication and support with their Diasporan communities abroad, and as I have suggested in the past this probably was a motive of Mr. Putin in supporting the reconciliation.  In any case, his motives in the matter are beside the point.  An important point to be made here is that the emigre communities of the Russian Church Abroad are hardly so large as to constitute a major resource that the oil-rich master of the Kremlin would make much effort to “acquire” it, to use the Journal’s unfortunate phrase.  Certainly, no one familiar with the Synod would confuse it with having the rather larger financial resources of some other Orthodox jurisdictions.  The gain for Putin and the Moscow Patriarchate in purely wordly terms is very, very small.  Prof. Kizenko’s claim that Moscow now will have access to a “ready-made network of 323 parishes and 20 monasteries in the U.S. alone, and over a million church members in 30 countries [bold mine-DL]” is simply not true.  Would that we had so many parishes and monasteries!  Would that we had so many members!  That would be wonderful news indeed, but it would certainly be news to us.  

The numbers of members worldwide in Synod parishes come to something like 150,000 people.  News stories are frequently inflating the number of parishioners in our churches.  Certainly, if there are so many of us in America alone, it is remarkable that our representation in the greater Chicago area–one of our archdiocesan centers–should be limited to our cathedral and one modest parish.  The ROCOR parish directory is available to anyone who would care to peruse it.  There you will find that, counting parishes and monasteries together, there are only 111 Russian Orthodox Church Abroad churches, monasteries and hermitages in the United States, roughly one third as many as Prof. Kizenko claimed.  In the rest of the world, including what were the ROCOR parishes in Russia, there are 126 listed churches and monasteries outside the U.S., bringing the global total to 237.

More worrisome and dangerous is the hint that there is something suspect about the loyalty of Russian Orthodox, as if they take their orders from the Kremlin.  This sort of argument is absurd when it is applied to Catholics, it is absurd when applied to Mormons, and it is absurd when it is applied to us.  Priests are being cast as agents of political influence, and Orthodox parishes are being made out to be conduits of Moscow’s power.  This is shameful and untrue.  This would be insulting enough, but it also revives ugly and tiresome stereotypes about the Orthodox that we are unacceptably submissive to state control or that state authorities have some undue control over the operations of the Church.  The hoary charge of Caesaropapism lurks just out of view, and with it the claim that we are not much more than “the emperor’s men” or, in this case, “Putin’s men.”  Such compromises have happened occasionally, rarely, in the history of the Church during times of great trials.  Many of the heretical emperors exercised such excessive interference in the affairs of the Church, but this has been so far from the normal state of affairs that it is amazing that this stereotype has endured. 

Having more or less stifled internal dissent, Russia is now ready to play a more aggressive role on the international stage. Remember, it was Putin who restored the old Soviet national anthem. And it was he who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “national tragedy on an enormous scale.”

It would be a bigger tragedy if he or his successor tried to restore that evil empire. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the Weimar analogy predicts will happen. ~Niall Ferguson

Three points to start.  Putin restored the melody of the old Soviet anthem, but the words have been completely changed.  Call it grotesque, or call it appropriation of different pasts, call it the politicisation of nostalgia, or call it what you will, but he did not simply restore the Soviet anthem as it existed before 1991.  That is a rather misleading statement.  Second, if we understand that Putin is a nationalist and further understand that many Russian people living in the USSR saw the USSR as a Russian project in which Russians were the main actors, it will make a lot more sense that, as a nationalist, Putin will view the collapse of the USSR in terms of a collapse of Russian power and prestige.  Indeed, Russian power and prestige did collapse, and nationalists don’t like it when this happens to their state, but one need not necessarily read anything more into it than that.  None of this is necessarily to praise or defend Putin as such, but simply to understand the political realities of Russia today.  Third, a Weimar analogy does not suggest a revival of the empire that preceded the period of chaos, disillusionment with democratic parliamentarism and hyperinflation, but rather a transformation of the Weimar republican system into something else.  If Ferguson’s claim had been true of the Weimar period, it would have meant that the Hohenzollerns or some family like them would have reconstituted the Kaiserreich, which obviously did not happen.  Instead of a return to pre-1991 Soviet models or the evolution of a hyper-nationalist revisionist regime, we are seeing the development of a quasi-democratic authoritarian nationalist regime.  If there were any interwar comparison that would be more suitable to modern Russia, it would more likely be post-1938 Spain that serves as the model.  For a number of reasons, however, this is an unsatisfying comparison.   Unfortunately, Mr. Ferguson can be very good at understanding the past when he is not actively working on a political project in the present, but here he makes a hash of things.  Since he is part of McCain’s camp, it is no surprise that he would espouse alarmist and Russophobic sentiments.

