A key part of Barack Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly was the crisis in Ukraine, specifically what he called Russian aggression. “Russian aggression in Europe,” the US President stated, “recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition.” What followed was pretty much White House boilerplate. But then Obama said:
Moreover, a different path is available – the path of diplomacy and peace and the ideals this institution is designed to uphold. The recent cease-fire agreement in Ukraine offers an opening to achieve that objective. If Russia takes that path – a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people – then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges. That’s what the United States and Russia have been able to do in past years – from reducing our nuclear stockpiles to meet our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to cooperating to remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons. And that’s the kind of cooperation we are prepared to pursue again—if Russia changes course.
This is the first time Obama has put forth conditions for the possible removal of sanctions against Russia. It was somewhat vague: Russia would have to take the path of “diplomacy and peace.” Interestingly, the return of Crimea seems to be off the table as a precondition. And by invoking the cease-fire agreement Obama seems was fine with Luhansk and Donetsk turning into a frozen conflict and dominated by Russia. Essentially, Obama’s support for Ukraine is rather light—the US will support the embattled country “as they develop their democracy and economy,” but nothing more. Obama is playing cautious with Russia, as he did by refusing to give Poroshenko arms. Overall, he favors good relations with Russia and “addressing common challenges” over a long drawn out conflict in Ukraine, even if that means Ukraine has to give up a lot as a result. I wouldn’t call it a return to the “Reset,” but clearly Obama is looking for some détente with Russia.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
Washington Profile has an interesting interview with Professor David Foglesong about his book The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire’: The Crusade for a ‘Free Russia’ since 1881. I reviewed Foglesong’s book here a few months ago. Below are a few excerpts from the interview that I found interesting and pertinent to understanding where America’s “dark double” stands in the present:
Washington Profile: If we talk about the broader hope of the U.S. reshaping Russia, the United States has had a special mission throughout its history to bring democracy or enlightenment to the world, but you seem to suggest that Russia became America’s special project and as you put it, America’s dark twin. Why is this the case? Why Russia?
David Foglesong: There have been a lot of other countries that have played the role of a foil for American national identity at different moments in time, either as the demonic opposite of the United States or as an object of the American mission. For example, the idea of Christianizing and civilizing China was very important for affirmation of American philanthropic ideals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I would argue that Russia is not unique in that respect, but Russia has more persistently over a longer period of time been seen as both an object of the American mission and the opposite of American ideals and virtues. Why is that? I think that a set of attitudes that we first see in the late 19th century and early 20th century help to explain that. First, the idea that Russia is, despite the differences in the political system and despite the different histories, fundamentally like the United States and is destined to follow in its footsteps. The usual reasons that are pointed to are first, vast size, that Russia occupies a huge continental expanse just as the United States by the end of the 19th century, occupies a huge continental expanse. That supposedly contributes to an expansive personality of the people. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis comes into circulation after 1893 with the idea that the frontier has been central to the shaping of an American democratic, egalitarian, individualist ethos and the idea comes into circulation that Russia is like the United States in having had a frontier experience. I think ideas like that are important in the presumption that Russia is like America and is destined to become more like America.
Two other factors are race and religion. Russians are explicitly defined as white, even though there are people who have ambivalence about that. I think the dominant understanding, and the dominant view of the crusaders for a free Russia like George Kennan, is that the Russians are white; sometimes they use the term “Aryan” to describe the Russians. That fits into an outlook that the Russians more than Asian peoples are fit to follow an American path to democracy and to a modern economy and to Christianity. There’s a great deal of enthusiasm among missionaries for the conversion of Russians because the idea is that they are nominally Christian. There is contempt for the Russian Orthodox Church as a corrupt, degenerate, backwards, superstitious form of Christianity, but nonetheless the argument goes that the ground has been prepared for the full Christianization of Russia by this background of almost 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia.
If we look at the current situation, you have said the rhetoric from the presidential candidates is unproductive. Has the United States learned anything from these historical experiences?
I think that some within the Bush administration, it seems to me particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been more realistic, more moderate in their approaches. Not that they have abandoned all hope of encouraging political reform, but they don’t expect the United States to have extraordinary leverage over developments in Russia. They don’t expect overnight transformations and they also don’t veer to the opposite extreme of saying that Putin is reverting back to being a Stalin-like tyrant.
