I’m lovin’ the direction Moscow Through Brown Eyes is taking. Especially with Buster PhD’s meditations on race, immigration, and nationalism in Russia. I love how figures like W. E. B. Du Bois are drawn into the discussion to help us think about how race and racism are now calculated in post-Soviet spaces. On that note, I highly recommend the post “Brown Reconstruction in Moscow?” There, Buster tries to get past the “sensationalism without sense” that inhabits most reporting on race and racial violence in the Russian and Western medias. To get beyond this reductionism, Buster revisits the analytical power of Du Bois’s presentation of the “problem of blackness” in Black Reconstruction.
How might Du Bois’s vision help us think about present-day Moscow and dislodge the current construction of the problem of the guest-worker? How might we recognize “that dark and vast sea of human labor” that has helped build up this outrageously expensive financial and commercial center? How can we imagine a Moscow that recognizes the two million undocumented workers in the city as “ordinary human beings?”
A story that answers these questions requires more than fly-by-night, sensationalist coverage. Rather, it demands the excavation of Russia’s imperial pasts, a detailed examination of the labor question in the former Soviet Union and the contributions of migrant workers, a serious investigation of the nationalist rhetoric of Russia’s leaders with the failure of these leaders to effectively prosecute racist crimes, and an analysis of the appeal of racist extremism among everyday Russians. Like Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, such an undertaking, done properly, would be a behemoth of theoretical and investigative work. (As such, it’s not a story particularly well-suited for blogging, a medium usually consisting of short posts and largely reliant on links to mainstream media or other privileged, computer-savvy individual bloggers.) But it may well be one of the most important stories of contemporary Moscow (and Russia) that I can imagine.
I couldn’t agree more. (I also fully endorse picking up Siouxsie Mantaray.)
You Might also like
By Sean — 6 years ago
I don’t have much to add about the biographies of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I certainly won’t presume the cause or intent of their bombings of the Boston Marathon. Here we have two young men, the now deceased Tamerlan, 26, and captured and injured Dzhokhar, 19, both born in a Chechen diaspora community in the town of Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. In 2001, they moved with their family to Dagestan, Russia. After a year or so, they came to the United States as war refugees. Like many American immigrants, the Tsarnaev family lived a working class life. Anzor, the father, worked as a mechanic. The mother, Zubeidat, was a cosmetologist. By most accounts, the Tsarnaev brothers lived a typical American male life: school, partying, sports, and alienation. As immigrants they lived an in-between existence. They had all the trappings of Americaness, but by their own admission, they felt not quite American. Eventually, both turned to radical Islam and developed an intense desire to reclaim their Chechen identity. At the moment, what dove them to violence is anyone’s guess.
There’s been a lot of debate about how much Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s “Checheness” figures into their bombing attack. Yet, what strikes me are the narratives of trauma that try to discern the meaning of “Chechnya” in the Tsarnaevs’ personal lives and, more often, as a implicit explanation for their violence. The discourse of trauma as a means to explain violence reveals how much psychological rationalizations imbue our public discourse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I would caution against using trauma to find the rationality in the irrational. For me, trauma only works as an analytic to understand how the irrational becomes rational to the traumatized subject. So far, the trauma talk around the brothers Tsarnaev seeks to identify the former and not the latter.
Many profiles of Tsarnaevs read as if the duo suffered from a litany of traumas: collective trauma, war trauma, the trauma of geographical displacement, and the trauma of fragmented identity. There are surely more. Even when commentators disavow Chechnya as having any role in the Tsarnaevs’ actions, the current ritualistic recounting of Chechnya’s tragic history, even when it’s to educate the American public, implies that they were nonetheless traumatized anyway. Indeed, the headline for a Bloomberg comment says it all: “Boston Revives Trauma for Chechens in U.S.”
After all, the logic goes, for a people that have suffered as much as the Chechens have, how could these young men not be traumatized? If the trauma isn’t located in them specifically, then surely there are reenacting that of their forebears? It is as if to be Chechen is to be traumatized. In fact, based on a lot of what has been written in the last few days, Chechens are only afforded two subject positions: sufferers and violent rebels. As Charles Clover wrote in the Financial Times, “Suffering and violent rebellion are twin themes of Chechnya’s national mythology.” Suffering and violent rebellion are also born of the same source: trauma.