Historical analogies are indeed inexact and imperfect, especially when they involve Weimar and Nazi Germany.  People find endless points of comparison between their own moment in history and this period, because this is one period they can be fairly sure the History Channel-addled minds  of their readership will be able to comprehend.  These people are also fairly sure that they can conjure up the appropriate reaction of fear and loathing for whatever it is that they are comparing to incipient Nazism.  The analogies are inexact because the arguments are always tendentious.  “Did you realise that Hitler was a vegetarian, and did you know that so-and-so is a vegetarian?  We should fear and hate so-and-so.  I rest my case.”    Read the rest of this entry »

Murashev’s views I have come to respect over the past nineteen years. He is very objective. He has seldom been wrong. He tells me that Kasparov has joined with a Marxist who campaigns for the return of Communism. Here is this important pro-democracy figure, Kasparov, who has now joined with his former arch-opponent to get political attention. Murashev says that unfortunately Kasparov has become an almost clownish figure. ~Paul Weyrich

Naturally, these days Mr. Kasparov is allowed plenty of space on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal, which never ceases to remind us how much it loathes Russia and the preferences of the Russian people.

As long as the Church Abroad existed as an independent entity, it implicitly challenged the authority of Moscow to speak for the Russian Church. It consistently denounced the collaboration of the church with the Communist Party, called for a more positive valuation of Russia’s prerevolutionary and anticommunist past [bold mine-DL] and served as a hopeful beacon to Orthodox Christians in Russia seeking an alternative.

Many in the Church Abroad wonder how this merger went through at all. The process was secretive, and there has even been speculation that some American businessmen with Russian ties helped to push it along. But now having accepted Moscow’s authority, the former Church Abroad faces many questions. Can its leaders press Moscow to reject the church’s tradition of collaborating with both the Kremlin and the KGB? Can they hold on to the church properties they have maintained for the past 80 years? Will the Moscow Church dispatch pro-Kremlin clergy to promote political aims? And, above all, can the leaders of the Church Abroad stem the tide of defection from the disappointed faithful that has already begun? ~Nadia Kizenko

Prof. Kizenko (she is a professor of history at SUNY Albany) makes a number of strange or false statements here.  In the past, the Church Abroad did serve an important function as a witness to Russian Orthodoxy free from any hint of Soviet influence, but the need for such an independent witness is no more, because the USSR is no more.  In the past, the Church Abroad did challenge collaboration with the Communist Party, but that party is no longer in power and the days of the “godless authority” are over.  The language of “merger” and “acquisition” is entirely inappropriate to the restoration of full communion between Christian brethren.  It suggests that the Church of Christ is merchandise to be bought and sold, as if our bishops were like the soldiers at the Crucifixion casting lots for the garments of the Lord.  This is an outrageous thing to suggest, but Prof. Kizenko’s language is meant to conjure up images of sordid and crooked dealings or the idea of the reconciliation of Orthodox Christians in terms of a hostile takeover more familiar to the readers of the Journal.

Members of what was the Church Abroad have valued and continue to positively value much of prerevolutionary Russian culture and history because it is also the culture and history nourished by the Russian Orthodox Church.  The ethnic Russians among Russian Orthodox outside Russia also have a natural admiration and love of their ancestral country, and they impart this admiration and love to new converts as part of the cultural traditions of their people, and I consider this all to the good.  In the last decade and a half, however, the Russian Orthodox in Russia have also begun to recover and rediscover the prerevolutionary past.  The Moscow Patriarchate has glorified the Holy Royal Martyrs and commemorates them among the Saints of the Church, which was a significant and important acknowledgement both of the Holy Royal Martyrs’ sanctity and martyrdom and of crimes of the persecutors who slew them and who also slew all the new martyrs of Russia.  Naturally, Prof. Kizenko fails to mention any of this.

