Core Article: What We Believe

In the first 5 days of its existence, this blog has been priveleged to receive more than more than 200 page views from more than 100 visitors from 18 different countries. We have also been linked to by the Winthrop88 blog and Marginalia (probably the leading English-language blog about Latvia) – of those that we’re aware of, anyway.

We have also also been receiving mail. While most of it is constructive, some is of a negative character, along the lines of us being ‘unreconstructed Stalinists’, a Nashi-sponsored ‘Kremlin mouthpiece’ and ‘shameless apologists for Putins dictorship (sic)’.

To clear this up, we will compile a list of our opinions on various topics, Russia-related and not. This will make up a Core Article. This is so that you, dear reader, don’t have to waste your time on deconstructing our articles.

Soviet Union

Our country has not been lucky. Indeed, it was decided to carry out this Marxist experiment on us – fate pushed us in precisely this direction…In the end we proved that there is no place for this idea – it has simply pushed us off the path taken by the world’s civilized societies.” – Boris Yeltsin (1991).

For once, we agree. Russia at the dawn of the First World War had the fastest industrial growth of any country in the world. Ambitious plans for economic development and military modernization were being laid. 41% of the population was literate (as was the vast majority of the youngest cohorts) – though this lagged well behind the developed countries, the overall picture was nowhere near as catastrophic as later Soviet historians would paint it (in fact, school enrollments only recovered to 1914 levels by the late 1920’s).

While the planned economy was moderately successful in building up an elementary industrial base of coal and steel, it could not build up the consumer economy that is the backbone of Western prosperity today – incentives were weak and allocating prices to the millions of goods an advanced economy produces was exorbitantly difficult. Hence the Soviet Union failed to catch up with the West, and started to stagnate by the mid-1970’s. As the Economist tartly observed in 1985, “Imperial Russia had a real product per man-hour 3.5 times greater than Japan’s [but it] has spent its nigh 70 socialist years slipping relatively backwards, to maybe a quarter of Japan’s rate now”.

The promise of prosperity on which the ideology was based was never fulfilled; meanwhile, political repression robbed individuals of their dignity. We consider the Soviet Union to have been an empire of lies; as such, when it belatedly tried to reform itself in the late 1980’s, the whole superstructure dissolved as revelations of oppression, mismanagement and the growing corruption in the nomenklatura came out into the light of day.

If the Soviet Union had not existed, Russia by the 1950’s would have probably become a developed liberal democracy. Its population would also be considerably higher, because there’d have been no Civil War, Stalinist repressions or Ukrainian Famine. The Second World War probably wouldn’t have happened either (one of the main reasons Hitler won power in Germany was because of middle-class fear of the spectre of Communism). It would also likely still have control over the territories of the Russian Empire, perhaps in an EU-like structure.

Stalin

We are no fans of Stalin. We condemn him unequivocally for his mass repressions, cult of personality and the gross incompetence in monitoring German military intentions prior to the start of the Great Patriotic War.

However, we affirm that history must be viewed dispassionately and in a balanced manner. It is undeniable, for instance, that Stalin was an ‘effective manager’. (A Russian school book, A New History of Russia 1945-2007 by Aleksandr Fillipov, was criticized in the Western press for making this assessment). Consider his wartime record – he worked exceptional long hours and placed ‘weapons, supplies and transport’ on the ‘same level as the military campaigning’ – which he tended to leave to his generals after the disasters of 1941, unlike Hitler (who continued to interfere throughout, with deletrious consequences for Germany’s war effort). According to Russia’s War (Richard Overy), ‘he worked for a more modern state before 1941, and its achievement made possible Soviet victory’.

