Thursday, June 8, 2017

Quit Russian to Scream Your Opinion

Back in college, when I had finally realized how absurd my pre-law ideas about corporate regulations were and I began to focus on foreign policy (which was during my freshman year), I became interested in post-Soviet Russia, and more specifically, what would happen to it, the world order, and NATO. One course in particular taught me more than I could have ever possibly discovered on my own, a course I took when I was studying in Europe. This is because it was taught by Ambassador Guy de Muyser, the Luxembourg ambassador to Moscow from 1981-1986 and the ambassador to Belgium and a permanent representative to NATO from 1986-1991. He had been a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, the oldest and one of the top schools focusing on international affairs, and he had worked in the Luxembourg government for many years prior to his diplomatic appointments.

He was in his reflective years when I met him, keen to tell stories of more thrilling days to wide-eyed kids from Ohio who came of age as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Our ideas about the USSR were probably conceived more from James Bond movies than reality. The fall of the Berlin Wall had left a mighty impression upon me, an event that I credit with getting me involved in conflict-related studies. I, too, believed we had "won" the Cold War and that the world would be at peace.

Our semester-long course was on NATO; we were more interested in his stories of smuggling art out of Moscow for the Americans and other such tales of espionage and absurdity. My impression of his stories are probably more exotic and colored by time than the actual stories, as I had never met an ambassador before then, or anyone holding a position of any importance, for that matter, but I do know that as the Soviet Union collapsed, crazy, seemingly unbelievable things happened, so perhaps I'd be as thrilled with his stories today having met and worked with many ambassadors, foreign officials, and even Madeleine Albright.

It wasn't a normal class. We'd sit around the student kitchen in our school in a castle, drinking coffee and snacking on tea biscuits while he weaved his Moscow tales into questions about what would become of Russia and NATO. This was only five years after the European Economic Community had become the European Union, and nobody really knew what the European defense industry would become, either. There was still a thing called the Western European Union, which was a defensive alliance, but everyone assumed that was shutting down and then it did. Even the defense corporations like Aerospatiale and DaimlerChrysler Aerospace didn't know what was going on, as I learned in a later graduate course where I focused on these exact issues. Airbus ate all that stuff up so it doesn't matter anymore, but now that I think about it, maybe it does matter that state-owned or funded defense companies were eaten up by a massive multinational corporation at a time NATO was in question...I'll have to think more about this...

Anyway, the other class I took that year on post-Soviet Russia was entitled, "The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union." While I had delved into Marxism in political theory courses, I had never focused in depth on Russian anything. I mean, we got the whole history, from Kieven Rus to the mess that was happening in the late nineties, with the bulk of the focus on the 19th and 20th centuries.

That is one insane history and the only place communism could have both grown and failed so spectacularly.

I came out of that course more bewildered than ever, largely because there wasn't a single person on the planet - no expert, no policymaker, no businessman - who could tell you what would happen next. I mean, political science is in the business of predictions - that's pretty much what it is - but there were no models that could even hint at what Russia would become. And you had all these academics making such wildly wrong predictions, like Fukuyama's End of History or Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, and none of them, even after the 1996 World Trade Center bombing or the Paris trash can bombs, predicted the meteoric rise of Islamic fundamentalism or that a US administration would destabilize the whole region in a war for oil. Oh sure, there was the 1996 white paper that said a Republican president should start a war in Iraq, and there were others who were writing about fundamentalism, but no one predicted the scale of it all. Academics and policymakers were too busy patting themselves on the backs for "winning" the Cold War.

Meanwhile, opportunistic crooks in Russia hoarded all the wealth under the guise of capitalism, and Russia became a genuine oligarchy, a kleptocracy, actually, with people stealing state-owned resources while regular citizens suffered. You want to talk patronage? That was Russia in the nineties, that is Russia still today. The consequences of this corruption led to a longing for "the good old days" of the USSR by average citizens, when at least they had food and shelter, no matter how shitty they were. Putin, the former leader of the KGB, capitalized on that nostalgia and rose to power easily. After all, you had no Russian intelligentsia, really. Citizens were taught propaganda, and the intellectuals were imprisoned or killed.

So it's easy to see how Putin rose to power. It is more difficult to understand how so many Americans have been duped by him, a dictator who has people who oppose him killed. Then again, Americans also have fallen for Karl Rovian propaganda that smeared the Clintons to the point where morons believe they have had people killed. I've become fascinated with propaganda in the decade and a half I've worked with or to help people in authoritarian regimes. In that time, I've studied Carl Jung, Edward Bernays, and Joseph Goebbels, among many others, to try to figure out why people are so susceptible to propaganda. What makes people willfully support dictators like Putin and Erdogen? Why did Germans succumb to Nazism? How did Franco rule for 38 years? Why are Turks letting democracy disappear?

How did the Soviet Union continue to exist?

Because the Soviets did propaganda the best, and they're still doing it very, very well as just plain Russians.

I mean, the propaganda was so severe that the basic laws of nature were denied. For example, Lysenkoism rose to prominence. It was based on the discredited Lamarckian concept of heritability of acquired characteristics, rejecting the concepts of the gene, natural selection, and Mendel's inheritance laws. The term comes from its founder Trofim Lysenko, and was strongly supported by Stalin, who sent more than 3000 biologists to prison for daring to contest it. These people actually believed that they could turn weeds into edible grains, and since people were starving, that idea was appealing, so people believed it.