I do think this is somewhat encouraging. What’s disturbing is that you find in American political circles and in American journalistic circles an almost compulsive tendency to demonize figures in Russia that they hold responsible for Russia not becoming just like the United States. I think journalists assume that it is a good thing for there to be checks and balances in a political system, that you should have opposition parties. They assume on the basis of American experience that Russia should be like that and if it is not then it’s something pathological and terribly wrong.
Russia’s historical experience is quite different from America’s historical experience. Division of power doesn’t necessarily have a positive connotation for many Russians. Experiences of times with a division of power, whether it’s between Yeltsin and the parliament in the early 1990s or between the Provisional Government and the Soviet in 1917 are not necessarily positive in Russian historical memory. I think that some recent developments have been regrettable and unfortunate but there is a sort of impulse among American journalists and politicians in a very simplistic way to judge developments in Russian by American standards which may not be appropriate.
Do you see a difference between whether a Democrat or Republican becomes the next U.S. president in term of foreign policy towards Russia?
What I have read so far in the newspapers is not at all encouraging to me. In a piece I wrote for the History News Network a couple of weeks ago I expressed some worry about the direction already of the rhetoric in the political campaign: with McCain’s remarks about Putin, with Hillary Clinton’s really awful remark about Putin not having a soul, and even with Obama’s recent remarks. There is too much of a tendency to use Russia as a political football, to use Russia as foil, as a whipping boy, as a scapegoat. I think it’s really shortsighted to think that in the political campaign Americans can say all sorts of things about Russia’s leaders and not expect it to have reverberations down the road in American – Russian relations. This reminds me of the way that Vice-President George H. W. Bush told Gorbachev in 1987: I’m going to say lots of terrible things about the Soviet Union during the 1988 political campaign but you should just forget about it because it’s just politics.
Do you see any way to break out of this cycle with a new president coming in?
The way I look at it there doesn’t seem to be a broad mass resonance in American society to this kind of demagogic appeal from political candidates. I think in earlier phases when politicians and non-governmental crusaders for Russian freedom like the first George Kennan went out on the lecture circuit and denounced tsarist tyranny they were able to evoke a wider, more enthusiastic popular response. I don’t sense that degree of popular resonance for the kind of rhetoric we’re seeing nowadays.
If you look at the popular reaction to Time Magazine’s making Putin “Man of the Year,” a number of the remarks put on Time’s website were troubling. Americans were saying Putin is evil, how dare you put Putin on the cover, let’s all get together and burn our copies of Time magazine. However, I don’t sense that this is a very widespread popular demonization of Russia, in part because the United States has so many other problems on its plate.
I also think that there has been some sobering up of the expectations that it is in America’s power to reshape Russia in America’s image. I can’t foresee what might happen five years down the road if there are some unfortunate developments in Russia, and if Americans have the ability to focus more on Russia as opposed to the problems of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. domestic economy. The situation could change. For now, I don’t sense that the demagoguery about Putin not having a soul and about looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing only KGB is evoking a broad popular response.
How do Americans, not politicians, view Russia today? What do they most misunderstand about Russia?
I think there are really varied attitudes towards Russia among different elements of the American population. I think that there are people who are involved in the growing trade with Russia who are aware of some promising developments in the Russian economy beyond just the export of fossil fuels, and I think that many of the people in business are inclined not to veer to the two extremes of either expecting overnight democracy along American lines or feeling that there is a regression to Stalinist tyranny.
I do think that among journalists and among some politicians there are the habits and impulses of the past. The New York Times recently suggested it was necessary to revert back to the style of the 1970s, when Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were among the dissidents that we supported and we amplified their voices. I think there are people in American journalistic circles, especially editorial writers for the Washington Post, who have an emotional impulse to condemn Russia for backsliding on democracy and to overstate the potential menace to the outside world from Russia. Although there have been some troubling developments in Putin’s Russia, such American journalists tend to exaggerate them, to lack historical perspective, and to have unrealistic expectations about the extent of American influence on Russia.
Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say what ordinary Americans think about Russia; I think it’s a complicated and varied picture.Post Views: 157
By Sean — 10 years ago
Two of my favorite magazines, the London Review of Books and Vanity Fair, have two must read articles on Russia in their recent additions. Vanity Fair‘s annual “Green Issue” is full of amazing articles, particularly Phillippe Sands’ well researched article “The Green Light,” which exposes how White House lawyers “legalized” the use of torture.
In regard to Russia, Alex Shoumatoff’s “The Arctic Oil Rush” delves into the logic behind Russia’s scramble for the North Pole. This time, however, the rush back to the Pole isn’t solely driven by the exploratory urges of Frederick Cook or Robert Perry. The Cold Rush, as Shoumatoff calls the Arctic Great Game, is spurred by, you guested it, oil. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves sit under the Arctic floor. Russia, the United States, Canada, and Denmark are now in a renewed effort to claim possession over the the globe’s ice cap.
But the main contribution of Shoumatoff’s article is not so much the Cold Rush, as it is how global warming is affecting the million residents of Yakutia. The capital, Yakurtsk, is a boom town, mostly because of diamond mining. In good Putinist fashion, Alrosa, the diamond company which dominates the region, is jointly state owned by the Russian and Yakutia governments. Vyacheslav Shtyrov, the president of the Republic of Sakha, is a former president of Alrosa.
Life for Yakutia’s native population is far removed from the the political and corporate machinations of Russia’s political elites. The three main ethnic groups, Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir, like many indigenous peoples around the world are more victims of the double pronged assault of modernity. The first is cultural. Much of their nomadic life, language and religion has been destroyed by a two century old effort of Russification and modernization. One of the oldest groups, the Yakaghir, only number 1,509 people, and only 23 of them still speak their language with fluency.
The second prong is of course global industrialization and its ecological consequences. Global warming, which most Russian scientists reject (they actually think the world is getting colder), is having detrimental effects on the two staples of the Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir people: reindeer herding and fur trapping. As Shoumatoff explains:
The Eveny and Evenki people (same way of life, different linguistic heritage) have been relying for centuries on reindeer (known in the Nearctic as caribou), which provide transport, food, shelter, and clothing. There are still a few thousand nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia, moving with their animals in the largest territory of any remaining traditional people. But the wild and domesticated reindeer have been experiencing massive die-offs in the spring and fall, I’m told by Eveny and Evenki activists. Reindeer eat mainly lichen, and now when the seasons change there is more rain that freezes at night, often with melted snow, into a sheet of ice that the reindeer can’t break through with their hooves, so entire herds are starving to death.
Vyacheslav Shadrin, the head of the council of Yukaghir elders, tells me that in the Upper Kolyma basin, 700 miles north of Yakutsk, where he is from, last November and December, when it is normally minus 40 degrees Celsius (also Fahrenheit—Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at 40 below), it rained. That means it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. The Yukaghir are one of the oldest aboriginal peoples of Siberia. There are only 1,509 of them left, as of the last census, and only 23 who still speak the language fluently. They are a culture on the way out, unless something is done fast to keep it going.
The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir are hunters and fishermen whose main source of income is trapping sable. “Usually in one season a hunter can get 20 to 25 pelts, half of them in the middle of October, when the sables all go to their winter hunting ground,” Shadrin says. “By then the snow comes thick and the lakes are frozen and the hunters can go out to the winter routes on snowmobiles. But now it’s no longer safe to go out until mid-November, because the snowmobiles can fall through the ice, so the hunters are losing the most important month and a half for their income.
“Every year the pasture for the wild reindeer, which the Yukaghir hunt, is getting less and less because the taiga is coming up from the south,” Shadrin goes on. “Grasses, birches, and some bushes like willow are covering the lichen. And the reindeer no longer come to their traditional river crossings, which is the best place to kill them. The hunters no longer know where they are going to be, so they lose time and are less successful.
“The quantity of wolves is growing,” he says. “Before, we used to have only tundra wolves. Now we’re getting taiga wolves, too, which run in bigger packs. The wolves kill many reindeer and give trouble to the herders. So for all these reasons, both wild and domestic reindeer are disappearing. Also, geese and sea ducks have changed their migratory routes and schedules. Hunters used to wait for them where they rested at night in the beginning of June; now they don’t know what time to go. Last few years the waterfowl have been appearing in very small quantity. They must have changed their route to another river basin. Trapping polar foxes was a big part of our traditional life, but in the last 10 or 15 years there have hardly been any. No one knows why.