We also do not believe in the principle that nations are answerable for the crimes or mistakes of their leaders, and as such we are against the current Russian government admitting and apologising, let alone offering reparations, to countries that have come under Soviet occupation. (Furthermore, it ignores the fact that Russia wasn’t the only republic and Russians weren’t the only ethnicity in the USSR – for instance, the two most notorius characters, Stalin and Beria, were Georgians). If the Germans want to indulge themselves in national guilt, that’s fine by us (we’re not, after all, Da Deutschephile) – but there is no way that Russia is going to be making apologies to the Baltic countries (which stage SS veterans rallies and continue to deny equality to their Russophone minorities to the present day), Poland (which instigated the 1919-21 Soviet-Polish War when Russia was weak), Romania or Hungary (which participated in Nazi aggression against the USSR) any time soon.

EDIT: although my opinion of Stalin has risen quite a bit following my WW2 discussion with Fedia Kriukov at the Russia in the Media blog.

Human Rights

The fledgling Russian democracy is still, of course, far from perfect, but its existence and its successes cannot be denied.” – Alvaro Gil-Robles, then Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe.

Da Russophile is a stalwart supporter of human rights. What we do not support is a) misrepresenting the real, comprehensive human rights situation and b) selective use of the ‘human rights’ card to push political agendas.

We are well aware of the allegations against Russia in regards to judicial independence, police brutality, prison conditions, press freedom, freedom of assembly, NGO’s, discrimination against minorities and suspicious killings. We understand that many of these have some real basis in Russian reality (just like the US has issues with Guantánamo and extraordinary rendition, Japan with its forced confessions and 99%+ conviction rates and Estonia with its anti-Russophone discrimination).

According to Hegel’s dialectic, progress can be described by a triad – thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The negative side of Russian human rights are given such extensive coverage by the Western media, to the point where the average layperson is given the impression the country has returned to Soviet-style repression, that this could be constituted as a thesis (summarized in Amnesty International’s page on Russia’s human rights). We are going to take a quick glance at Russia from the other side of the looking glass and attempt to write an antithesis. It is up to you, dear reader, to reach your own synthesis.

According to the 2006 OpenDemocracy Russia through the looking-glass (Nicolai N Petro) article,

  • A troubling rift has developed between western and Russian perceptions of Russian reality. While the West believes Putin is intent on destroying democracy, Russians give him approval ratings of 70%+ and three times as many of them think the country is more democratic under him than under Yeltsin or Gorbachev.
  • The media has mushroomed in diversity and has become much more economically independent.
  • Under a new 2002 criminal code, a ‘judge must approve arrest warrants’, and ‘the accused must be charged with a crime within two weeks, or released’. Nationwide jury trials, which Putin resurrected from their Tsarist graves, today acquit 20% of cases.
  • ‘71% of plaintiffs win the cases they bring against government authorities’.
  • Amendments on NGO’s passed by the Duma in December 2005, far from being an extension of government power, were instead meant to stipulate clear guidelines (for instance, registration can no longer be denied on the whim of local officials) and, without one of four specific reasons, must be granted within 30 days.
  • Chechnya has become a much safer environment, and this has encouraged more than 250,000 refugees to return…both Alvaro Gil-Robles, human-rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, and Marc Franco, the headof the European Commission’s delegation to Russia, went out of their way this fall to praise Chechnya’s progress.
  • The conclusion is one of misunderstanding: Russian politicians struggle in good faith to achieve human rights objectives, while Western critics are honestly ignorant of the real situation for Russians on the ground and ascribe dark motives to any government measures. The author recommends that a) the destruction of state institutions should not be equated with greater freedom, b) Russian NGOs should be encouraged to wean themselves off foreign subsidies and c) the tone of public discourse in the west about Russia must improve.
  • I am convinced that Russian institutions have now developed far enough to make the gradual expansion of democracy a foregone conclusion“.

Some criticisms of the article are then made by Mischa Gabowitsch (for instance, the fact that the most important news medium by far is state-TV in Russia). Petro regards it as a ‘welcome opportunity further to dispel frequently-aired but misleading views about Russia’ (though most Russians watch state-owned TV, they have the choice of viewing multiple channels (including foreign ones like Euronews), easy access to print media and the Internet).

Whatever your opinion on Russia’s human rights (whether they have improved or declined under Putin), I hope you would agree that discussion on this should be dignified and impartial. Unfortunately, that is something the Western media is rarely able to convey.

