Archives for June 2009

Responses to Common Russophobe “Arguments”

At certain venues, “Russophiles” take a lot of flak for holding the beliefs and worldviews that they do. Many of their “arguments” can be predicted in advance based on prior experience. I’ve compiled a list of quick rebuttals to some common Russophobe accusations and insinuations so that we don’t have to waste our time formulating unique responses. It’s not quite as good as my idea for a machine that could automatically write refutations to standard Russophobic tripe, but it’s a start.

“Real Russia” Arguments

Have you ever lived in Russia? Clearly not, because you do not understand what real life is like there. As such, your opinions are ignorable.

Frankly, where I live and for what reasons is none of your business. In any case, I fail to see the necessity of living in a country to have a valid opinion on it, provided said opinion is founded on facts and logic. If anything, missing out on participation in a nation’s social and cultural life also implies bypassing its specific national passions and blinkers, enabling one to bring a more nuanced, dispassionate and comparative critique to the table.

But for the record, I have been to Russia numerous times and I’ve known and talked to many Russians. It is clear that many live hard lives, and that the prevalence of material poverty is much higher than in the developed world – but exactly where did I claim otherwise?

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Documentary Review: BBC Global Dimming

Not only is global warming a real and present threat that may yet in conjunction with impending energy shortages doom industrial civilization, it may have even been dangerously underestimated. “What have you been smoking!?,” you might say to me. Get off the doom train and enjoy the Sun. Unfortunately, we might not have much of it during the next decades – at least metaphorically speaking. To see why, I recommend you watch this video on global dimming or read its transcript.

So here’s the plot-line. After 9/11, the US air fleet was grounded for three days in the name of national security. Though presumably a major inconvenience for travelers, it was a boon for climatologist David Travis who was studying the effects of contrails, or vapor trails, left behind by high-flying aircraft on the world’s climate.

He predicted that removing contrails would have a significant impact on global temperatures, but was shocked to discover that the daily temperature range – the difference between the hottest and coldest temperature measures in a day – shifted up by an unprecedented 1.1C during those three days!

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Manipulating Russia’s Manipulation of History

Stalin was the “most successful Soviet leader”.

Thus proclaims Filippov’s controversial textbook A New History of Russia 1945-2006 – a symbol of the Putin-inspired drive to rehabilitate Stalinism and steep the next generation of Russian schoolchildren in the glories of sovereign democracy. Right?

Unfortunately, there’s just a few problems with this kitschy narrative of neo-Soviet historiographic revanchism, as a cursory scan of the textbook reveals.

This phrase (along with Stalin as “effective manager”) is typically quoted so out of context by liberal critics of the Kremlin as to make their Soviet-era ideological counterparts proud. The full quotation goes thus: “On THE ONE SIDE, [Stalin] IS REGARDED as the most successful Soviet leader”…ie, by the 47% of Russians with a positive view of Stalin. It is immediately preceded by the qualifier that views on Stalin’s historical role are contradictory – a point that is emphatically made at the very start of the chapter in question. Furthermore, the next (and last) paragraph concludes with a list of Stalin’s sins – “ruthless exploitation of the population”, “large scale repressions” and the destruction of “whole classes such as landed peasantry, the urban petit-bourgeoisie, the priesthood and the old intelligentsia”.

Since dark episodes like collectivization, political repressions and the Gulag are all covered covered in the textbook, its main sin is one of presentation rather than omission – the aim being to “rationalize” Stalinism within the larger narrative of Russia’s history and leave the final interpretation to the reader, instead of issuing blanket condemnation. As Filippov himself said in response to the ruckus over the textbook, “I was always annoyed by the belabored moralizing foisted on us in Soviet textbooks, and I wanted to avoid it…it seems I may have tried too hard”. And it’s not hard to see why; many people are as uncomfortable with the whole idea of “balance” when it comes to Stalin, as they are with, say, lauding Hitler for building Autobahns and overturning the “humiliating” Treaty of Versailles.

