The Problem with Bothsidesism

Is this monstrous war of aggression really between two equal sides?

An open letter in response to the Manifesto Against the War

Dear comrades,

I write in anger and sorrow about your Manifesto Against the War, to which I turned in the hope of learning from you about how we can situate the anti-war movement in the wider struggle against capital.

Enumerating the causes of military conflict, you refer, first, to “the growing rivalry between the greatest imperialist powers”. Third is “Islamic fundamentalism”. But before that, second, comes that “the US government has positioned its military alliance system, NATO, against the Russian Federation to prevent the integration of the defunct Soviet empire’s successor into an enlarged, stable and peaceful European order with mutual security guarantees”.

Demonstrations in Ukrainian cities occupied by the Russian armed forces are part of a people’s war

You don’t explain why you think that, in this age of the deep crisis of the capitalist system – which in your words “unleashes ever more violent struggles for geostrategic zones of influence” – such a “peaceful European order” could ever have been possible.

That hope, embraced by Mikhail Gorbachev and many social democrats in the 1990s, was surely dashed as the economic crises of neoliberalism (1997-98, 2008-09, etc) multiplied, as the Russian bourgeoisie emerged in its 21st-century form on one hand, and the alliance of western powers pursued their murderous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere on the other.

Download this letter as a pdf.

You don’t explain why you name the US government and NATO, and Islamic fundamentalism, as causes of the current war … but not the Russian elite, which actually started it.

You turn causes into effects, and effects into causes, in order to justify this focus on the US and NATO. So, immediately following your point about the US using NATO to prevent Russia’s integration into a stable European order, you continue: “The sabotage of Nord Stream 2 shows that economic pressure is just as important here as it is in the positioning against China.”

This just doesn’t fit with the facts. Nord Stream 2 was a major point of dispute between the German ruling class and its US counterpart. For years, the US sought to sanction the pipeline, and the German government resisted. In July 2021, the Biden administration struck a deal with chancellor Merkel under which the pipeline would be completed. The German desire to integrate Russia, at least as a trading partner, prevailed.

The pipeline was finally frozen by the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, on 22 February, the day after Russian president Putin recognised the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” – a clear indication that the Minsk peace process was finished and that Russia was preparing for some sort of war. Russia acted; Germany reversed its long-standing policy.

The freezing of Nord Stream 2 put no discernible economic pressure on Russia, anyway. The point of the pipeline was to enable Russia to pipe gas to European destinations without taking it across Ukraine. It was designed to reduce Russian dependence on Ukraine for pipeline transit, that is, to produce a geopolitical benefit rather than any significant economic benefit. The western powers have imposed heavy economic sanctions on Russia – after it invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

The reason you mix up causes and effects is clear. Your narrative description of the post-Soviet period mentions the collapse of the Soviet empire, the loss of those (to my mind illusory) “quite favourable” chances of Russia “democratising” – and then the failure of that option due to NATO expansion. The arrogance inherent in that expansion “created the external conditions in Russia for the implementation of a strategy of imperialist revisionism” under Putin, you say.

I would dispute the prevalence of NATO expansion as an “external condition”. I think the broader crises of capital, and of its neoliberal management strategy, were far more important. But what about the internal conditions? You don’t mention those. What about the reconstruction of the Russian bourgeoisie in the post-Soviet period, and its relationship with the post-Soviet repressive apparatus represented by Putin? Where does that fit into your analysis?

Your focus on the “external condition” means that your account of Russian militarism is one-sided. The Georgian war in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea were “warning signals” that were “disregarded” by NATO, which, according to you, built “infrastructure” in Ukraine. What “infrastructure”? (NATO was always divided about admitting Ukraine as a member, and until last month’s invasion kept its military relationship with Ukraine at a low level.)

Your account of Russian militarism starts in 2008. What about the murderous assault on Chechnya in 2000-02, which first cemented Putin’s position as president, and was supported by NATO? What about the Russian assault on eastern Ukraine in 2014, which you incorrectly describe as a “civil war with indirect Russian involvement”? What was “indirect” about a war in which Russian mothers lost their sons on the front line, fighting in Russian army uniforms? What is “indirect” about the massive logistical, financial and political support given by the Russian government to the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics”?

Most telling of all, you don’t mention Syria. The drowning of the Syrian uprising in blood in 2015-16, surely the greatest defeat of a revolutionary movement in this century, was accomplished by the Assad regime with powerful Russian military support.

The NATO powers stood back and allowed this to continue (while they themselves fought their own wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan) for the same reason that they acquiesced in Putin’s actions against Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine: because for all their disavowals of “spheres of influence”, they were content that Russia should act as a gendarme for international capital in certain geographical areas. As indeed they were content to see Russian troops intervene against the Belarussian uprising in 2020, and in Kazakhstan in 2022.

You write: “this catastrophic war of aggression was also preceded by imperialist acts of aggression on the part of the West, which provoked in Putin’s Russia a geostrategic logic common to all imperialist power elites”. Sure! The Russian empire, with its rich history of suppression of its colonies and its own people, needed to be provoked by the western powers, in order to make war on the oldest of those colonies. Just like the British ever needed provoking, before making war on Ireland. (I hope my sarcasm comes through OK in a written text.)

Your policy proposals reflect your skewed view that this is a war between two equal sides. You make serious points, and I hope they are discussed. But first we have to be clear. Is this monstrous war of aggression really between two equal sides? Only one side is shelling and terrorising civilians, and arresting and murdering those who defy its occupying forces. (Remember Putin’s declaration on the first day? “We don’t intend to occupy”? Tell them that in Mariupol.)

Do you really believe this is an inter-imperialist conflict, with no element of a people’s war? Why else did you neglect to mention those thousands of Ukrainians fighting outside the state framework to defend their own communities, with arms in hand or in other ways? Because they didn’t fit your preconceived interpretation?

I write with anger because I have had such great respect for some of the signatories of the manifesto, and the contribution they have made to the development of socialist thinking. In the 1990s – when studying both the Russian revolution and modern-day Russia showed me that Trotskyism, the framework I had accepted before then, was wanting – autonomism was one of the trends that I began to study and learn from. Including what some of you have written.

Your statement looks as though you decided the conclusion – that this is fundamentally an inter-imperialist conflict, and nothing more – and worked back from there to interpret the facts. Comrades, that’s the wrong way round. The younger generation deserves better, from all of us.

