I wrote a review of Alexander Etkind’s Roads Not Taken: An Intellectual Biography of William C. Bullitt and Michael McFaul’s From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia for Bookforum. Unfortunately, the review is behind the dreaded paywall. So here’s the pdf and the opening:
As relations between Russia and the United States continue to worsen, one of the unexpected twists in the unfolding drama has been the dragging of each nation’s ambassadors into the limelight. Usually, these diplomatic figures spend most of their time hosting parties and attending state ceremonies. But the compulsion to conjure phantoms has made two recent ambassadors—Michael McFaul, Obama’s ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, and Sergey Kislyak, Putin’s ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2017—into the public faces of their countries’ treachery.
Bizarre as the current situation is, the role now being played by ambassadors is not entirely novel. Diplomats have often been cast in leading parts in international political dramas. (“An ambassador resembles in some way an actor exposed on the stage to the eyes of the public in order to play great roles,” the French diplomat François de Callières wrote in 1716.) But how much power to shape events does an ambassador really have? In light of the conspiracy theories that have proliferated during the current standoff between the US and Russia, two recent books couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The first, McFaul’s memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace, recounts his experiences as Obama’s main Russia hand and then ambassador during Putin’s revanchist third term. The second, Alexander Etkind’s biography Roads Not Taken, traces the life of William C. Bullitt, the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Taken together, the books provide a valuable picture of the aspirations— and the limitations—of diplomatic engagement during critical moments in US-Russian relations over the past century.
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By Sean — 13 years ago
Have you forgotten all of your Sovietese? Can’t remember what ???? (????????? ???????????????? ????????? ??????????, Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic), ??? (??? ????? ?????????, without the right to correspondence, part of a prison sentence that really meant execution), or ??? (????????-??????????????? ????????, party-state control) stands for? Don’t fret dear post-Soviet citizen or bewildered non-Russian academic; a new book complied by Valery Mokiyenko and Tatyana Nikitina will save you.
That book, reviewed in the Moscow Times, is The Dictionary of the Workers Paradise (???????? ??????? ????? ????????). A title, according to the review’s author, Michele A. Berdy, is an awkward translation. You see, ???????? is itself a term of the bygone Soviet past which was short for C???? ????????? or “council of worker, peasant and Red Army deputies”. With long titles like these you can see why they were shorted by smashing roots together or just making them into acronyms. I come across these all the time with my research on the Komsomol. Even the Komsomol itself is a creation such a chain of words. Kom-so-mol breaks down into “kom”, or communist (????????????????), “so”, or league (????), and “mol”, or “youth” (????????). The full name of the Komsomol is really the All-Union Leninist Communist Youth League (?????????? ????????? ???????????????? ???? ????????), or ?????, another horrendous name reduced to a simple five letter acronym. One of the longest of such acronyms is the name for the first Soviet secret police, the Cheka (???): The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, or ????????????? ???????????? ???????? ?? ?????? ? ??????????????? ? ?????????.
According to the review, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it includes terms and acronyms that Soviet citizens created outside and even contrary to officialdom. Not only does this show how deeply Soviet language was subsumed into the nation consciousness, it also demonstrates how language was turned upside down in ironic and sometimes humorous fashion. As Berdy writes,
“The dictionary is filled with hilarious examples of anti-Soviet Sovietisms: ?????? (scarecrow) for any statue of a Party leader; ???????? (partymobile, or literally a “member carrier”) for a limousine that ferried around Party members; ?????? (“Vladdy”) the diminutive of Vladimir used to mean a statue of Lenin; ????????????? (to rip something off), in reference to communist expropriation, with some implied obscenity thrown in.”
But are these really “anti-Sovietisms”? I am inclined to say no. Poking fun or ridiculing the state or the state’s culture hardly constitutes as anti-soviet. If anything, they are emblematic of the range of possibilities created by Soviet language that don’t undermine their hegemonic status, in fact, I would said reinforce it, but nonetheless creates a space for different articulations. A world like ????????, while points to, and even mocks, the acute difference between a party member’s status and regular citizens, its articulation still reinforces that hierarchy. I doubt that Soviet citizens who spoke this word looked to rip the system any more than a Tsarist citizen with pornographic pictures depicting the Tsarina Alexandra with Rasputin, a post-Soviet citizen with a mocking picture of Putin, or for that matter, an American citizen who uses the word “Bushit” does.
The book also contains what I think is one of the most fascinating aspects of Soviet language: the naming of children after revolutionaries, soviet holidays, industrial motifs, and even institutions. Berdy notes that names like “?????? (Lenin spelled backwards), ??? (Era) and ?????????? (Engelsina) for women and ???????? (Electron), ???? (Ural), ??????? (New World) and ???????? (Electric) for men” were fashionable after the revolution. My research attests to this. I found an article in a Komsomol newspaper from 1924 that suggested that Komsomol members name their children similar names. The reasoning was that since Christianity had saint names to commemorate and reinforce its ideology, communist ideology also needed “red names.” Some appropriately communist names were ????????? (October), ????????? (Star), ??? (Communist Youth International), ??? (International Youth Day), ????? (Change), and ????? (Study).
At any rate, Dictionary of the Worker’s Paradise sounds not only like a valuable resource for people like me, but a reference to the awkward, and even wacky, side of Soviet everyday life.Post Views: 230
By Sean — 12 years ago
Yesterday I received the new issue of the New Left Review in the mail. NLR is one of my favorite journals and its arrival in my mailbox is always eagerly welcomed. One article immediately struck me; a short piece by Susan Willis titled “Guantanamo’s Symbolic Economy.” The article is empirically horrifying as it is theoretically compelling. Since authoritarianism and totalitarianism are subjects of concern on this blog, I thought I would point readers to it.