Yet speaking of whom, Hitler is probably unique amongst dictators in that he is near universally reviled after his death. He is hated by most Jews, Russians, Poles, British, Americans, and even the Germans he led to ruin. Furthermore, were it not for the crash industrialization (particularly of the Urals region) and social mobilization of the 1930’s forced through by Stalin, the USSR may well have lost the Great Patriotic War. This would have resulted in the partial extermination, Siberian exile and helotization of the Slavic and Jewish populations of eastern Europe, as envisaged under Generalplan Ost, Nazi Germany’s genocidal scheme for conquering Lebensraum in the East. This explains why many Russians hold such conflicted and contradictory views on Stalin, the despotic Messiah who led and ruled them like the God of the Old Testament.

Every country needs a national myth. The settling of the West remains one of the staples of the US national myth – Andrew Jackson, ethnic cleanser of Indian-Americans, adorns the 20-dollar bill. The Bill of Rights overshadows the inconvenient truth that its inventors did not extend it to their slaves. After the melting of the Soviet ideological glacier, the Visegrad nations of east-central Europe, Ukraine and the Baltics got busy writing their own national myths. These myths were based on victimization under Russian occupation, which necessitated airbrushing prominent indigenous Communist collaborators and anti-Semitism out of their paintings of the past. Some would say this this is an unwholesome and ahistorical approach; others would note it is the surest way to imagine communities into reality.

Not surprisingly, for better or worse, a glorified version of the Great Patriotic War is fast becoming Russia’s national myth. It strengthens the Russian national identity, cleanses away the other manifold sins of Stalin’s regime and probably explains his enduring popularity amongst Russians, who cannot accept the one-sided portrayal (or smearing?) of him as a murderous tyrant propagated by meddlesome foreigners and unpatriotic liberals.

It would be great if history were to be left to the historians…but that will only ever happen in the fantasy world. Back on planet Earth, it is just another political grenade kicked around by all sides. How many critical journalists have actually read the controversial chapter in question, let alone the textbook itself, before commenting on it? Why do so many of them focus on sound bytes like Stalin as “effective manager” or “most successful leader”, with blatant disregard for context? Why is the textbook’s very limited print run and lack of official endorsement rarely mentioned and never emphasized?

Perhaps these journalists would be well served to reflect on these questions before launching on their next tirade about the incipient rehabilitation of Stalinism under Medvedev’s historical commission.

Or perhaps not. Ultimately, both viewpoints are correct, derived as they are from cardinally different but internally consistent worldviews. Filippov is both a neo-Soviet propagandist and the voice of the Russian people. It all depends through which prism you view him, and Stalin, and Russia. Which belief you want to believe in.

PS. You can read the full translation of the controversial chapter in question (Debates about Stalin’s Role in History) from Alexander Filippov’s history textbook A New History of Russia 1945-2006 here.

This was originally published at Johnson’s Russia List.

The Approach of the New Persian Empire

With the recent election of the controversial (to put it mildly) Ahmadinejad to the Iranian Presidency, it is time to look at what this portends for the future of Iran and the Middle East region in general.

The first question we need to ask is whether Ahmadinejad’s victory was free and fair. Stratfor believes it may well have been, describing it as a “triumph of both democracy and repression“. According to this narrative, Western liberals misread sentiment in Iran, seeing it in Manichean terms of a struggle between iPod youth (anyone who blogs, tweets, etc) and corrupt Islamist crustaceans. Yet in reality, except for a few urbane Anglophone professionals, there is no Iranian audience for Western iCivilization. Ahmadinehad appeals to a solid bloc based on his platform stressing Islamic piety (a return to the glory days of the early Revolution), combating corruption (in which many of the “liberal” clerics, as typified by Rafsanjani – an ally of Mousavi, are believed to be implicated in), promoting rural development and curbing inequality, and a strident foreign policy aimed at establishing Iran as a regional and nuclear Great Power. US Iran expert Flynt Leverett in Spiegel argues that allegations of fraud are based on nothing more than an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking by the US.

