Pavel Baev, a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute Oslo. He writes about contemporary Russia for the Eurasian Daily Monitor. His most recent article is Putin’s Disappearing Act May Be Sign of a Leadership Crisis.
Pietro Shakarian, graduate student at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan. He has written widely on Russia and the former Soviet space and maintains his own blog Reconsidering Russia and the Former Soviet Union. He is the editor of The Red Flag at Ararat by Aghavnie Yeghenian and two forthcoming republications Transcaucasia (1854) by Baron August von Haxthausen and Journey to Ararat (1846) by Friedrich Parrot.
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By Sean — 12 years ago
Though the following has little do with Russia, (though one might think of it in terms of the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy forced down historians’ throats in the Soviet period), it concerns my profession and thus my livelihood. The state of Florida has passed and Jeb Bush has signed a bill banning “revisionist” history from Florida public schools. New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman takes the bill to task in a column in the LA Times. Essentially, the bill prevents the teaching of “revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” American history is not to be taught as “constructed,” but based on historical “facts.” Forget that these nimrods in the Florida Legislature haven’t a clue about what they are talking about. I don’t think passing intellectual judgments on philosophy and complicated historical methodologies should be left to legislators. But references to such charged terms like “postmodernism” and French post-structuralism are enough to incite fear in those who are trying to protect the sanctity of American history. By sanctity, I mean a history that not only tells the story of the powerful in historical terms (usually a history where white, wealthy males are the primary historical agents), but more importantly reproduces their hegemony in the present. The rich and powerful’s right to rule is thus naturalized in history. The only role for history is, as Althusser suggested, to “reproduce the means of ideological reproduction.”
History in Florida public schools is not taught so students can challenge how there are many pasts, and a multiplicity of understandings of them. They are taught that there is a singular historical narrative for America. This of course is the worst aspect of “revisionism” in that it’s state sponsored. In addition, as Zimmerman cogently points out the bill is based on a misconception about the history of the historical profession:
“Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history — especially about the founding of the country — was based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s, all that changed. American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty.
The result was a flurry of new interpretations, casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously understood it. Because one theory was as good as another, then nothing could be true or false. God, nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.
There’s just one problem with this history-of-our-history: It’s wrong.
Hardly a brainchild of the flower-power ’60s, the concept of historical interpretation has been at the heart of our profession from the 1920s onward. Before that time, to be sure, some historians believed that they could render a purely factual and objective account of the past. But most of them had given up on what historian Charles Beard called the “noble dream” by the interwar period, when scholars came to realize that the very selection of facts was an act of interpretation.
That’s why Cornell’s Carl Becker chose the title “Everyman His Own Historian” for his 1931 address to the American Historical Assn., probably the most famous short piece of writing in our profession. In it, Becker explained why “Everyman” — that is, the average layperson — inevitably interpreted the facts of his or her own life, remembering certain elements and forgetting (or distorting) others.”
As one UCLA historian said to me when I told him about the law, “Isn’t revising history our job!?” Indeed. I wonder if American historians will have to one day perform the American equivalent to Soviet historians’ “Lenin sandwich” to get around the censors. For those who don’t know what the “Lenin sandwich” was, it was when Soviet historians in the 1960s and 1970s would begin and end their works with a quote from Lenin to evade censors and basically write decent histories in-between.
Such is the present strength of anti-intellectualism in American political culture. To think I thought all these tired debates about “revisionism”, “postmodernism,” “relativism,” and historical “facts” were sorted out in the 1990s. God I hope that this isn’t a sign of their return, especially since the above terms have been so watered down and popularized that they hardly retain any of their former intellectual rigor.Post Views: 42
By Sean — 12 years ago
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.“–Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.
With reports of 180,000 displaced Iraqis since mid-February and 1,398 civilian deaths in May, it is a stretch to compare the present state of the American induced civil war in Iraq to the present conditions of war in Chechnya. By most accounts the war in Chechnya has been reduced to a low intensity conflict where formal military violence has abated, while in Iraq everyday seems to bring more violence, misery, and atrocities committed by insurgents, Shia militias, and the American military.
Yet to analysts, Chechnya does invite comparison with Iraq. First, both conflicts involve two of the world’s largest military powers locked in a quagmire of counter insurgency. Second, both wars are rooted in a vertical conflict, whether the goal is independence from Moscow or to drive out Americans, where Islam functions as a principle marker for national identity and liberation. Third, both involve a horizontal struggle between political and religious communities, whether they are Islamist or secular, Shia or Sunni, over the future of the nation. Fourth, both invading powers justify, but frankly miscategorize, each local conflict as integral to a global conflict against “terrorism.” Lastly, a comparison is viewed as apt because perhaps one, ironically the Chechen war, can point to a possible resolution to the other, the Iraqi war.
