Russia is a Special Place (and that’s not good)

We hear so much about Russia, of course, but the subject matter changes.  Today, everything you hear about Russia relates to the country’s attempt to hack into various systems to influence election results, or to increase fears, or simply to create a little chaos.  It’s easy to focus on the trees, and lose sight of the forest.  This essay will also focus on trees, but with the goal of giving the reader some idea of the forest.

Remember pre-1917 Russia, ruled by tsars who were the representative of God and who even could control the church, helped by a group of wealthy, sometimes well educated, aristocrats who led the military, the government agencies, commerce and agriculture, with the support (until the 1860s) of an army of serfs, and following the end of serfdom, a virtual army of peasants.

After years of turmoil, this fell apart in early 1917, when the Russian parliament (the Duma) took over under the leadership of Socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky.  The West concluded that this was a sea change in Russia (it was), and that Russia was now ready to join the democracies of the world (it wasn’t).  Within nine months, the democrats and socialists were out and the Bolsheviks were in, leading Russia (now the U.S.S.R.) into over 70 years of ugly totalitarianism.

When it was clear that Soviet Communism was not compatible with the ever modernizing world, Gorbachev tried to give Communism a friendly face, open to the world.  He did undo much of what Soviet communism had established, but he saw increasing political anarchy, economic failures, and falling support.  Boris Yeltsin took over with the good idea to banish communism altogether, and bring capitalism to Russia.  This he did, but the capitalism he encouraged was not the capitalism of the United States or of western Europe.  He wound up making a capitalism to serve his buddies, the then new class of Russian oligarchs who bled the country dry by buying state assets (industries, factories, mines, businesses of all kinds) for a song.  All at the expense of the rest of the country – the former serfs and peasants, and everyone else.

It may be the Yeltsin knew that he had gone a bit far, and he in effect designated as his successor a politician from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), who had been for most of his career a KGB official, and who it would assume would bring some order to the wild west that was Russia.  This has not happened, as Putin has learned to wield enormous power, and so far for a period longer than any post-Romanov Russian leader (a period with no end in sight).  Russia remains Russia – with a strong, powerful leader, the masses following behind, freedoms diminished as time goes by.  The tsar lives; his name is Vladimir. 1917 never happened.

Recognizing this is so is important in trying to decipher all of the news (fake or otherwise) today, let me suggest some books you might like to read.

  1.  In the last blog post, I mentioned the biography of David Francis, the American ambassador to Russia at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik takeover.  Standing on a Volcano: the Life and Times of David Rowland Francis, by Harper Barnes (Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001).  If you aren’t interested in Francis’ career in St. Louis (where he chaired the 1904 World’s Fair), skip that part and read “Part II”, dealing with Francis in Russia.  A unique view of 1917 in Russia, from the vantage point of the isolated and very uncertain American diplomatic personnel.
  2. I then read a not very well known book, titled Down the Volga in a Time of Troubles: a Journey Revealing the People and Heartland of Post-Perestroika Russia by Canadian journalists Marq de Villiers (Harper Collins, 1991).  de Villiers decided to explore the Volga River, from its source not far from Moscow to where it drains into the Caspian Sea at Astrakhan. The first half of the trip was made on a small river boat, with four or five Russian journalists; the second half he did solo, using a variety of types of transportation.  He stopped in each city, and a large number of small villages on the river, and in each spoke to people, whom he often ran into by accident.  This was during the Gorbachev years, when the USSR still existed, and Communism was being loosened.  Most of the places he visited were in terrible physical and economic shape, and most of the people, rather than being cheered on by Gorbachev’s reforms, were dispirited, certain that no Russian story has a happy ending, and afraid of their own futures.  Russia, it appeared, was ungovernable.
  3. Next came Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia by the late Paul Klebnikov (Harcourt, Inc, 2000).  Described as a biography of Berezovsky, one of the original and best know of the new Russian oligarchs, it is really a story of the extraordinary method of privatization of Russia’s state owned facilities in general – and how the oligarchs got rich with the help of the politicians whom they in turn helped in ways that would never be permitted here. Berezovsky was, for sure, one of the more interesting of the new Russian elite – he was in transportation, mining, media, and more; he was involved in ending the conflict in Chechnya. He was close to Yeltsin and one of his biggest supporters.  He became a supporter, but then an enemy of Putin, and that did it for the career of Boris Berezovsky. He would end up in exile in England, dead by hanging in his estate.  Suicide?  Murder? We don’t know to this day.  (And we can’t rely on Paul Klebnikov  to help us – this award winning investigative reporter was gunned down on a Moscow street in 2004 – again, we don’t have any idea who did it.)  But if you want to know how Russia’s privatization works, this book provides fascinating reading.
  4. I recently finished Red Notice: a True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Injustice by Bill Browder (Simon & Schuster 2015). Browder was the American hedge fund operator who, like the Russian oligarchs, found a way to make himself and his investors rich in Russia (not in a praiseworthy way, but by buying on the secondary market at a deep discount the vouchers issued to Russian citizens, many (most?) of whom sold them to brokers for a fraction of their eventual value.  Without giving the story away (you should read the book), at some point the Russians decided that this American and his international investors were making too much money off Russian privatization, and decided to close him down, again in ways that were immoral and illegal, but orchestrated from the highest levels of the Russian government.  Browder was named persona non grata in Russia, and was living in London, working with Russian and English lawyers and accountants to protect himself and his associates against a series of Russian civil and criminal charges.  One of his Russian attorneys was young Sergei Magnitsky, who took his role very seriously and even when things became very dangerous refused to leave the country.  He was arrested on trumped up tax evasion charges, convicted, sentenced, tortured and murdered in prison.  The book tells the entire story – including the  story of the now famous Magnitsky legislation in this country, targeting Russian officials who were involved in the persecution and murder of Magnitsky.  Even today, in spite of what would clearly appear to be incontrovertible evidence, the Russians (Putin on down) stick to their stories (talk about fake news).  If you are at all interested in this subject (and you should be), this book is essential.
  5. The last book that I am recommending I have not read yet.  Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017) is one of the world’s experts on Putin, having left Russia several years ago because of her fear as a lesbian married to another woman, with a child.  She has written an often quoted biography of Putin, and other books on contemporary Russia.  She is a very well respected analyst, and as you can tell from her title, her conclusion seems to be my conclusion.  I have read the review in the Washington Post, which was very positive.  It will jump up several places on my reading list.

What to take away from all of this?  Russia is not America. It is not western Europe.  It is Russia.  It has a complex legal system, subject to complete change, and rarely followed.  Everything important that happens is centralized from the top.  It will be along time before we can believe anything that comes out of the country, and an even longer time before we can count on them, no matter what they say.  They are willing to do everything (not an exaggeration – read the books) to get to where they want to go, and if they begin to falter, they will double down and deny they ever did anything.  Be aware; don’t be deluded.  In the 2016 election, many may have been convinced by their targeted fake news activities.  We must be smarter than that next time.



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