This is what dictatorships do - they deny science because science is inconvenient to their agendas. It has been that way since the dawn of time. We should know better by now, but I'm starting to wonder if humanity every really learns.

My interest in Russia continued. I was interested enough in what would happen next in Russia and NATO, that I enlisted in the US Army hoping to become a Russian translator and maybe work for NATO, whose headquarters in Brussels I had visited during a graduate program the summer before. I tested too high for Russian and they put me in Arabic, which began a career path working with the Middle East.

But I never stopped learning about Russia. I have never been to Russia, so I can't begin to say I am an expert on Russia, nor do I speak Russian (although I can read the Cyrillic alphabet and learned a little Bulgarian when I lived there for two months in 2007.) However, I have read A LOT about Russia, I've worked with Russians and others from former Soviet countries,  and I am working on global cyber issues now, especially censorship issues, and not a day goes by when I don't have to do something Russia related. As someone who has worked in foreign affairs for nearly her whole professional life, it is an absolute must to know about Russia and why it behaves the way it does, because it affects so much of the world. Take, for example, Syria. Assad is a Baathist. Baathists were Arab supporters of the Soviet Union. Assad is still aligned with Russia, which is why the conflict will not be resolved any time soon, especially when we have an administration that is sucking up to the Russians. Or Afghanistan, the war that finished off the Soviets but left the country in such disarray that it paved the way for the Taliban to take power, a consequence that we have yet to overcome today despite the billions of dollars and irreplaceable human life we've poured into that country.

Any time I hear an American praise Putin, I know without a shadow of a doubt that person knows zero about Russia or anything else in the world. Any time I hear someone dismiss the grave threats to the stability of our country because they can't grasp that the Russian regime has the nefarious agenda to dominate the world, I want to revisit IQ tests for voting privileges. It's high time we stop giving people with uninformed opinions a free pass because of "free speech." With free speech comes responsibility. If you want to have a valid opinion, you need to have the knowledge to back it up. Anything else is irresponsible, and real people die because of it.

The following are must reads for anyone purporting to have an opinion about Russia. The list is by no means exhaustive, but these are the ones that have won awards or are often cited, including Nobels and Pulitzers. Read them, or don't talk about Russia.

1. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk

This is the story of the spy game between Britain and Russia when Britain was a colonial power and Russia was trying to become one. This is a must not only to understand the history of East-West relations, but to understand current events in Central Asia, especially in Afghanistan.

2. Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire and 3. Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia by David Remnick

Remnick's eyewitness account of the last days of the Soviet Union won a Pulitzer. As a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, he had unique access to sources, but he is also just a good storyteller. A lot of Russian history that is essential to understanding - or at least trying to understand - what was happening as the USSR collapsed is woven into his stories. Once you've finished that, read the follow-up about the attempts to recreate the Russian state. It's absurd.

4. Putin's Russia and 5. A Russian Diary by Anna Politkovskaya

Anna may have been Putin's first hit in his newfound position of power. A journalist for Novaya Gazeta and a human rights activist, Anna was exposing Putin's war in Chechnya (which had a lot to do with wiping out Muslims), where she reported human rights abuses from the ground despite threats and intimidation from the Putin regime. He finally had her killed in 2006.

6. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

No knowledge of Russia is complete without reading the great works of literature. This includes Bulgakov's master work that I've probably read ten times. It's hilarious, absurd, romantic, religious, and satirical, one of the Soviet-banned books that everyone read anyway, even government officials, because it was so good. It is on my top five all-time favorite books. You need to read this book to understand just how absurd and arbitrary Soviet censorship was. Satan shows up, and Pontius Pilate, too, but you might like the love story between the Master and Margarita the best.

7. War and Peace and 8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

You can't understand Russia without reading Tolstoy, it's that simple. Read these two if you read no other Tolstoy. War and Peace is a historical novel that will give you an accurate picture of 19th century Russia under Tsar Alexander I at the time of the Napoleonic wars. This is essential to understanding Russia today.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Thus starts Anna Karenina. Could you get any more Russian than that?

9. The Brothers Karamazov and 10. The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Another one of my favorite books, The Brothers Karamazov gives you an idea about religion in Russia. "The Grand Inquisitor" is a standout chapter in the book and is a great story of religious hypocrisy and corruption. The Possessed depicts Russian nihilism in the 19th century, which paved the way for the rise of communism.

11. The Gulag Archipelago and 12. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize winning account of his time in the Russian gulags tells you everything you need to know about how horrific was the Soviet state. Ivan Denisovich is a fictionalized version of that time.

13. Stalin and 14. The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky

Radzinsky was the first person to have full access to Stalin's secret files. This book showed the world the extent of Stalin's crimes against humanity. The Last Tsar shows how crazy Russia was before the Bolshevik Revolution. Russia is just crazy all the time, it seems.

15. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Another Nobel Prize winner that was banned in the USSR. Revolution is an act of violence against nature. Read the book and you may just find yourself agreeing.

Bonus: If you haven't read The Communist Manifesto, please never talk about communism or socialism as if you're some sort of expert.

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