The process of reconciliation was not secretive.  It was the fruit of the work of a joint commission made  up of representatives from the Synod and the MP, and information about their work was routinely made available.  The Sobor in San Francisco last year included lay and clerical representatives from every diocese in the Synod.  Each step was taken with the knowledge of all bishops and the laity of their respective dioceses.  Nonetheless, it was obviously and necessarily never going to be a “democratic” process, but was going to be one worked out by the bishops invested with the authority first given to the Holy Apostles to teach and lead the people of God.  The question of property has been or is in the process of being settled, and this has by and large meant the preservation of the status quo as far as questions of ownership and management are concerned.  Administratively and practically, the Synod’s institutional structures remain intact.  The key differences from the past are that communion has been restored and we recognise and commemorate Patriarch Alexy as the chief hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

There will be more to come in the next few days, but this is all I have time to write right now.

Update: Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy uncritically embraces the extensively error-ridden article by Prof. Kizenko.  I am continually impressed at how willing some people are to make their political hostility to the Russian government the deciding factor in judging the merits of the reconciliation of the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church.  I wonder whether these critics would ever be satisfied with a reunion with Moscow unless the Patriarch of Moscow actively undermined Putin’s rule (never mind that this would be directly contrary to the injunctions of the Apostle and centuries of Orthodox tradition).  It is these critics, not the Orthodox hierarchs, who are making political concerns the priority, which rather exposes their real concern, which is to encourage schism and spiritual sickness for the sake of scoring political points against a Russian government they do not like.  This is very wrong, and it has to be fought at every turn.  Insisting on persisting in the old division because Putin’s regime is authoritarian would be like urging Catholics around the world to go into schism because Catholic bishops had supported the pro-Catholic Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.  Maybe there were and are people who urged such measures, but happily few or none listened.  Let us hope that the same will be the case today. 

Correction: In an earlier update, I had briefly confused Prof. Kizenko with an entirely different Kizenko who was connected to a pro-Yushchenko group.  I am reliably informed by those who know Prof. Kizenko that she almost certainly has nothing to do with such groups.  She is a Russian Orthodox Christian.  She simply happens to be badly mistaken in what she wrote in her article.

Ms. Kizenko’s article bothered me a great deal, more than I thought this sort of argument would bother me.  The thing is that I came into ROCOR as a convert out of a desire to find a Traditionalist Orthodox jurisdiction, one that was firm on ecumenism and as faithful to Church Tradition as possible, so I sympathised with the skepticism and reservations of those who feared the worst from a reconciliation with Moscow.  I could appreciate the perspective of Old Calendarist friends who believed that the Synod was making a terrible mistake.  In the end, however, I could see nothing that should have stood in the way of reconciliation.  Having made my spiritual home in the Russian Church Abroad, I am not going to become one of these spiritually nomadic people chasing after super-akribeia.  If ever there was a legitimate need for oikonomia for the pastoral care of the Orthodox people and their spiritual well-being, it was the case of the alienation of the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church.  This was alienation created by the political interference of the Soviet government in the management of the Church–it would hardly do to perpetuate this alienation out of excessive fear of Putin’s authoritarianism. 

There is no sense in Ms. Kizenko’s article that the spiritual welfare of the Russian Orthodox flock should come first or that the Russian Orthodox Church exists not to counter the Putin regime but to preach the Gospel and provide the spiritual medicine in the hospital of salvation.  Pastorally, reconciliation was the only sane thing to do, especially as more and more immigrants from Russia came to Diasporan communities with baptisms from churches under Moscow’s jurisdiction.  Over the years there have been some cases of Russian immigrant faithful, validly baptised, being denied communion because of the rift between Moscow and the Synod.  That was becoming an intolerable and unsustainable situation, and moreover there was no fundamental issue requiring continued separation.  This division was a wound that needed to be bound up, poison that needed to be expelled.  Wisdom required oikonomia, accommodation, and there are as many examples of our Fathers among the Saints who have practised oikonomia as well as pursuing akribeia as the circumstances required.  Without serious impediments, reconciliation had to happen and was indeed already long overdue (coming 16 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union).  Westerners and Russian Orthodox outside Russia should not allow their opposition to the policies of the Putin regime, which are and ought to be irrelevant to this discussion, blind them to the greater pastoral needs of the Orthodox Church.