In solidarity,

Simon Pirani. (21 March 2022.)

PS. I have written about my own view here, if it’s of interest.

Source: People and Nature, 21 March 2022. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. ||| TRR

“We Have to Cut the Strings”

“They built a wall!” The shore of the Vuoksi River in Imatra in more peaceful times. Archive photo by the Russian Reader

I love Imatra and Lappeenranta and South Karelia (Finland) more than any place on earth. Stupidly, perhaps, I regret that I wasn’t born there. Less stupidly, I am sad that I haven’t been there for two and a half years. BBC Newsnight went there this past week to talk with the locals about what they think about suddenly finding themselves across the border from a warring country and whether they think their heretofore proudly neutral Suomi should join NATO. Thanks to Riittaa Mustonen for the link.

Ironically, the reporter who did this story is named Sima. ||| TRR

If Finland joins Nato, its 1,300km border with Russia will become Nato’s eastern front. There is a troubled history of war between the two countries, but how do people living on this potential new frontier feel, and what’s been the impact of Putin’s aggression on previously close relationships between Finns and Russians who live here? In South Karelia, officials say the absence of Russian tourists crossing to Finland is costing the region €1m a day. Newsnight’s Sima Kotecha reports from the border town of Imatra and the region’s biggest city Lappeenranta where there are more than 2,000 Russian speakers.

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Putin’s Little Helpers

Putin’s little helpers undermine solidarity • People and Nature • December 29, 2021

We know what solidarity in the face of war looks like. It looks like the Grupa Granica, set up to support those stranded on the Polish border by the government’s vicious anti-migrant policy and the Belarusian government’s cynical manipulation of refugees.

It looks like the thousands of Polish people who have demonstrated, demanding “stop the torture at the border”. And it looks like the solidarity networks set up further afield (including the Solidarity Without Borders appeal for cash to support groups on the spot).

To those supporting refugees – whether in Poland or Belarus, or in the English Channel, targeted by the UK government’s murderous crackdown – it makes no difference which war people are fleeing. It might be the US-UK-supported war in Iraq, or the bloodbath perpetrated in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Now, we face the possibility of renewed Russian military action in Ukraine. This carries the greatest threat of war in Europe since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

Demonstration in Warsaw, October 2021, to “stop torture on the border”. Photo by Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

The war in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15 has already caused 2 million or more people to flee their homes: more than 1 million now counted as “internally displaced” in Ukraine; at least as many have crossed the border to Russia. A new conflict would be both a human tragedy and a threat to social movements.

Solidarity is needed. An anti-war movement is needed.

Already, pro-Putin propaganda – that corrodes parts of the so-called “left”, as well as thriving on the extreme right – is being dialled up. It seeks to justify Russia’s military preparations. And it could endanger efforts to galvanise anti-war protest.

Putin’s little helpers on the “left” generally have a world view inherited from Stalinism: they believe that authoritarian regimes that spout anti-American rhetoric (Russia, China or both) are to be praised; the imperial character of these regimes’ actions is ignored; and these regimes, rather than popular movements, are seen as the means to resist western powers.  

Four of the fairytales told by Putin’s helpers, on the Stop the War website and the Morning Star newspaper, are:

Fairytale no. 1: NATO started it

Andrew Murray, writing on the Stop the War website, claims that “if there is conflict over Ukraine, it is the west that bears most of the blame”. But it’s not “if”. There has been a conflict going on for more than six years, which has taken more than 14,000 lives.

The forces involved are the Ukrainian army, the vastly better-resourced Russian army, and separatists and mercenaries supported by, and to a large extent funded and armed by, the Russian state. The western powers have been noticeable by their absence.

Murray says the 100,000 Russian troops stationed on the Ukrainian border are “allegations” and “media speculation”. John Wojcik in the Morning Star says they are there “if corporate press outlets are to be believed”. In the real world where the rest of us live, the Russian forces actually exist (see satellite pictures here and here).

Murray claims that the NATO military alliance is “trying to seize Ukraine by means of moving NATO right up to Russia’s borders”, that the US is “arming Ukraine to the hilt to resist” and that “British troops are stationed in the Balkans”. The journalist and commentator Paul Mason has demolished these claims point by point. He writes:

There is, in short, no NATO plan to “seize” Ukraine; no possibility of Ukraine joining NATO; no “arming to the hilt”; no significant number of British troops in the Balkans; no major deployment of NATO troops “eastwards towards Poland”.

The US military support for Ukraine so far amounts to Javelin anti-tank missile systems, and small arms and a group of training officers. It remains dwarfed by the Russian mobilisation.

The danger of war is real. But to deny the central role of the Russian military is to deny reality.  

Putin’s helpers have form on this. During the civil war in Syria, the Stop the War campaign and their friends had little or nothing to say about the murderous Assad regime and the Russian government that armed and militarily supported it – despite the fact that they were responsible for an estimated 90% of the killings.

While the regime preferred to butcher and torture its own citizens, rather than to grant them a measure of democratic rights, Putin’s helpers spoke up only about minor incursions by western forces … the “anti-imperialism of idiots”, as Syrian-British writer Leila al-Shami called it.

As for Ukraine, the Stop the War campaign did nothing to support the victims of the 2014-15  conflict, but nevertheless hurried to the defence of the Russian “leftist” Boris Kagarlitsky, who joined fascists and nationalists in supporting the Russian intervention.  

Putin’s helpers are everywhere, including the Moscow Carnegie Center. Screen shot by the Russian Reader

Fairytale no. 2: Ukraine is fascist, really

There was a “fascist coup” in Ukraine in 2014, writes John Wojcik in the Morning Star (in an article republished from the US-based People’s World, of which Wojcik is editor). “Hundreds of trade union leaders and activists were murdered by the new right-wing Ukrainian government shortly after it came to power.” He also claims that the new government “banned opposition political parties, including the widely supported Communist party”. And it “banned the use of the Russian language, the primary language of 40% or more of the Ukrainian people”. Let’s go through the bits of this fairytale one by one.