That said, there’s some pretty damning evidence to the contrary. Juan Cole compiled six reasons in Stealing the Iranian Election, where there is now a heated ongoing discussion. For instance, his support in the Azeri provinces was inexplicably high, considering that Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, was popular there; he also won over the cities, where he isn’t as popular (on the other hand, the regional election results do show that the race was much closer in the Azeri areas and Tehran; in the Persian provinces, Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory was as high as 3:1). Other irregularities from established form, such as a suspicious uniformity paving over traditional regional and ethnic fluctuations. (Muhammad Sahimi notes that the election data shows “a perfect linear relation between the votes received by the President and Mir Hossein Mousavi” over time, with the incumbent always leading by a 2:1 ratio, which he argues is highly unlikely due to the fragmented character of Iran’s ethnic composition; however, it should be noted that this approach is flawed since much the same argument could be made for Obama’s win). Khamenei immediately approved the alleged results, foregoing the customary 3-day waiting period. The counting happened very quickly and Ahmadinejad declared a 64% victory immediately after the polling closer, not far from his official 62.6%. Etc, etc… you get the idea.

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Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography

This is a succinct summary of my views on Russian demography, written about 2 months ago.

Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography
By Anatoly Karlin

In 1992, for the first time since the Great Patriotic War, deaths exceeded births, forming the so-called “Russian Cross”. Since then the population fell from 149mn to 142mn souls. Ravaged by AIDS, infertility and alcoholism, Russians are doomed to die out and be replaced by hordes of Islamist fanatics in the west and Chinese settlers in the east.

Or so one could conclude from reading many of the popular stories about Russian demography today. The total fertility rate (TFR), the average number of children a woman is expected to have, was 1.4 in 2007, well below the 2.1 needed for long-term population stability. Though current Russian birth rates per 1000 women are not exceptionally low, they will plummet once the 1980’s youth bulge leaves childbearing age after 2015.

Meanwhile, Russia’s life expectancy is exceptionally bad by industrialized-world standards. Death rates for middle-aged men today are, amazingly, no different from those of late Tsarism – a phenomenon Nicholas Eberstadt termed “hypermortality”. This tragic development is almost entirely attributable to the extreme prevalence of binge drinking of hard spirits.

No wonder then that the recent UN report on Russian demography forecasts its population will fall by 10mn-20mn people by 2025. Set against these gloomy trends, the projections made by the Russian government (145mn) and state statistical service Rosstat (137-150mn) for the same year seem laughably pollyannaish.

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Top 10 AGW Denial Myths

I’ve long viewed the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denial movement with a certain sense of bemusement. The causal links are rock-solid – could it really be a coincidence that atmospheric CO2 levels started rising at the very same moment as industrial civilization got into swing, within decades reaching magnitudes big enough to decisively interrupt the glacial-interglacial cycle that previously held steady for hundreds of thousands of years? Is it really surprising that given the heat-absorbing properties of CO2 (known to science since the 18th century), global temperatures entered into a period of steep ascent since the 1970s, rising by around 0.9C from the 1900-1910 period to the last decade? Occam’s Razor anyone? And considering that only 6C or so separate us from the Ice Ages, when ice sheets descended into central Europe, southern England was a polar wasteland scoured by icy, dust-laden winds and dessication affected even the tropics, should not even the possibility of seeing the world warm by up to 6.4C during this century – corresponding to the high end of the IPCC’s forecasts in 2007 – invoke a certain level of concern?

I plan to write more on climate change, since it is going to be one of the key trends of this century (along with resource depletion and growth in computing power). But for now – and to forestall any future objections – I would like to take a moment to expose the top myths and misconceptions of AGW deniers.


It’s all a conspiracy – scientists want research funding and environmentalists want to impose socialism on us.

Frankly the idea that tens of thousands are colluding in a massive conspiracy is risible. If anything it is the denier camp which has economic incentives to promote their views, given the funding they receive from the fossil-fuel industry. The Bush administration scientists pursued a campaign of disinformation and outright censorship regarding AGW. So who are the real conspirators?

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