I recommend reading the whole article, if not the whole issue.
The London Review of Books is unsurpassed in its book reviews. They’re in depth, engaging, and well written. I eagerly await its delivery in my mailbox every fortnight. For Russia watchers, I highly recommend Lewis Siegelbaum’s “Witness Protection,” which disassembles the analytical logic of Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. Unfortunately, the review is only available to subscribers. Here a lengthy but key passage:
Figes’s own narrative is constructed around the idea of the family as a site of ‘human feelings and emotions’, a ‘moral sphere’ that was opposed to the ‘moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime’. The antithesis is striking but unsustainable. First, it is based on an ahistorical notion of the family. Millions of abandoned and orphaned young people roamed the cities of Russia in the early 1920s not because of Bolshevik hostility to the family but because the combination of war, revolution, civil war, penury, epidemics and famine had carried off their parents. In these historical circumstances attempts by the state to take over responsibility for functions previously associated with the family both assumed urgency and attracted widespread interest abroad. Figes is silent about them.
Second, associating the family with morality and the ‘Stalinist regime’ with its absence may give us a comfortable feeling that we are on the right side of history, but historians have a responsibility to try to explain what those alien beings from the past thought they were doing. This is not a matter of ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ but of granting Stalinists – yes, even Stalinists – the capacity to believe they were acting morally. Claudia Koonz entitled her book The Nazi Conscience: why is the notion of a Communist morality impermissible? Figes puts the words in inverted commas and asserts the impossibility of being ‘a Stalinist in public life’ without letting ‘the morals of the system infect personal relationships’.
There is another reason why the dichotomy cannot be sustained. From the middle of the 1930s, as Figes says, ‘the Party adopted a more liberal approach towards the family and the private home.’ If not exactly a volte-face, the ideological promotion of the family – including images of Stalin as the ‘father’ of the Soviet people and a ban on abortion – made it possible for male members of the elite to tell their wives that their place was now ‘in the home’, even while most urban families continued to live in communal apartments. The family, it turned out, was very adaptable. So adaptable that Figes can claim it ‘emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution’, the only place where people ‘felt a sense of belonging’. I suppose many people did feel this way, but there is evidence of other customs and social institutions emerging from the years of terror, everything from the keeping of pets and the cultivation of friendship to the strengthening of ties among people from the same village or district (zemliachestvo) or the bonds forged in desperate circumstances between soldiers, workers and camp inmates. Many of Figes’s witnesses cite these new forms of association, which in some cases were a substitute for the family. Figes, though, reads into their testimony evidence of split identities. On the one hand, ‘millions’ of children bearing the ‘stigma of a tainted biography’ needed to ‘prove themselves as fully equal members of society’. On the other, they ‘could not help but feel alienated from the system that had brought such suffering on their families’. They were thus ‘constantly torn’. Figes presents this as a Manichean struggle, made all the more tragic by the capacity of the system to ‘infect’ personal relationships with its perverse morality. This evidently is what Mikhail Gefter, the Russian historian quoted here, meant by the ‘Stalinism that entered into all of us’. To adopt Stalinist ways was ‘a necessary way of silencing . . . doubts and fears’, a ‘way to make sense of . . . suffering’. The whispering of the parents thus resulted in a ‘silent and conformist population’, the ‘one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign’.
Leaving aside the question of how to explain the Stalinism of other people, what we have here is a modified picture of the individual in a totalitarian society: not the brainwashed automatons of Cold War nightmares, but surreptitiously resisting liberals assuaging their fearfulness and shame by becoming complicit in their own and others’ victimisation. ‘It was impossible to be oneself,’ one of the interviewees says, as if such an authentic self existed. This may have been the case in some instances, but applied universally it flattens out all complexity. People were fearful not only of persecution or arrest but of being excluded from the giant project of building socialism, of being out of step with history at a time when the capitalist world appeared hellbent on destroying itself. They lived ‘in the expectation of a happy future’; they believed that ‘Soviet history was correct’; they yearned to be ‘part of an enormous “We”’.