Take the Litvinenko case as a case study. The vast majority of Western news outlets took an editorial line which reached one of two conclusions: elements of the KGB services assassinated this British subject (and staunch, brave upholder of human rights forced to flee evil Putin’s Russia) a) with implicit backing from Putin or b) without. In both cases, Putin is condemned – he is either a murderer or has lost control of his own security services.

In a comment piece in the British Guardian, Tom Parfitt tells us not to rush to point the finger at the Kremlin (you know, ‘innocent until proven guilty’, all that nonsense). Cui bono? Litvinenko had already leaked his most damaging allegations (that the FSB blew up apartment buildings as a pretext to seize back Chechnya) in 2003. Killing him would only publicize the work, and whatever else they are, the FSB are rational. (Indeed, Blowing Up Russia and Death of a Dissident are both bestsellers now).

Firstly, the idea that he is any kind of dissident is risible – he was an employee of Berezovsky (who has a few skeletons in his closet, too) who freely admitted to working in a privatized FSB unit involved in extrajudicial killings in the 1990’s. Secondly, again, cui bono?

In the film Cliffhanger, the main baddie Eric Qualen is faced with a dilemma. He’s one of two helicopter pilots (the other is his girlfriend/admirer Kristel), who can get the band of thieves away from justice; however, turncoat former FBI agent Travers is the only one who knows the codes to open the boxes with the money. However, Travers fears (quite rightly) that he’d be killed immediately after he divulges the correct codes, and threatens Qualen with a pistol. Qualen draws behind Kristel, embraces her and whispers – “Do you know what is the highest form of love? Self-sacrifice!” – and shoots her in the back. Qualen and Travers are again the best of buddies.

This is not to say that Berezovsky expressed the highest form of love for Litvinenko. Nonetheless, the possibility should not be dismissed. He has an obssessive hatred of Putin for booting him and his looting thugs out of Russia, to the extent that he admits to plotting a revolution in Russia (jeopardising his British asylum status). As a once very influential person in Russia who boasted that he could make a President out of a monkey, he must still retain influence in elements of the FSB – and hence the means for acquiring polonium-210 and seeping a radioactive trail all over Europe’s airports so as to implicate Lugovoi (and which was also found in his office). Finally, there’s Litvinenko’s absurd deathbed statement – beautiful, tear-jerking prose – but wait. How exactly is a man with a limited grasp of the English language and in his death throes supposed to compose this work of art?

As Putin said, “It is a pity that tragic events like death have been used for political provocations. Those who did it [concocted the note] are not God, and Mr. Litvinenko is unfortunately not Lazarus”. We agree. We’ve never really thought of Messrs. Goldfarb and Berezovsky as God, to be honest.

The point of this rant? To prove that there really as much evidence to link Berezovsky and Co. with Litvinenko’s death as Putin. Which is to say, none at all (that which can be presented as evidence in a court of law, in any case). But no matter. The Annals of Western Hypocrisy go on. Just ask Cheney the Pot with his gushing praise for Kazakhstani President Nazarbayev (who is, as we are sure you all know, a real authoritarian).

Of course, he comes from a country which knows all there is to know about human rights, as attested to by Guantánamo, extraordinary renditions, Abu Ghraib, police torture, its continued practice of the death penalty (on which Russia has had a moratorium since 1996), voting irregularities in Florida (2000) and Ohio (2004) and its achievements in prison population per capita (686 / 100,000 people).

Putin

Whenever people ask us about what we think of Putin, we simply say – “What a silly question! We’ve never met him. What are we supposed to think of him?” So we’ve got to admit that we are just a bit puzzled when Western commentators start to spew off their standard spiels about authoritarianism, corruption, etc and how Putin is behind all that like some kind of malevolent gnome.

As should be clear from our other posts, we consider that developments in Russia over the past decade – political, social, and above all economic – have been positive, and it is likely that Putin made a fair, if small contribution to that. (We don’t subscribe to Carlyle’s Great Man view of history).