Indeed, it was Mr. Putin who first made overtures to the Church Abroad in September 2003, when he met with its leadership during a visit to New York. The church merger is only the most recent of his successful attempts to appropriate symbols of Russia’s prerevolutionary and anticommunist past along with Soviet ones. ~Nadia Kizenko

Via Rod

This is simply untrue.  Talks between the Synod and Moscow predated Putin’s administration and they certainly predated his visit to New York.  By the time I was baptised in January 2003, reunion was already being widely discussed in the Synod.  It is true that reconciliation negotiations continued and perhaps even intensified in the past seven years, and it is true that Putin has supported this reconciliation (obviously doing so for his own purposes), but it is frankly insulting to all the bishops in the Synod to claim that Putin could have somehow masterminded the consent of the bishops of the Church Abroad.  Bishop Gabriel of New York expressed strong reservations about the reconciliation in the past, yet even he did not finally oppose it. 

What theological and moral issues are at stake?  Note that Ms. Kizenko does not elaborate, presumably because she either does not know or cannot explain.  Those are the only issues of any consequence that should prevent the reconciliation of the two parts of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Unless there are credible arguments about some serious error into which Moscow has fallen, there is nothing more to talk about.  Communism as a state system is finished; the Soviet Union is no more; Sergianism and collaboration are things of the past.  Ms. Kizenko must know this.  Indeed, it is not possible for her to not know this, yet she persists in encouraging precisely the kind of fractiousness and discord among Russian Orthodox outside Russia that she holds up as a major challenge for our bishops.  That she does so in a paper well-known for its hatred of Russia and all Orthodox nations is all the more unfortunate.  It is depressing to see the extent to which some people will take their obsession with Putin-bashing. 

It [the unipolar world] is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.

And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority.

Incidentally, Russia – we – are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.

I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. And this is not only because if there was individual leadership in today’s – and precisely in today’s – world, then the military, political and economic resources would not suffice. What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilisation. ~Russian President Vladimir Putin

First of all, it is actually rather stunning to hear a head of state from any country put forward an argument of this relative complexity.  To listen to our politicians babble generically about “freedom” or “stability” or “terrorism” is to come away with the impression that their audience is a mob of cretins (or they think that their audience is a mob of cretins) incapable of understanding thorough and elaborate analysis of geopolitics.  As I read Putin’s speech, I am also struck by how relatively reasonable it is.  He complains of NATO expansion and the betrayals of past promises not to station forces in the new member states–as well he might–and he repeatedly insists on the importance of respecting international law. 

Compared with Cheney’s needlessly provocative Vilnius speech in which he hectored the Russians primarily for their internal affairs (whatever you may think of them, they are the Russians’ business and not really ours), Putin’s objections to American hegemony and interventionism address a problem that is properly international in nature and they do so in a way that actually echoes much of what the rest of the world’s governments think.  If this were not the President of Russia saying this, but the Secretary-General of the U.N. or the British Prime Minister, it would be much more difficult to hide behind tired Russophobia and cliches about resurgent authoritarianism.  There would have to be at least some minimal attempt to address what the speech contained.    

To read the headlines about the speech, you would think that he had been banging on the podium with his footwear, but instead you find someone explaining, much as our European allies tried to do some years back, that unipolar domination is practically impossible and ruinous for any state that attempts it.  This is actually true, and it is also valuable advice that Washington would be foolish to dismiss in a fit of pride and anger.

What else did Putin say that has so offended some people?  He said:

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.

There has certainly been disdain for international law, and when there has been attention paid to it it has been the most selective, tendentious kind of reading of the law to fit policies, such as the invasion of Iraq, that had already been decided upon.  Today American politicians square off over who is more willing to launch an illegal war on Iran–where exactly has Putin erred in saying what he has said?  The United States government does impose itself on other nations in a variety of ways, this is wrong and it is causing inevitable backlash that is harmful to all parties. 

And what else?  He said:

People are trying to transform the OSCE into a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries.

This is undoubtedly true in their completely biased and lopsided work related to the Ukrainian and Georgian elections–the so-called “revolutions” of 2004 and 2003 respectively. 