(a) A “fascist coup”. The overthrow of the government headed by president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 was, by any measure, a mass popular action. A crowd of more than half a million people occupied the centre of Kyiv for more than two weeks, in the face of assaults ranging from baton charges to sniper fire, making it impossible for the government to continue. There were mass actions on a similar scale in dozens of other towns and cities. The politics of this “Maidan” protest were complex. Participants ranged from fascists, who played a key part in the violent confrontations with the old regime’s armed forces, to socialists and anarchists. But the word “coup” is meaningless to describe it. As for the new government, while its record on defending democratic rights was mixed to put it mildly, it was no more “fascist” than the governments of e.g. Poland or Hungary. And, in terms of the rights to assembly, free speech and workplace organisation, less repressive than the governments of e.g. Turkey or Russia. 

(b) “Hundreds of trade union leaders and activists were murdered by the new right-wing Ukrainian government.” This is false – shockingly so. No such murders took place. No such murders have been recorded on the web sites of Ukraine’s two trade union federations. None have been mentioned in the detailed reports of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights on attacks on civil rights in Ukraine. Demonstrators were killed in clashes with the security forces, but this was mostly before Yanukovych was overthrown. Activists and journalists have been attacked, and some killed, apparently by non-state actors, albeit sometimes with covert support from elements in the state. In 2014, prior to the military conflict, there were other deaths and injuries resulting from civil conflict. The most serious incident, by far, was the deaths of demonstrators opposed to the new government who, confronted by its supporters, took refuge in a trade union building in Odessa that was then set on fire. Ukrainian law enforcement did little to investigate. Tragic as these deaths were, they were not murders of trade union leaders or activists by the government.

(c) The government “banned opposition political parties”, including the Communist party. It didn’t. The electoral commission banned the Communist party from participation in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, under the 2015 “decommunisation” law. This law, which forbids the promotion of “totalitarian regimes”, defined as Nazi and Communist, and their symbols, has been and is being used to attack democratic rights. Together with similar laws in other eastern European countries, it deserves to be denounced and resisted. But note, too, that the Communist party continues to operate legally; that it has mounted legal challenges to the ban; that no other party has been banned from electoral participation under the law; and that the government and the electoral rights group OPORA are currently in dispute over the extent of proportional representation – an election procedure that in the UK, for example, remains an unattainable dream.

(d) The government “banned the use of the Russian language”. It didn’t – and it’s irresponsible and inflammatory to sit in an editorial office in the US claiming it did. A law making Ukrainian the single state language was adopted in 2019 – the culmination of three decades of argument, shaped both by by aspirations to revive Ukrainian culture that has suffered historically from Russian imperial domination, and by hard-line Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian socialists opposed the measure (and I sympathise with them). Remember, though, that the law requires that Ukrainian be used in public spaces, and not exclusively; that it does not apply to private or religious life; that it will be applied in the education system, and to TV, over an extended period; and that breaching the law is essentially a civil, not criminal offence. (See reports by Russia’s state owned TASS news agency here, and Russia’s opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta here.)

Another of Putin’s helpers’ favourite tricks is to portray Ukraine as protective of the memory of wartime Nazi collaborators. With no reference to the real, complex battles over memory (see e.g. here and here), they point to Ukraine’s opposition to a Russian resolution on the holocaust at the UN, in a ridiculous diplomatic ritual repeated annually since 2005 (see here and here). This is a facile attitude to a serious subject. Putin’s helpers seem blind to the reality that it is the security forces in Russia, not Ukraine, that have recently tortured and jailed a group of young anti-fascists.

Fairytale no. 3: Ukraine is part of Russia, really

Putin’s helpers insist that Ukraine is not really a country with a history. The Stop the War site says that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 “turned what had been internal borders, arbitrarily drawn with no great significance, into inter-state boundaries”; Ukraine has “failed to develop anything like a common democratic culture”; therefore what is now “decisive” is the “international aspect” and the actions of the western powers; and what mattered about 2014 was that the government established in Kyiv was “anti-Russian”.

Both Stop the War and the Morning Star quote Putin’s article On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, published in July. It heightened fears in Ukraine of imminent invasion, with insanely exaggerated warnings of a path towards “an ethnically pure Ukrainian state”, that would be comparable to “the use of weapons of mass destruction against us”. (Putin followed up earlier this month, with a deranged claim that “current developments in Donbass” are “very reminiscent of genocide”.)

In his article, Putin explains the tsarist empire’s anti-Ukrainian legislation of the 1870s on the grounds that the Polish nationalist revolt was in progress; argues that Ukrainian nationhood was an invention of the Poles and/or Austro-Hungarians; and describes the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, by which Poland and the Baltic states were divided between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, with the words “the USSR regained the lands earlier seized by Poland”. He never once refers to Russian imperialism and colonialism, and the role they have played in shaping, and trying to deny, Ukrainian national identity.

That Putin justifies his imperial aspirations with reference to Russia’s imperialist past is not surprising. For western “leftists” to endorse this logic suggests that the “left” has sunk to a new low.

Fairytale no. 4: Putin is protecting Russia’s riches from imperialist looters

“Possible western aggression against Russia” is caused, in part, by “the desire of the fossil fuel monopolies to control the world energy market”, the Morning Star claims. These western interests seek to “turn Ukraine into a base”, in order to “achieve economic control of Russia”. This is unbelievably upside-down and back-to-front.

The Russian economy was subordinated to world markets, as a supplier of raw materials such as oil, gas and minerals, in a process that took two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the first decade of Putin’s presidency, especially, large chunks of the wealth earned from these exports found its way into private hands and was shipped to offshore locations, at the rate of tens of billions of dollars per year.

Although Putin insisted that the private owners of oil and metals companies pay more taxes than they did in the 1990s, and some oil assets have been renationalised (the state owns an estimated 50% of the oil industry now), investigations by journalists and the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny have shown conclusively that his governing team put far, far more effort into diverting many billions in to their own accounts. Russian oil companies remain open to foreign investment; the largest of them, Rosneft, is 22% owned by BP.

So Russia’s economy has been integrated into the world capitalist economy in a way that serves its elite, not its people. Material inequalities have widened substantially under Putin.

Since 2014, a giant contradiction has opened up for the Russian government. The elite’s economic interests would be best served by developing these good relations with foreign capital. But its political interests required it to stoke up nationalism, to seek to reinforce its diplomatic and military control over its near neighbours that have slipped from its imperial grasp, Ukraine first among them. The war fought by Russia in Ukraine in 2014-15 was driven by these politics, not by economic interests. It, and western sanctions that resulted, damaged those interests.