We would say one thing, however. Generally speaking politicians’ speeches are mostly fluff with very real substance. (And its not as if they they write their own speeches, either). However, in our opinion the substance-divided-by-fluff ratio is relatively high in Putin’s case. Also, in responding to media questions, he has generally answered the question at hand (albeit with long un-related digressions on the evils of international terrorism and multilateralism in foreign affairs); this is in constrast to G.W. Bush, who tends to rephrase the question in slightly different wording before launching off into a completely un-related monolog (about the evils of international terrorism, the virtues of democracy as opposed to terrorism, etc).

In short, we think he is an effective President and a good representative of Russia in the world.

Chechnya

The first time Chechnya was given functional independence (“Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow!” – Yeltsin, 1990), it turned into a criminal, bandit-filled state which practised ethnic cleansing against Russians and launched several armed raids against Russia. In 1989, there were 250,000 Russians living in what was to become Chechnya, along with many other non-Chechens, mostly in the two regions north of the Terek (which have always been Russian, having been settled by Cossacks centuries ago – in fact Grozny itself was founded as a Cossack military outpost). The vast majority of them fled Chechnya in 1991-94 to escape being killed or enslaved.

In 1996, after a two-year war waged by Yeltsin to bring back Chechnya under the fold (executed with criminal incompetence and corruption) failed, Russia gave Chechnya autonomous status (although it remained within the Russian Federation). The second time it turned into a criminal, bandit-filled Wahhabian state which periodically launched attacks against Russian border regions (see No.9 item – Gangs create terror zones at Russia-Chechnya border). Not content with trying to recreate the Caliphate within their own borders, in 1999 local warlord Shamil Basayev launched two attacks, on 2nd August and 5th September, against the neighboring republic of Daghestan, in which hundreds of people were murdered and 32,000 displaced. However, this met resistance from Daghestani militias, later supported by federal troops. On 29th September, Putin offered to negotiate with Maskhadov on the exact same 3 terms Bush in 2001 gave Mohammad Omar – disavow terrorism, close (al-Qaeda/al-Qaeda supported) terrorist training camps and extradite the leaders (bin Laden/Basayev). Maskhadov refused to negotiate, declared jihad and called on for the world community to support Chechnya. Within months, a revitalized Russian military brought back authority to Chechnya.

The mainstream Western media practically never covers this side of the story. How many Westerners know that during 1991-94, 230,000 out of 250,000 ethnic Russians in Chechnya were ethnically cleansed? How many know that during its periods of de facto independence, Chechnya was a seething cauldron of lawlessness, slavery and radical Islam?

Our opinion is that Chechnyan independence is a threat to international security. In any case, the whole issue is fairly moot now, as our local warlord Kadyrov has consolidated power over Chechnya’s warring clans and things are rapidly getting back to normal. If we could could go back in time, however, we would play this out differently. Chechnya is a PR disaster for Russia and contributes nothing economically. We would have given them full independence and erected a border fence around it. Then, we’d have supported any warlord who would pledge allegiance to us with weapons and air support. This would have been a much cheaper option, in terms of Russian military casualties, rubles and reputation.

General Values

Da Russophile is economically centrist, extremely liberal socially and supportive of liberal democracy, albeit with an authoritarian streak. We are Economic Left/Right: -1.25, Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -3.59 on the Political Compass test.

We are atheists and have a secular worldview. We do not think religion is useful for anything other than some of its aesthetic aspects (like choral music and icons). We do not approve of recent pro-religious trends in Russia, such as the new school course in the tenets of Orthodoxy and church censorship of artistic work. Nonetheless, this phenomenom should not be exaggerated – only 2% of Russians attend church more than twice a week and the majority remain either atheist or areligious.

Our position on the death penalty is that it is wrong out of a) humanitarian concerns (that is, death row syndrome) and b) the impossibility of making 100% sure that innocents are never executed. Nonetheless, we recognize that there is a (one) valid justification for the death penalty – deterrance. This applies particularly to those countries where violent crime is at very high levels (South Africa, Columbia, etc). We also accept its use as a deterrant against corruption, as is the case in China and Vietnam – this is because corruption also kills people, if indirectly. Since our goal is deterrance (rather than ‘moral’ reasons of ‘eye for an eye’ retribution), we see this as merely being consistent.