I’m still trying to figure out what all this might mean. But I find something attractive and deeply troubling about the media discourse framing the Tsarnaevs as potential embodiments of traumatic legacies. I’m drawn toward it because it tries, however imperfectly, to understand the motives of the Other on his or her own terms. At the same time, I’m disturbed by all this trauma talk. First, it renders the Tsarnaevs as victims in a crime they perpetrated and therefore robbing the real victims of their victimhood. I’ve read many reader comments , often disturbing, expressing outrage at articles that normalize the Tsarnaevs. I don’t agree, but I begrudgingly understand their anger. Second, by placing trauma at the core of Chechen identity you inherently risk, as Sarah Kendzior writes, “treating Chechen ethnicity as the cause of the Boston violence.” You may humanize the Tsarnaevs, but you nevertheless erase their complexity. But giving trauma explanatory power for the Tsarnaevs’ crimes does more. It reduces Chechen identity writ large to the materialization of the mythic suffering and violent duplex, thus rendering Checheness to a perpetual state of abnormality.
By Sean — 5 years ago
My review, “Russian politics has always been patrimonial,” for Russia Direct of J. Arch Getty’s new book Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition:
What is striking about J. Arch Getty’s excellent new book, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition, is how little Stalin is in it. Sure, he’s there, but he mostly stands above the fray acting as an arbiter over rival Bolshevik clans that all curry his favor. Indeed, Stalin’s personal presence isn’t felt until the last third of the book, when Getty investigates how the dictator sought to wrangle the competing clans the Stalinist system begat.
In many ways, however, Practicing Stalinism is a misnomer. While Getty’s focus is on the 1920s and 1930s, the text isn’t about Stalinism as much it is about the tenacity of what the preeminent historian Edward Keenan has called “Muscovite political folkways.”
Despite their efforts to create a modern rule-bound depersonalized state, the Bolsheviks were victims of the deep structures of Russian culture as much as they were its destroyers. Using the early Soviet period as a case study, Getty argues that from the first tsars to the commissars to Putin, Russian politics has always been patrimonial.
As Getty’s former graduate student (full disclosure), I’ve been hearing about Stalinism as patrimonial politics for a while now. Though he isn’t the first to suggest this, he is the only one to date to devote a sustained study of clans in the early Soviet period. I’ve always remained skeptical, though. I view the approach of extending Muscovy’s politics into the modern period and treating the state as merely a shell containing a network of personal relations as reductionist.
As Getty states in his introduction, we are all followers of Max Weber in that we buy into the idea of a reified state. I suffer from the same affliction and find the Weberian syndrome difficult to shake. Ultimately, Getty’s text alleviates my fears of reductionism as he inserts a sufficient number of caveats. In the end, his references to Muscovy are illustrative rather than attempts at similitude.
By Sean — 7 years ago
Stephen Kotkin, Professor of History at Princeton University, reviewed five recent books on Putin in the 2 March issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Kotkin is a tour de force when it comes to all things Russia, and when I heard about the review, I scoured the internet looking for an accessible version, but to no avail. Not having a subscription to TLS, I had to patiently wait until the University of Pittsburgh library received its copy. It finally hit the periodical shelves a week or so ago, and I eagerly made a photocopy. You can read of scan of the review here.
The five books under Kotkin’s analytical gaze are:
Gleb Pavlovsky, Genialnaya vlast! Slovar abstraktsii kremlya, Evropa, 2011
Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Riverhead, 2012
Augus Roxburgh, The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, Tauris, 2012
Sean P. Roberts, Putin’s United Russia Party, Routledge, 2011
Allen C. Lynch, Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft, Potomac, 2011
Here are some of my favorite passages:
This one-man capture of the State has stood out as utterly singular in writings on Russia. Throw in Putin’s KGB background and all the lingering emotions and politics of the Cold War, and Russia’s ostensible singularity becomes magnified. But the world knows myriad examples of personal rule, caudillos, juntas, in countries small and large. Did not Indonesia’s Suharto appoint senior military officers, equivalent to Putin’s KGB types, to civilian posts, whence they enriched themselves in the name of sovereignty and state security? Is not today’s Georgia under Mikheil Saakashviii essentially a one-man regime under which a tiny clique of associates holds sway over the executive, parliament and main national television channels, with a constitution altered by fiat and an opposition chased from the streets with truncheons? We would do well to understand that such regimes are often feeble, even before they reveal themselves to be so, and yet they are not so easily dislodged. They wield numerous instruments—tax police, courts, buy-offs—that are useful only for certain tasks, like holding on to power. Stalin excepted, the more leaders in Russia have pushed for a “strong state”, the more they end up producing weak personal rule and institutional mush. In the end, whether the current Russian regime falls or survives, the colossal modernization challenge will persist.