This flattening of all complexity of life under Stalin is rendered in part though the interviewer’s lack of interest. The interviews, though rich, have moments in which the interviewee is hectored into a giving an answer that fits into the desires of the interviewer. Here is one example Siegelbaum gives:
[Figes’] assertion that, because witnesses can be cross-examined, oral testimonies are more reliable than written memoirs remains an article of faith – unless one consults the transcripts provided in the original Russian on Figes’s website, orlandofiges.com. There one can find not only cross-examination but occasionally hectoring on the part of the interviewer; or incomprehension, as in these extracts from an interview with Leonid Saltykov, the son of a priest who was shot in 1938:
Q: What did you think of Stalin in the 1930s after the arrest of your father, and in the 1940s?
A: Well, first of all, we knew little of politics, very little; second, even if my father suffered and so many others did too, we related to Stalin better than to our leaders now. He was an honest man . . .
Figes renders the passage somewhat misleadingly: ‘Yes, my father suffered, and so did many others too, but Stalin was still better than any of the leaders that we have today. He was an honest man.’ The interviewer continues:
Q: So it didn’t occur to you that the country’s repressive policy was mainly at Stalin’s initiative? That your father suffered because of Stalin, such thoughts didn’t arise?
A: We weren’t given to such philosophising. First, throughout the country factories and roads were being built. Practically every year Stalin was lowering prices, bread arrived and there was no more hunger, we could buy things . . .
After Saltykov has explained that he didn’t learn of his father’s execution and posthumous rehabilitation until 1962, the interviewer asks at what point he changed his opinion of Stalin:
A: Well, we felt that under him there was more order, although granted, he was guilty of many things.
Q: But I’m asking when did you start to feel that he was guilty?
A: [Sighs deeply. Begins to speak very emotionally] I will tell you something else. A lot of people are saying on the contrary that if Stalin were around now there would be order, more order . . .
Saltykov then starts talking about the way Stalin related to his own children, is interrupted, and gets onto the subject of the army. Again he is interrupted and asked about his own family: ‘A: We did our work, we fulfilled our duty as people, we fulfilled . . .’ Although Saltykov had more to say, the transcript indicates that ‘no substantive information’ was forthcoming. The interviewer tries one last time:
Q: So, throughout your entire life, when you were working in the 1960s and 1970s, it never occurred to you to be sceptical about the Soviet system?
A: No. Now there are few hard workers like those with whom I worked, whom I directed, and who when we meet will always say: ‘Oh, Leonid Konstantinovich, how well we worked with you.’ They trusted me and I trusted them.
Again, ‘no substantive information followed.’ This is a good example of the trickiness of oral history: it all depends on what one is looking for. Figes speaks of ‘nostalgia’, noting (twice) that Saltykov kept a picture of Stalin on his desk right up until his retirement. What seems to be difficult for him and the interviewer to accept is that Saltykov’s identity as a hard and successful worker, an identity intimately and inextricably tied up with that of his country, may have nothing to do with the victimisation of his father and his own ‘spoilt biography’. Whether it should or should not is another matter.
And such is the analytical challenge for understanding Stalinism. To sidestep its horrors is an injustice not just to its victims, but to humanity. But to reduce all life under Stalin to terror fails to understand the often contradictory complexity the human condition. A balance must be struck if we are ever able to understand Stalinism as a period where happiness and horror often existed as concomitant experiences within the individual.Post Views: 153
By Sean — 8 years ago
I’m no expert on Kyrgyzstan. I only play one on the Internet. In my travels around cyberspace in an attempt at a quick education, I’ve run into a lot of punditry, a whole lot of “What Kyrgyzstan means for the US”, a slew of saucy reductions of the situation into Russia vs. America, the Great Game, Cold War revisited, and a whole lot of stupidity. Sadly, this silencing of Kyrgyzstan is merely a symptom of a more pervasive disease. As Sarah Kendzior wrote on Registan,
Central Asia is the black hole of international media. It is not the “other” but the other’s “other” — Russia’s orient, a region whose history and political complexities are poorly understood even by some who proclaim to be experts; a region whose best-known ambassador