In a recent Expert’s Panel, Russia Profile posed the question, “How Does Chechnya Compare to Iraq?” to five Russia watchers. I found most of the responses uninteresting. Mostly because they focused on whether or not Chechnya remains or should remain a diplomatic issue between Russia, the United States, and the European Union and questioned why Putin has not received his due for Russian “success” in Chechnya. I seriously doubt the Chechen war really ever was a point of contention between the three powers. Sure, the US and Europe made lip service to condemning Russian atrocities, and sometimes Putin took offense to these, but I seriously doubt much time was really spent on the issue in discussions. In the last ten years, bigger problems have plagued U.S.-Russian and EU-Russian relations.
However, I did find Andrei Lebedev’s response interesting. Lebedev, a Senior Associate at the State Club Foundation in Moscow, had this to say,
The degree of success [in each conflict], however, is strikingly different.
The reasons for that are evident enough. Rehabilitation of Chechnya was entrusted to local feudal barons-turned-politicians, who widely employed – and still employ – former rebels. This did not end the interclan feud, however, it only made them less visible by mostly excluding federal forces from them. As the outcome of the feuds in favor of the Kadyrov clan was becoming clear, it left less ground for involvement from abroad in the situation. As long as Kadyrov’s people rule in the republic, they have no reason to let someone from Amman, Tbilisi or Istanbul stir the situation, and many reasons to go on milking the federal center.
In Iraq the coalition forces failed to find the winning combination of leaders and/or forces. Potent religious and political groups violently oppose the pro-American government, making reconstruction of the country impossible. If there was a moment fit to switch gears and change horses, it was missed. The United States is in a desperate situation; its faces the unappealing alternatives of getting further bogged down in a hopeless guerrilla war or withdrawing from the country claiming “victory” but losing face over inevitable defeat. No joy either way.
So there is hardly is any realistic advice President Putin can give to President Bush on this sad situation. Moreover, peace in Chechnya achieved by Kadyrov’s clan may become a Pyrrhic victory for the federal center, after all. Milking the Russian treasury is an important element, but still more important is the possibility of sudden political changes in Chechnya, should its current clan leaders receive an enticing enough proposal. This is perfectly well known in Kremlin, which is why Putin will not offer Bush any Chechnya-based advice on Iraq. Still, the current development of events in Chechnya, however deficient, is the best of the worse from the Kremlin’s point of view. The trick is not to overplay the hand. Over time, something better that Kadyrov and his clan may come along. No one in the Kremlin will guarantee Kadyrov rule for life. Other powerful Chechen clans will be supported by Moscow to provide a check on Kadyrov’s rule.
I think that Lebedev’s comments should be kept in mind. Russian “success” in Chechnya is a paper thin veneer which may rip apart at any moment. Putin has essentially found stability in the strongest clan that was willing to kowtow to Moscow. He is able to do this because Chechnya has a far more homogenous political landscape than Iraq. Despite ethnic and religious differences within the republic, several tenets Chechen nationalism remains reconcilable with Moscow’s interests.
Unfortunately for many Chechens, nationalism is also quite reconcilable to corruption. As Anne Nivat writes in “Chechnya only Seems Normal” published in the May issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, life hardly approaches normal for many Chechens. Though new construction sites and billboards are dotting Grozny’s main drags, and cell phones are stapled to residents ears and passing cars blasting Russian pop hits, unanswered questions and deep uncertainty also remains on he forefront of many citizens minds. “You are immediately struck by the outward changes in Grozny, the renewed economic activity, the bazaar, public transport, government departments, building sites, cafes and restaurants,” writes Nivat.
“There are also signs of political normalisation, such as a referendum on the constitution, presidential and parliamentary elections. But behind these appearances war is on everyone’s mind. People are more wary. “Before, we more or less depended on each other, but that’s no longer the case,” says [Zainap] Gashaeva [who heads the NGO Echo of War]. People denounce each other to the police to catch the attention of some government official with influence, or to get some small reward. Mostly they live in fear; they go to sleep in fear and they wake up in fear. What will happen tomorrow? Nobody really knows. Will Kadyrov stay in power for long? Will he be murdered like his father? When will the boievikis counterattack, and if they do, will they return to power?”
The Kadyrov’s clan based power exists on shaky ground. On the one hand it is predicated on excluding some clans, while allowing others to have access to avenues of power, influence, and wealth. On the other hand, this system of rule has monopolized all the paths to stability. Normality passes through them. For citizens many of the citizens Nivat cites in her article, one must either forge or utilize connections, or somehow emigrate abroad as a political refugee. The later is made difficult for many because the feeling is that there is simply no where to go.