However, to serve as a deterrant the punishment for a set list of offences must be meted out quickly and uniformly (as is the case in Singapore). We do not approve of the US system, where appeals drag on for decades and its final application is extremely arbitrary. In Steven Leavitt’s Freakonomics, we found an interesting fact – the average life expectancy of a drug dealer is several times higher on death row than on the streets. So exactly what kind of a deterrant effect does this give in the US, where the vast majority of murders are gang-related? Very low, we guess.

While both violent crime (17.7 murders / 100,000 people in 2007) and corruption are high in Russia, we do not think they are critical enough to warrant the death penalty and as such support the current moratorium.

We are in favor of full abortion rights, since it is our opinion that a) women should have full sovereignty over their own bodies and b) that a clump of human cells with no self-awareness should not be considered a person with rights. We view restrictions on abortion as violations of human rights. We disagree with Russia’s restrictions on women’s access to abortion after 12 weeks in 2003. Nonetheless, this is standard throughout Europe and better than in Poland or Ireland, where it is illegal in almost all circumstances.

Da Russophile supports a gradual decriminalization of all drugs. We consider ‘wars on drugs’, like ‘wars on terrors’, to be a cover for infringements on human rights and state corruption. Licensing them will take money away from criminal organizations and bolster government funds, which can be directed towards healthcare (including treating drug addicts). Marijuana, LSD and ecstasy are fun things and as such little different in essence from alcohol and tobacco, which are legal out of the force of tradition. We would also tax the fat, salts and sugar content in foods so as to cut heart disease and cancer rates and create incentives to move to healthier diets. We are in profound disagreement with Russia’s current tough stance against drugs.

We would best be described as economic centrists, though in general we like to steer clear of labels, preferring to judge policies on their own merits. We support liberal ‘ease of doing business’ laws (e.g. on unemployment, starting up companies, etc) and private participation in the social sphere, e.g. healthcare, education, etc. In general, we oppose government subsidies to failing industries, preferring instead that they invest money into retraining workers. However, we support an extensive welfare state that would shield everyone and anyone in case of crisis – our role model is mostly Scandinavian. As such, we are against current Russian economic policies such as the regressive 13% flat tax, inadequate social safety net and a lackadaisical attitude to improving the business climate (in which Russia is 106th in the world).

We support free trade so as to achieve the optimal division of labor and hence prosperity in the world.

We support the goals of the feminist movement and consider that gender equality has not yet been achieved anywhere. Men are still more valued as bread-winners and women-more as home-makers, and changing these social perceptions is one of our goals. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2007, Russia comes 45th out of 128 countries – it scores very well on female economic participation, but must make bigger efforts in political empowerment.

Unfortunately, LGBT rights are weak in Russia – as in the rest of Visegrad/eastern Europe.

It is obvious that global warming is both real and anthropic. Furthermore, the latest research implies that it is catastrophic, threatning to go out of control once it passes certain tipping points – which may well have been passed already. Hence, man-made emissions, by raising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and thus causing global warming, can trigger other mechanisms that will release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – frozen methane clathrates under the world’s seas, methane in the Siberian permafrost and Indonesian peat bogs, and the vast amount of carbon locked into the world’s tropical forests.

This will likely have significant geopolitical consequences later this century, as we’ve already written in Towards a New Russian Century? We find ourselves locked in a dilemma. Our liberal instincts desire to undertake international market-based measures to cut back on emissions; our patriotic instincts guide us to the opposite conclusion. They cancel each other out, so we end up doing absolutely nothing.

We support testing on animals.

We are against censorship.

We are against gun control, since we think than an armed citizenry tends to reduce the crime rate. However, we insist on licensing and would stop short of allowing full-automatics to be sold.

If you like the words I write, and want me to write more of them, consider donating or supporting me on Patreon.