The western powers already have most of what they want from the Russian economy. The idea that they are plotting military action to control it is, frankly, daft. There’s no doubt that the US hopes to constrain Russia’s geopolitical and military reach in central Europe – although the western alliance is split, and Germany is generally readier to compromise with Russia. But there is another factor here: the popular movement that removed Yanukovich and drastically weakened Russia’s political control over Ukraine, rooted in a history of colonialism. Putin is not only trying to reassert Russian influence against a divided NATO, but is also reacting to those changes in Ukrainian society. And it is Ukrainians who are being killed, and Ukrainian communities divided and devastated, by war.

In conclusion

The arguments put by Putin’s helpers are so absurd that I find it hard to explain them to Russian and Ukrainian friends. In 2015, a Ukrainian friend living in the UK asked: “What is it with these people? Are they being paid by the Russian embassy?” I answered that I was sure they are not. They justify Putin’s actions on account of their messed-up ideology, which on some level they must believe. That’s why, although it’s a bit like explaining why the earth isn’t flat, I offer readers these thoughts. SP, 29 December 2021.

Thanks to Simon Pirani for permission to reprint his essay here. ||| TRR

(A Quiet) Civil War

(A Quiet) Civil WarDictionary of War, Novi Sad edition, January 25–26, 2008

My concept is “civil war”— or rather, “a quiet (civil war).” Another variant might be: cold civil war. I will talk about how the (global) economy of war—hot war, cold war, civil war—is experienced by victims and bystanders in a place seemingly far from actual frontlines. In reality, the frontlines are everywhere—running down the middle of every street, crisscrossing hearts and minds. This permanent war is connected to the project that posits the presence of civil society in one part of the world, while also asserting the necessity of building civil society in other parts of the world where allegedly uncivil social, political, and economic arrangements have been or have to be abolished. The real effect of this high-minded engineering is the destruction of people, classes, and lifestyles whose continued survival in the new order is understood (but hardly ever stated) to be either problematic or unnecessary. The agents of this destruction are varied—from random street crime, assassinations, inflation, alcoholism, factory and institute closures, to pension and healthcare reform, the entertainment and news industry, and urban renovation. The place I will talk about is Russia and Saint Petersburg, where I have lived for much of the past fourteen years. My concept is intended as a memorial to a few victims and local eyewitnesses of this war—people I either know personally or came to know about through the stories of friends or other encounters. I will also sketch the tentative connections between that civil war and the troubles in this part of the world; and, very briefly, show how the victors in this war claim their spoils.

This term—(a quiet) civil war—was suggested to me by the Petersburg poet Alexander Skidan during a conversation we had last spring. I had been telling Alexander about the recent murder of my friend Alexei Viktorov. Alexei is fated to remain a mere footnote in Russian art history. I mean this literally: in a new book, Alexei is correctly identified as the schoolmate of the Diaghilev of Petersburg perestroika art, Timur Novikov, and the painter Oleg Kotelnikov. I met Alexei in 1996, when Oleg let me live in his overly hospitable studio in the famous artists squat at Pushkinskaya-10. Alexei showed up a few weeks later. He had spent the summer in the woods, living off mushrooms and whatever edibles he could find. In his youth, he had acquired the nickname Труп (Corpse). With his gaunt features and skinny frame, he certainly looked the part. As I would soon discover, he was one of the gentlest men on earth. He was also a terrific blues guitarist. And he was the first Hare Krishna in Leningrad and, perhaps, the entire Soviet Union—which was quite a feat, considering that his conversion took place in the dark ages of the seventies.

Last winter, friends chipped in on a plane ticket, and Alexei was able to fulfill a lifelong dream and travel to India. When he and his companions arrived at the Krishna temple, Alexei was greeted by the community as a conquering hero. Since Alexei’s life had been quite miserable of late back home, his friends insisted that he stay behind in India. Instead, he decided to return to Petersburg. A few days after his arrival home he was walking from the subway in the northern Lakes district of the city to the house of a friend. Along the way he was attacked—the police say by a gang of teenagers. The teenagers beat Alexei within an inch of his life and pushed him into a ravine. The police investigator guessed that Alexei had lain unconscious for some time. When he came to, he had apparently struggled to raise his battered body up and clamber out of the ravine; in his struggle, he had for some reason started tearing off his clothes, perhaps because his rib cage and chest were so badly crushed that he was suffocating. His body was discovered a couple days later. The police held it for another few days while they completed their investigation, which led to no arrests. Alexei’s funeral was held a few days afterwards at the Smolensk Cemetery on Vasilievsky Island. He was buried a few hundred meters from the grave of his schoolmate Timur Novikov, who died in 2002.

It was this story that prompted Alexander Skidan’s remark to me: “A quiet civil war has been going on here.” What did Alexander have in mind? What could the random albeit violent murder of a single human being have in common with the explicitly political and massively violent struggles that have taken place here in the former Yugoslavia and such parts of the former Soviet Union as Abkhazia, Southern Ossetia, Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechnya? How could Alexei—who, as the Russian saying has it, lived “quieter than the water, lower than the grass”—be viewed as an enemy combatant in such a war? Can we really compare his unknown assailants to representatives of the opposite warring party? Given what they did to him, it is clear that they viewed Alexei as their enemy—an enemy subject to sudden, violent execution when encountered in the proper (hidden, invisible) setting.

I anticipate serious objections to my line of argumentation. One such objection I have already heard in the person of my friend Igor. Igor, whose father is Ossetian, and whose mother is Ukrainian, grew up in Dushanbe, which was then the capital of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. I have never been to Dushanbe, but I have heard Igor describe it so many times in such glowing terms that I have come to think of it as heaven on earth. While I am sure that much of the paradisiacal tone in Igor’s recollections has to do with temporal and physical distance, it really does seem that the Dushanbe of the sixties and seventies was a kind of cosmopolitan oasis—a place where all sorts of forced or voluntary exiles from all imaginable Soviet ethnic communities and other cities ended up living in something like harmony.