Pavlovsky draws a telling contrast with Karl Rove’s efforts under George W. Bush to create a permanent Republican Party majority, which failed. The “Putin majority”, he explains, encompasses people on the state budget (such as pensioners), the working class, state functionaries and the security services, and women. In other words, those who bore the burdens of the Yeltsin “reforms”, the losers of the 1990s, became the winners of the 2000s. The majority holds, provided the state budget can continue to find the largesse for its outlays, and the people continue to stay out of politics. But now? If the election of 2000 institutionalized the Putin majority, Pavlovsky concludes, the election of 2012 will institutionalize the “permanent insulted minority”.
When the voluble Sobchak inconveniently recalled Purin’s role differently from the emerging official line, he was, Gessen implies, murdered by poisoning. She piles up the suspicious corpses, recounting the death by polonium radiation of Alexander Litvinenko in London and the murders of the investigative journalists Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya, among others. Gessen’s friends fear she may be next. She is right that the regime shrinks from no act or method, but proving matters is not simple. In her telling, the deadly terrorist siege of a Moscow theatre turns out to have been a convoluted set-up; and the fatal storming of a school held hostage in Beslan two years later was unnecessary (Putin could have acceded to the terrorists’ demands). Tarring Putin, rather than just his associates, with corruption, she recounts the story of his supposed $1 billion dacha complex on the Black Sea, invoking the notion of pleonexia (an “insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others”). Conversely, she tells us that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed tycoon, “invested money and energy in constructing a new political system”. She offers a similarly one-sided account of the destruction of Vladimir Gusinsky’s empire (”The day the media died”), where she used to work. Repeatedly, she scolds the New York Times for its allegedly naive response to these events. Above all, she frog-marches Putin’s facilitators before her interviewer’s court. Berezovsky, we hear, rues the day he ever helped him. Andrei IIlarionov, who worked as Putin’s top economic adviser, rues the day. William Browder, who applauded Khodorkovsky’s arrest before his own investment fund was evacuated under duress, rues the day. Gessen derides her peers for being taken in by Medvedev’s talk of modernization (“The intelligentsia ate it up”), then lets on that her recent boss, the ultra-rich Mikhail Prokhorov, a permitted presidential candidate, “just might topple the system”.
And finally, Kotkin concludes:
After twelve years at the pinnacle of power, with twelve more in prospect, Putin remains at a loss as to how to move Russia to the next level, towards a version of the modernity he rightly says the country needs. As for the man-boy Medvedev, even now he continues his enervating verbiage. “The old model, which faithfully and truly served our state in recent years, and did not serve it badly, and which we all defended – it has exhausted itself’, he remarked on December 17. Why have these endless calls for modernization not been answered? Masha Gessen has the simplest response: it was mostly a ruse. Angus Roxburgh’s explanation comes via a Russian businessman, who tells him that corruption “is the entire system – the political system, the business establishment, the police, the judiciary, the government, from top to bottom, all intertwined and inseparable”. Allen Lynch, too, singles out structural impediments, as well as accumulated Soviet rot and geopolitical constraints, some self-imposed. Russia wants to deal with the West and China from a position of equality, but it cannot; Russia wants to be a global power centre in its own right, the hub of a Eurasian Union, but it is not. Pavlovsky suggests another piece of the answer, on top of the exigencies of the global economy: Putin has exposed himself as ever more cocky and vindictive, and bereft of the political agility of his first term, refusing all concessions and unable to revive a sense of a future. Russia deserves better, but is in line for more of the same.