Unfortunately, the article is only available to subscribers. I urge readers to get their hands on it. In the meantime here is a short excerpt:
A lawyer representing some of the Guantanamo detainees has argued that, in conjuring the category of ‘illegal enemy combatant’, the US Administration cast the detainees ‘outside the law’. But is the terrorist suspect really outside the law or is he, as Giorgio Agamben defines it, homo sacer: he ‘who may be killed and yet not sacrificed’; a being whose exclusion from the law is the very means by which the law constitutes itself? At stake here is an idea of sovereignty founded on distinguishing the simple fact of life—‘bare life’ itself—from the polis. But the act of making bare life into the state of exception that grounds all law also incorporates it into the political order. Was not Dilawar rendered homo sacer by reason of the state of exceptionality that shrouds Bagram? Agamben’s historical referent is the Nazi concentration camp, but he might have had Guant?namo in mind in distinguishing the camp from a prison: ‘while prison law only constitutes a particular sphere of penal law and is not outside the normal order, the juridical constellation that guides the camp is . . . martial law and the state of siege.’ Among the bleakest effects of Patriot Acts I and II is the way they serve to cast terrorist suspects into the legal limbo of the banned. As Agamben puts it, ‘he who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather “abandoned” by it.’ Certainly, the detainee, bound in a foetal position, would have to feel that life and law had become indistinguishable, if not indifferent.
, it seems, is becoming the nation of the foetus—both the sacred and the banned. Besides those that pro-lifers carry about in jars at anti-abortion rallies, may we not also consider the brain-dead Terri Schiavo to be in some sense a foetus? ‘Better to err on the side of life’, was George Bush’s pronouncement over Schiavo’s inert body. For the Christian right, Schiavo was a sacred foetus, whose death would be forever remembered as a sacrifice; a martyr in the holy war against abortion. For others—including, it seems, her husband—she was simply a body whose organs continued to function. The Schiavo case dramatized the polarization of United States with respect to definitions of life and death. But her status as a sacred foetus has fast been superseded in the American psyche by the mass production of microscopic foetuses produced in fertility clinics. Homo sacer has migrated into genomics. Are embryos now to be killed by the thousands in the attempt to develop remedies for the elderly? Or is each cluster of cells a being whose murder will reverberate throughout the nano-sphere as a crime and a sacrifice? America
 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford 1990.Post Views: 217
By Sean — 10 years ago
There is a specter haunting Russia–the specter of colored revolution. Or so says Vladimir Putin. Clearly having no qualms about beating a dead horse, Putin told a Moscow campaign rally that shadowy Westerners are supporting oppositionists with hopes of returning Russia to the dark days of the 1990s. Here some quotes the Guardian has supplied:
“Unfortunately there are those people in our country who still slink through foreign embassies … who count on the support of foreign funds and governments but not the support of their own people.”
“There are those confronting us, who do not want us to carry out our plans because they have … a different view of Russia. They need a weak and feeble state. They need a disorganized and disorientated society … so that they can carry out their dirty tricks behind its back.”
“They are going to take to the streets. They have learned from western experts and have received some training in neighboring [former Soviet] republics. Now they are going to start provocations here.”
On the one hand, I get the hyperbolic pontificating. Much of electoral politics is about conjuring a bogeyman in hopes to scare the public into voting for you. And inciting public panic over orange clad revolutionaries, “islamo-fascists,” immigrants, homosexuals etc works well to mobilize voters. Demonizing the Other and then linking your opposition to it is a proven political tactic.
On the other hand, I can’t help chuckle at the Putin and United Russia’s excesses. First they ensured that the OSCE pull out of monitoring the elections. Limiting the number of observers, stalling visas, and placing restrictions on observers made the OSCE cancel their plans. Now Russian Electoral Commission chief Vladimir Churov claims that OSCE’s decision was their own, or more specifically the decision of the United States, which he says controls its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR. Again more bogeymen.
Plus Churov was quick to note that while the OSCE bowed out, other election monitoring organizations didn’t. Russia’s Duma elections will be “observed” by 300 monitors from Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States. That’s about 25 observers per Russian time zone.
All of this points to the Russian propensity to overstate their efforts. The truth of the matter is that Russia can be flooded with election monitors and United Russia would still win. Even if the United Russia parliamentary margin will be less that desired, “Plan Putin” still maintains hegemony over Russian politics. No opposition party in real contention seeks to radically change course. Even the Communists are acclimated themselves to Putin’s Russia.
Sure, there may be something to Kremlin’s claim that they don’t need their elections verified by anyone and that sovereignty means not succumbing to outside meddling. But what all of this rhetorical and bureaucratic maneuvering really says to me is that Russia still hasn’t learned the democratic game. First, the game requires using money and advertising not so much to pummel your opponent, but control the boundaries of political discourse. The former is well done, the latter not so much. Here they might want to sneak a peak at the American Republican Party’s play book. They are masters at it. Second, the game requires the adept use of the law to mask corruption with good legal arguments. Lawyers have a knack for making something clearly illegal appear perfectly within the boundaries of the law. Postmodern politics have made armies of lawyers much more effective than detachments of police. Lastly, the game requires challenging anyone who criticizes you to do something about it. Yes, one aspect of sovereignty is about preventing meddling. But real sovereignty is when you have the confidence and fortitude to just ignore whatever critical salvos tossed at you.
So in the end, Russia should have let the OSCE come and monitor. And when the OSCE would make the inevitable cries of foul, Russia should just shrug its shoulders and promise to better next time. That’s what any other real democracy would do.Post Views: 383