This harmony bore the name “Soviet Union,” and Igor himself has often seemed to me the ideal homo soveticus (in the positive, internationalist sense of that term), a person to whom the refrain of the popular song—“My address isn’t a street or a building, my address is the Soviet Union”—fits perfectly. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Igor was the country’s leading expert on the seismic stability of electrical substations. From the onset of the Tajik civil war, in the early nineties, Igor was unable to return to Dushanbe. This had to do with the fact that in his internal Soviet passport, his place of birth was identified as Khorog, the capital of the Pamir region, which is where some of the “anti-government” forces had their power base. If Igor had returned to Dushanbe, he could easily have been stopped by soldiers during a documents check and executed on the spot. This is what happened to a number of his friends and schoolmates.

After the war was over, Igor’s father was able to reclaim the family home near Vladikavkaz, in Northern Ossetia, which had been confiscated by the authorities when Igor’s grandfather had been executed as an enemy of the people in the thirties. Northern Ossetia was a relative oasis during the nineties, despite the fact that Chechnya and Ingushetia were just over the mountains and neighboring Southern Ossetia had broken away from Georgia. This relative calm came to an abrupt end in September 2004, when terrorists besieged the school in neighboring Beslan. During the siege, members of Igor’s extended family were killed.

This is how Igor puts it: “Civil war is when the bus you’re on is stopped by soldiers and some of the passengers are taken off to be shot. And you sit there in the bus listening to the sound of gunfire and waiting for it to be over so that you can continue on your way. That’s civil war. What you’re talking about is not civil war.” Igor is certainly right.

He is also wrong in another sense. The quiet civil war I am describing here—among whose victims, I claim, was our friend Alexei—draws its energy and some of its methods from the real civil wars that have been fought in the hinterlands that are literally unthinkable to folks in such seemingly safe, prosperous places as Petersburg and Moscow. An immediate consequence of the siege in Beslan was that President Putin abolished gubernatorial elections in the Russian Federation’s eighty-four regions and federal cities. This, it was argued, would strengthen Moscow’s control—its so-called power vertical—over local officials whose incompetence and corruption had led, supposedly, to guerrillas infiltrating Beslan and capturing the school with such ease. Meanwhile, the civil wars and socioeconomic collapse in places like Tajikistan have led to a flood of refugees and migrant workers into Central Russia and its two capitals. The booming building trade in Moscow and Petersburg to a great degree now depends on the abundant, cheap supply of workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Moldova, and other former Soviet republics.

These workers are literally visible everywhere nowadays: with the oil economy fueling a tidal wave of consumerism whose major players have now turned to real estate as an outlet for investing their wealth, the capitals have become gigantic construction sites. And yet the conditions of their work and their lives are just as literally invisible. For example, Tajik workers and other darker-skinned Central Asians and Caucasians are subjected to frequent, unnecessary documents checks in public places such as subway stations. This is something that every Petersburger and Muscovite has seen ten thousand times, but it is also something they pretend not to see, judging by the lack of public reaction to the practice. Even less reaction is generated by neo-Nazi attacks on such workers, other foreigners, members of Russia’s ethnic minorities, and anti-fascist activists, which have become more and more common in the past several years.

I want to paint one more, brief verbal portrait of another victim in this quiet civil war. This portrait is connected with the violence inflicted on this city and other parts of Serbia during the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. The official and popular reaction in Russia to this violence was quite harsh. There were massive demonstrations outside the US embassy in Moscow; unknown assailants even fired a grenade into an empty office at the embassy. What surprised me were the more spontaneous reactions to the bombings. One day, a young American artist and I were standing in the courtyard of the squat at Pushkinskaya-10 chatting with a local artist. Two acquaintances of ours—members of a well-regarded alternative theater troupe—entered the courtyard. When they saw us, they shouted, “Don’t talk to those Americans! They’re bombing our Serbian brothers!” Since they said all this with a smile, it was hard to know to what extent we were supposed to take their warning as a “joke.”

It occurred to me then that a fundamental shift was occurring in the consciousness of Russians who had been, both in practical and philosophical terms, “westernizers” and “liberals” not long before. That this shift was also extending into the “masses” was confirmed for me a few days later. Late one night, I suddenly heard a drunken-sounding young man yelling up to an apartment across the street: “Masha! Goddammit, come downstairs and let me in!” Since repeated requests had no apparent effect on the silent, invisible Masha, the young man became more explicit in declaring his unhappiness with Masha’s thwarting of his affections. “Masha, you fucking bitch, come down and let me in! You’re breaking my fucking heart!” The turn the man’s soliloquy took next, however, signaled to me that we all were living in a new world. “Masha, go fuck yourself! NATO, go fuck yourselves!” (Маша, пошла ты в жопу! Блок НАТО, пошли вы в жопу!) This effusive condemnation of Masha and NATO continued for some time, after which the thwarted lover fell silent or fell over drunk.

If I had known that I would be invited to speak at this conference nine years later, I would have recorded the whole performance. Instead of speaking to you now, I would have played back the recording in full. Not in order to make fun of the young man whose heart had been broken in two by the combined forces of Masha and NATO, but so that you could hear what the quiet civil war I am trying to talk about sounds like. This is what I meant when I said, at the beginning of my remarks, that the frontlines in this new kind of war cross through hearts and minds and run down the middle of streets. This is not what happens when civil society breaks down; it is what happens when “civil society” is a code word (pronounced and enacted in tandem with other code words such as “democracy” and “liberal economy”) used to camouflage the incursion into the city of invading forces. The new regime they have come to establish can in reality do quite happily without “civil society,” democracy, and liberalism. But these words and the real actions taken and deals made behind their smokescreen are quite effective in destroying the historic and imaginary forms of solidarity that might have given folks like our unhappy young lover the means to defend themselves somehow. Instead, we end up with the muddle in our heads that lets us imagine that Masha and NATO are allied against us. Or that NATO is bringing democracy and security to Afghanistan. Or that, instead, to thwart NATO’s expansion to the east we have to round up Georgian restaurant workers and deport them back to Georgia—which, paradoxically, used to be nearly every Russian’s favorite place on earth.