Mr. Putin’s speech is an early warning alarm and, I think, an attempt to make Washington see reason.  That the speech is, of course, self-serving to some degree and coming from the mouth of an elected authoritarian populist with rather dubious moral authority is really neither here nor there.  Putin was saying what most allied governments have been saying in less direct ways and what most friendly (or formerly friendly) nations have been thinking and saying about our government for years. 

The question is not, as the incredibly overrated Tom Friedman puts it, “why do remarks like these play so well in Russia today?”  (Anyone could answer that question, as Friedman does by discovering that Russians are not all together happy about being encircled and threatened by NATO expanion–you don’t say!)  The question is: how, beyond the last round of NATO expansion in 2002, has Mr. Bush managed to so profoundly alienate the government that was the first to offer its support to us after 9/11, and how is it that the appropriate and mutually beneficial cooperation between our two countries has been so grievously jeopardised by six years of pointed confrontation and insults? 

The U.S. pursuit of setting up pro-American satellites and attempts thereby to gain access to oil and gas resources outside Russia have undoubtedly exacerbated Russian resentment over NATO.  These things have made that expansion appear to be one part of a larger plan of encirclement and power projection into Asia.  The introduction of the anti-missile system into NATO states that joined in the 1996 round would be a basic violation of the assurances given to Moscow that made that round of (unwise) accession possible, and it represents yet another needless provocation.  American meddling in Ukraine, Georgia and central Asia has contributed to Russia’s sense of being hemmed in.  The tacit encouragement given to the Chechen cause by the U.S. government in the past and Washington’s indifference to Chechen terrorism against Russian civilians have helped convince the Russians that Washington would like to see Russia weakened and divided.  Harping about Russian internal political affairs, as Vice President Cheney insisted on doing on Russia’s very doorstep, was a slap in the face. 

Having poked and stabbed the bear in its cage, the bear-baiters are outraged that the bear has become angry and combative–even though the only goal of such bear-baiters is to make the bear angry.  Naturally, the solution of the bear-baiters to these displays of combativeness will be to squeeze it into a smaller cage, put more chains on it and stab it some more.  This approach to Russia encourages all of the worst tendencies in Russian politics. 

Anyone familiar with Russian history, or indeed the history of any large territorial state, could tell you that the presence of a credible foreign enemy encourages the consolidation of power in the center and the strengthening of authoritarian rule.  Those who claim to despise Putin’s authoritarianism and who therefore want to isolate and bludgeon Russia until it embraces an “acceptable” kind of liberalisation are even sabotaging their own supposed goals of ”reform” (not that I believe these are the goals of those who want “liberalisation” or ”reform”).  They are simply strengthening the desire in Russia to have a strong authoritarian nationalist leader who will resist perceived foreign depredations against that country.  Americans would respond and have responded in much the same way to perceived threats, so it should hardly be beyond our understanding to grasp this basic idea.  Putin will leave office in a couple years, but the damage the interventionists and Russophobes will have helped to do to the future of Russian politics will last long after he is gone.  Then, after they have finished doing their destructive work, these neo-Orientalist Slavophobes will look skywards and wonder aloud, “Why do the Russians always keep returning to authoritarianism?  What is wrong with them?”

There are two other reasons why Putin’s speech has especially aggravated some Americans, primarily those in upper reaches of Republican and conservative media: first, it was Putin who said it, and there is a desperate need to perpetuate anti-Putin sentiment to make confrontation with Russia more popular; second, Putin’s speech represents the biggest rhetorical backlash yet against the world of the “unipolar moment” celebrated by the likes of Charles Krauthammer.  Krauthammer chirped back then that there was no coalition of opposing forces combining against the American hegemon–we were enjoying an unprecedented unipolarity that had not called forth a countervailing set of forces to balance our supremacy.  That brief moment of consequence-free supremacy has come to an end.  Putin’s speech represents both a warning and the first signs of pushback.  Russians do not want a confrontation with the West, and neither Russia nor the West can afford to waste our time and energy rehashing old rivalries (indeed, the fact that most of us still feel comfortable treating Russia as if it were not a part of the West is a good sign that we are a very long way from burying these old rivalries).