However, even such tentative normalization would be a luxury for Iraqis. And I’m sure American politicians and policy makers would be delighted to have the problems Putin has in Chechnya. But as the current moment shows both Iraq and Chechnya are worlds apart. Still, a comparison between the two wars is attractive and possibly instructive. Despite their important local differences, Chechnya and Iraq occupy the same historical moment. And by this I do not mean the “War on Terror”, but rather the continuation of nationalist movements and/or national liberation in a post-Cold War context. However, I think that while both conflicts occupy the same historical space, I think it would foolish to expect a solution in one to work in another. The historical legacies in Chechnya and Iraq preclude predictions based on comparison. As Lebedev states above, the US has no plausible alternatives and it is getting sucked deeper into a civil war with each passing day. All exists appear to be labeled, “Leave face at door.” And the solution in Chechnya is lacks any long term promise. Yet, despite this one is still forced to admit that even paper veneers cover something.Post Views: 37
By Sean — 11 years ago
The fact that Putin is adept at judo is well known and admired. I got a taste of this admiration a few years ago when I stopped into a Moscow photo shop across from INION to get picture for my library card. Hanging on the wall were two pictures of Putin. One looking all stately and serious; the other in full judo garb with arms steady for a throw.
Little did I know that Putin and a few of his fellow judo enthusiasts penned a manual of their best throws, tumbles, and dodges called Judo: History, Theory, Practice. That is until I happened upon Daniel Soar’s “Short Cuts” in new issue of the London Review of Books. Soar wonders whether Putin’s judo mastery influenced his recent diplomatic jousting with President Bush. The careful observer can see that it indeed does.
As Soar explains:
The excellent thing about judo – in theory – is that you don’t have to be stronger than your opponent to beat him. The idea is that you use the momentum of his attack to keep him moving in the same direction, and then, with a little twist, you send him flying onto the mat. The bigger they are the harder they fall. This should be useful to Putin, since Russia is so heavily outgunned and outspent by the US military machine that it can’t win the arms race the old-fashioned way. Putin provides a striking metaphor to demonstrate the judo master’s technique. He calls it ‘give way in order to conquer’. Imagine you are a locked door. Your opponent wants to break you open with his shoulder. If he is ‘big and strong enough and rams through the door (that is, you) from a running start, he will achieve his aim’. But here’s the neat bit. If instead of ‘digging in your heels and resisting your opponent’s onslaught’, you unlock it at the last minute, then, ‘not meeting any resistance and unable to stop, your opponent bursts through the wide-open door, losing balance and falling.’ If you’re even more cunning, you can stop being a door and stick out a leg, causing him to trip as he sails through. ‘Minimum effort, maximum effect’, as Russia’s effortlessly effective president says.
The evident ingenuity of this technique made me wonder why Putin didn’t deploy it in the run-up to the G8 dojo. It was puzzling. On his way to Germany, Bush went on the offensive. He visited Poland and the Czech Republic to publicise his plan to install ‘exoatmospheric kill vehicles’ – little missiles designed to hit bigger missiles – on sites close to the Russian border. Putin’s counter-attack was very bold. He said that if America was going to play silly buggers with its Raytheon EKVs, then he would point his biggest ICBMs at Western European cities. ‘A new Cold War!’ the papers screamed. The leaders of the free world were righteously outraged, whereas Putin had merely closed the door. Any moment now he would flip the latch and stick out a leg.
But the analogy was troubling. When would the door open, and where was his leg? At first I wondered whether Putin was readying himself for the long game, hunkering down, raising the stakes to force the US to spend more and more money on more and more weapons until it bankrupted itself and went pop. Except, of course, that this would be playing into Bush’s hands, since American military spending is what the US economy depends on. The need for more weaponry would mean an even mightier America. So Putin wasn’t so clever after all: he’d forgotten all his old teaching and had taken up gunslinging in a fight he could only lose. Or so I thought.
On 7 June the full genius of Putin’s strategy was revealed. Earlier, Bush had said: ‘Vladimir – I call him Vladimir – you should not fear the missile defence system . . . Why don’t you co-operate with us on the missile defence?’ Ingeniously, Putin now called his bluff, and unbolted the new Iron Curtain. He quietly suggested that the US base its missile interception system on a Russian military installation in Azerbaijan, an unanswerable solution if – as the Americans claim – the EKVs really are intended to counter an Iranian nuclear threat. Bush’s people, wrong-footed, could only say that his proposal was ‘interesting’ and that the presidents would discuss it further in Kennebunkport, Maine at the beginning of July. But this is likely to be the end of the missile defence plan for Poland and the Czech Republic. Ippon!
Ippon indeed.Post Views: 39