As Alexander Skidan himself told me, the NATO bombing campaign of 1999 really had destroyed the illusions that he and most everyone else he knew had both about the west and about the meaning of the radical transformation of Russian society that was carried out under the banner of a rapprochement with the west and a leap forward into liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism. What Alexander and his friends saw as the west’s treachery in the Kosovo crisis had thrown a new retrospective light on a period they had until then been experiencing as a golden age for artists and ambitious young people like themselves—an age of unprecedented opportunity for self-expression at home and dizzying trips abroad. Why hadn’t the massive immiseration and unemployment of the post-Soviet population during the early nineties produced this same enlightenment? Or the violent disbanding of the Russian parliament, in 1993? Or the first war in Chechnya? Or the fact that, in Alexander’s case, his own father, a professor at the city’s shipbuilding institute, had gone in a matter of a year or two from being a respected member of his society to being an outmoded nobody who had to struggle to survive? Somehow, Alexander and his kind had noticed all this, of course, and not seen it. Or seen it and decided that these were the sort of temporary measures and necessary obstacles on the road to a better future. As he sees it now, the whole point of the Russian nineties was to decommission and eliminate whole sections of the population—teachers, doctors, factory workers, the poor, the aging, the less ambitious, and the more gullible. And this civil war, which continues to this day, paved the way to the quite logically illiberal current regime.

Which of course is wholly staffed by the victors in the quiet civil war of the nineties—not by the victims, whose victimhood is converted into ever-greater quantities of political, symbolic, and real capital by those same victors. Thus, the current favorite to win the Russian presidential elections in March announced the other day that his goal was to create a strong civil society where the freedoms and rights of all citizens would be cherished and protected.

This is one way to cash in your chips at the end of a successful quiet civil war. But our globalizing economy is such that you can even profit from someone else’s civil wars. My favorite new example of such capitalization is the American alternative band Beirut, the brainchild of 22-year-old Zach Condon, a native of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Overly sensitive types might wonder how you grow up in peaceful Santa Fe and end up calling your band Beirut—but as we Americans love to say, It’s a free country.[1] (In its article on the band’s “Balkan-inspired” debut album, Gulag Orkestar, Wikipedia helpfully explains that the “Gulag was a system of Russian [corrective labor camps] in Siberia.”)

It is too much to expect that alternative radio stations would play, instead of Beirut’s fake Balkan wedding music, the 1999 lament of Masha’s spurned lover. Besides, I didn’t have the good sense to record it and release it as an album.


[1] “One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it’s seen a lot of conflict. It’s not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name. I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I’ll change it. But not now. It’s still a good analogy for my music. I haven’t been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide.” Rachel Syme, “Beirut: The Band,” New York, 6 August 2006.

Alexander Skobov: Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact 3.0

Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact 3.0
Alexander Skobov
Kasparov.ru
December 18, 2021

Major props to Sergei Parkhomenko for bothering to read the preamble to the Kremlin’s proposed treaty with the United States. As he quite rightly pointed out, no one reads the preamble, because the preamble is usually just high-minded blah-blah-blah. You have to look at the specific points and clauses in the main text.

In this case, it’s the other way around. All the points about the non-deployment of missiles are the blah-blah-blah, the bow on the behemoth, the pretty packaging. It is the preamble that contains the  point of the whole undertaking. It expresses the essence of the “brave new world” for which the Chief Salamander in the Kremlin is waging his war on humanity. And it is no Yalta 2.0 at all. It is completely different.

Yalta has been unfairly slandered by modern journalists. There is not a word in any official document issued by the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences about carving up the world into spheres of influence. All the official communiques are strictly in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s global liberal project.

Yalta did have a “false bottom,” of course. Behind the scenes, the leading powers did actually try to negotiate spheres of influence. And the Allies did recognize that the new regimes of Eastern Europe should be “friendly” towards the USSR. But no one said that they had to be totalitarian.

Apparently, the Allies imagined the future of Eastern Europe as something on the order of post-war Finland, a country that was quite “friendly” to the USSR, but retained a liberal-democratic political system. Were they naive? Or did they cynically and hypocritically pretend to believe Stalin? In any case, in 1947 they had every reason to conclude that Stalin had hoodwinked them. That is when the Cold War began. Over its entire duration, the west declared support for the struggle for freedom by all peoples who found themselves under totalitarian rule. This support remained firm during periods of extreme tension, and during periods of “detente.”

Today, the Chief Salamander demands that the United States “refrain[] from supporting organizations, groups or individuals calling for an unconstitutional change of power, as well as from undertaking any actions aimed at changing the political or social system” of the Russian Federation and its allies. In the second supplementary protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty, signed September 28, 1939) there was an amazingly cynical point. The parties pledged to jointly combat “Polish agitation” in the territories under their control—that is, to assist each other in fighting the Polish Resistance.

The treaty partners then adopted a number of measures against political emigration as “gestures of goodwill.” Hitler was not particularly zealous in this respect, by the way. He limited himself to a rather formal ban on the activities of the White emigre organization NTS — although the Gestapo did not particularly bother preventing the members of this organization from gathering “for a cup of tea.” Stalin went much further. He handed over to Hitler more than 200 German communists who were fleeing the Nazi regime in the USSR. He set a good example of genuine partnership.

The Hitlerite in the Kremlin dreams of a world in which the United States forces its European allies to stop the activities of political emigres from the Russian Federation and its satellites, to ban their conferences and “agitation,” and of course, to extradite them to Moscow at the first request. Putin demands that the United States become a Third Reich. Putin seeks to turn the whole world into a collection of Third Reichs.

* * *

And here’s another thing. The diplomatic gangster Ryabkov has just said that Moscow would negotiate a treaty about NATO solely with the United States. Georgy Kunadze (a former deputy foreign minister), who has always been very restrained in his statements, has called the Kremlin’s demands nonsense.

A question naturally arises. Does Putin’s gang hope to make the Americans knuckle under? Or is it just trolling them, as Alexei Venediktov has argued? If it is trolling them, then why? Why is it itching so insistently for a fight — for the flat refusal that Biden’s team is trying hard to avoid and therefore stupidly stalling for time?

I have my own guess. Apparently, the Kremlin has decided to curtail ties with the countries of the Free World — not only economic ties, but also all others, including informational ties. That is, it has charted a course that involves implementing all manner of Fortress Russia-type projects and transforming Russia into North Korea. So far, the comparisons with North Korea have seemed like an exaggeration. But they don’t seem so farfetched anymore.

The changes to the whole current lifestyle [in Russia] would be profound and painful. Of course, a rather weighty reason is needed for such drastic changes, so the Kremlin is looking for such an excuse. Perhaps its scenario also includes a “little” war in Ukraine. Meaning that the Kremlin imagines it would be a brief war — that it would not lead to a global military clash with NATO, but would force the western countries to cut economic ties with Russia. When that happened we could say that they were the first to destroy all ties —and we could shut down the internet.

The west is trying to avoid this option in every possible way because it is also afraid — not so much of a major war, as of being forced to finally split up the common international space. I will try to write in the near future about why it values this increasingly illusory “common space” so much.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Fulda Gap

fulda gap-e

My neighborhood in the former East Berlin harbors some of the last anarchist squats in the city. All the dogs here go for walks without a leash. The odor of marijuana lies heavy in the air. And the sharing economy is practiced as a matter of course.

This means that when someone decides to get rid of something that someone else could use, they often as not set it out on the pavement for the taking.

In this way, several valuable finds have come into my temporary possession.

What I found while we were strolling the neighborhood yesterday, however, was a gift beyond price, and yet it was completely free, to rephrase a line from Rush’s greatest song, “The Spirit of Radio” (1980).

Rush recorded all of their best records during the Cold War, whose moral and intellectual tenor were palpable in Neil Peart’s hippy libertarian fantasy mini-epics, sci-fi short stories, and sonic sermons on the virtues of freedom and individualism.

I was a Rush fan from an early age, but little did I know that as Rush were in Toronto composing and recording the soundtrack of my adolescence, a company called SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.), headquartered on Park Avenue South in Manhattan, was churning out extraordinarily complicated “conflict simulation” games by the hundreds.

Many of SPI’s conflict simulations were based on historical battles and campaigns, ranging from the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Austerlitz to “fantasy & science fiction games” such as Invasion: America—Death Throes of the Superpower and (in the interests of “balance”) Objective: Moscow—The Death of Soviet Communism (“A hypothetical invasion of the USSR by a world coalition”).

Oddly, the first game retailed for $18, while the second cost $27, a decent chunk of money at the time, considering SPI’s target market and the fact that their games consisted of lots of instructions, charts, tables, diagrams, maps, playing pieces, and game boards, all of them printed on cardstock and heavy paper, not on embossed cardboard, etc.

In 1977, when I was ten, and the Cold War informed most of the zeitgeist one way or another, SPI released a remarkable conflict simulation entitled Fulda Gap: The First Battle of the Next War.

Yesterday, I found what looks to be a completely intact, serviceable specimen of Fulda Gap in a cardboard box along with other things clearly left there for the taking by a kindhearted Berliner.

fulda gap-a

My first impression of Fulda Gap is that it is a thousand times more complicated than the actual Cold War was. The “Rules of Play” alone run to sixteen pages.

fulda gap-1.jpg

Fulda Gap also features three sets of “Charts and Tables,” a large folded sheet containing a “Turn Record/Reinforcement Track” on one side, an “Untried Unit Table Analysis” on the reverse, and, of course, a foldout map of West Germany and East Germany where, apparently, the main action takes place and the players pretend, variously, to invade West Germany or fend off the cunning, treacherous Reds.

 

fulda gap-b.JPG

Finally, Fulda Gap contains what SPI’s mail order catalog of its other games honestly identifies as several hundred “die-cut cardboard playing pieces […] packaged in ziplock bag[s].” The playing pieces are printed with such arcane combinations of numbers, letters, and symbols that it is easier to imagine they have something to do with the Kabbalah than with all-out warfare between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

If I were a contemporary artist I would stage a performance involving Fulda Gap in one of the ex-Cold War settings and current Cold War memorials with which Berlin teems.

If I were a real gamester I would just find a few other comrades, figure out how the game works, and play it.

In any case, I would appreciate your comments, suggestions, and reminiscences about Fulda Gap and SPI’s other remarkable products, as well as information about the company and the people who produced its games. {TRR}

UPDATE (10 May 2020). Reader Steven Lohr has sent me an invaluable comment about SPI and its founder, Jim Dunnigan. Thanks, Steven!

Zeitgeist Checklist

taste real mexicoA Williamsburg-inspired eatery in snowy central Petersburg, 5 February 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

It’s remarkable how the MH17 final report and Ukrainian political prisoner and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike have exacerbated two sad trends among Russia’s left/liberal/creative/academic intelligentsia.

The first trend involves intelligenty out-Putining Putin and his regime’s put-on anti-Americanism by ramping up the number of social media posts and hasbarical hate-a-grams about the US, its sinister machinations, and its signal failings.

This is part of the same operetta in which the nefarious NATO is a greater threat to world peace than a country that reserves the right to invade its closest neighbor and join in crushing a democratic, grassroots rebellion in a faraway country whose people have never harmed Russia in any shape or form.

But it’s no fun talking, much less doing anything, about that at all, because it would require real collective effort. So, depending on your political tastes, it’s much easier, as a Russophone, to hate on NATO or Hamas.

Some Russians go for the trifecta, hating on both “terrorist” organizations, while also indulging in the most satisfying infantile pleasure on our planet today: Islamophobia. You know, Europe has been overrun by Islamic terrorists and that whole tired spiel, which gives such a sense of purpose to otherwise wildly ignorant people who have betrayed their own country and countrymen so many ways over the last 25 or 30 years it should make all our heads spin.

The other trend, which has also kicked into high gear again, is going hipster as hard as you can. There are any number of “projects,” “creative clusters,” eating and drinking establishments, festivals, semi-secret dance parties, and god knows what else in “the capitals” to make the younger crowd and even some of the middle-aged set forget they live in a country ruled by a ultra-reactionary kleptocratic clique that can have any of them abducted for any reason whatsoever at a moment’s notice and charged with “involvement in a terrorist community” or some such nonsense and ruin their lives forever.

That’s no fun to think about it, either, and it’s altogether scary to do something about it, so why not pretend you live in Williamsburg while you can?

The day before yesterday, I translated and posted an essay, by Maria Kuvshinova, about Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike and the non/reaction to this brave call to action on the part of Russia’s creative so-called intelligentsia. At some point, I thought the essay might be a bit off the mark, but on second thought, despite its obvious quirks, I decided Ms. Kuvshinova had sized up the Russian zeitgeist perfectly.

Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts. // TRR

Grigorii Golosov: An Anti-American Dictatorship

An Anti-American Dictatorship: The Russian Concept of Sovereignty
The regime is sovereign, not the people, and only if it does not seek to benefit from cooperating with the US
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
November 9, 2017

4f1d12efea4954e40cedcc6cf03e3d2bVladislav Surkov. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant

Recently, after a long silence, Vladislav Surkov made another public appearance in print. The article itself, entitled “A Crisis of Hypocrisy” and written in a style typical of intellectually pretentious picture magazines, is not very interesting. It is not that Surkov rebukes the west for insincerity. That would be like the pot calling the kettle black. He does claim, however, that the effectiveness of hypocrisy as a means of control has been forfeited in modern democracies. Surkov thus finds himself agreeing with “prophetic comics” and other authoritative sources that a king of the west might appear to forcibly lead the world out of chaos. A good example, perhaps, of how such a king might act is Surkov’s own work in the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.

As many of you will remember, until his forced immersion in the affairs of a neighboring country, Surkov laid claim, albeit not very successfully, to the role of the current Russian regime’s ideologue. It was Surkov who back in the day coined the controversial term “sovereign democracy,” which was supposed to be either an alternative to western democracy or a variation on it. In this case, Surkov messed up royally, as was pointed out to him with appropriate severity by his more senior comrades. The point of Russian electoral authoritarianism, like electoral authoritarianism anywhere else, is to feign being a democracy without actually being a democracy. Since everyone realizes there really is true democracy in the west, any juxtaposition is invidious. Russia has democracy, and that is that. It is no worse than other democracies. It is just like them. There is thus no need to qualify it with any adjectives.

Now Surkov, being a person who is, on the one hand, quick on the uptake and, on the other, not averse to particular flights of fancy, has adopted the politically correct stance while creatively elaborating on it in the sense that democracy in the west is on its last legs, even as Russia still cherishes the ideal of people power. Naturally, there is no point in debating the nature of democracy when the issue is put this way, and sovereignty comes to the fore as in Surkov’s original take on the matter. Sovereignty is the central concept of modern Russian ideology.

Sovereignty is now the talk of the talk of the town, the favorite topic not only of the media but even of those people who speak from the highest bully pulpits. The Russian concept of sovereignty includes two axioms that we should examine thoroughly. I should note in advance that neither of these aspects is unique. Each of them is ordinarily found in any logically consistent concept of sovereignty. The whole trick is how they are applied specifically to modern day-to-day circumstances.

The first axiom states that all decisions about power in a given country are taken at a purely national level.  The point is incontestable. It suffices to have a look at how acutely the Americans react to any outward attempts to shape their own politics to be convinced that they, too, operate in full accordance with the axiom. The specific nature of the Russian interpretation, however, is nevertheless apparent. To detach it from its basic content we should look at the events in Syria.

The cause of the events was the crisis generated by the extremely brutal, truly barbarous dictatorship established in Syria by the Assad family. Only an intellectually unscrupulous person could publicly state the Assad regime had been the choice of the Syrian people, at least at some point in time. The Assads came to power in a military coup and were elected to the country’s presidency solely on an uncontested basis, under circumstances in which all opposition was quashed. An uprising took place in 2011. The regime survived it, but was unable to crush it completely. A civil war broke out. It is characteristic of modern civil wars in more or less important countries that they involve outside actors.

The last point has been at the heart of the Russian concept of sovereignty. Frightened out of their wits at one time by the specter of “color” revolutions, the Russian authorities, first, regard any regime in any country, except Ukraine, as legitimate, and any attempt to overthrow it, however bloody and tyrannical it may be, as solely the result of outside interference. I would again underscore that outside interference is a perpetual occurrence, but nor does Russia miss its own chance to catch fish in troubled waters. This aspect is always secondary, however. Western political thought has traditionally argued the people’s sovereignty consists, in particular, in its ability to put down tyrannies. Since elections in such circumstances are not a tool for doing this, all that remains is civil disobedience and insurrection. If we approach the matter differently, the notion of sovereignty has been replaced by the notion of the regime’s sovereignty. This is exactly how sovereignty is treated in modern Russian ideology.

Second, the Russian concept of sovereignty consists in the notion that all decisions on foreign policy must be taken at the national level. When expressed in such concise form, the claim is also indisputable. However, when it is applied in Russian public discourse, the claim is more controversial: since most national governments take the interests of the US (or, alternately, the EU) into account when making foreign policy decisions, their sovereignty is limited.

The problem with this interpretation is that it is advantageous to pay attention to the interests of the United States or the European Union, or both. This coincides with the preferences of most governments. They themselves limit their freedom to maneuver when it comes to foreign policy. Take one of Russia’s biggest grievances against the west: Nato’s eastward expansion. It is true that when the Eastern European countries joined Nato, they limited their freedom to operate, but they did this not merely voluntarily, but with colossal enthusiasm. They applied to join Nato and celebrated their joining the alliance as if it were a national holiday. Ask Donald Trump why they wanted to get in. He would tell you what percentage of the alliance’s expenditures are footed by American taxpayers. It is not even worth enlarging on the fact that the new European Union members received certain perks. Actually, back in the old days, even Vladimir Putin was given to saying it would not be a bad idea for Russia to join the western alliances. It follows that he saw the benefits.

For it would be wrong to say no one takes Russia’s interests into account. Even some of the Eastern European countries, which the Russian media arrogantly disparages as satellites of the western powers, occasionally express a dissenting opinion on issues sensitive to Russia, such as sanctions. When they do this, are they limiting their own sovereignty in favor of our country? No, they are just taking care of their own business. The general rule, however, is that most countries regard the interests of the US as more important than Russia’s interests. There are exceptions: Iran, North Korea, Syria, and five or six other countries. By a coincidence that is hardly strange there is not a single democracy amongst them. All of these countries are small or medium sized. It is naive to believe China is one of these countries. China regards the US as more important.

We no longer speak of sovereign democracy. The idea has not vanished, however, but has merely acquired a more appropriate guise as an anti-American dictatorship. It is this guise that has become Russia’s own political pole star. And why not? It is a matter of choice. We should be aware, however, that how you define yourself defines how people treat you, taking this into account when assessing the prospects for improving relations with the rest of the world.

Grigorii Golosov is a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader