Archives for July 2009

The Belief Matrix

Consequent to my post Categorizing the Russia Debate and the lively debate it spawned, it occurred to me that much of Russia’s tortured and intriguing history could be rationalized as a self-reinforcing loop within a belief matrix. This can even be extended further to many other societies – I will also have similar posts up for a) Germany’s “Reich cycles”, b) America’s “liberty cycles” and c) the continuous “radical redefining of terms” that characterized Soviet history from 1914 to 1953. Here I will focus on outlining my theoretical framework (the concept of a belief matrix); then I will post about how it can be applied to different societies.

My assumption is that societies can be defined along two axes – their degree of ease with themselves, and with the West. By the latter, I mean specifically the Idea of the West: acceptance of the scientific method; rule of law; economic rationalism; and liberalism. An important semantic point is that these should not be conflated with “Western countries” (the US, the UK, France, etc); though they have, by most measures, internalized the Idea of the West to a far greater extent than most other cultures, they cannot ever reach unity with it because they are, at root, organic, human societies, whereas the Idea of the West is an absolute.

The other axis denotes how content a civilization is with its traditions. The default steady state is acceptive; though occasionally challenged by dissidents who reject tradition, society is characterized by a state of sobornost – a deep sense of spiritual harmony amongst classes, regions, races and sexes. Or as my definition of Russophilia goes, they understand, accept, forgive and unconditionally love their community / nation. This can break down when a culture is faced with unexpected challenges, such as Malthusian crises in the pre-industrial era or contact with the West (or rather its manifestations in British gunships and American multinational companies) in the modern era. In the latter case, society typically enthusiastically embraces the trappings of the West and rejects its own traditions, after viewing them from the Western frame of reference. This causes severe internal dislocations, leading to disillusionment and culminating in a vehement rejection of Western values, to an extent impossible in its absense. One can view Bolshevism, Nazism, fascism and radical Islamism as extreme forms of this rejection (and by rejection, implicit acceptance), relying as they do on Western technics in their attempts to recreate an imagined past.

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Book Review: Mark Steyn – America Alone

Steyn, MarkAmerica Alone: The End of the World as we Know It (2006)
Category: Islam; Eurabia; humor; Rating: 3/5
Summary: The future belongs to Islam (M. Steyn)

It crept up on the West silently. Even as post-historical white Europeans were busy puffing on their weed, hugging trees and chanting Kumbaya in a happy circle, in the dark recesses of their post-industrial civilization – from Britain’s wrecked mill towns to the gray apartment blocks of Malmö, a dark force was bedding, breeding and brooding on history’s return to the mighty continent. They were the Muslims.

*ominous drumbeat*

Slow and surely, they used the lobbying methods of gay rights and feminist organizations to spread their baneful influence to the heights of political power. Sharia enforced at the point of a gun became the law of the land in the grim banlieues of Paris and the gray apartment blocks of Londonistan. They became centers of global jihadist networks that intertwined modern technology, ancient hatreds and Western moral relativism to strike severe blows at its quailing hosts, the apathetic, limp-wristed citizenries presided over by disconnected Eurocrats who were too terrified to do anything but appease. All heroic dissenters, like Mark Steyn, who tried to warn Europe of its mortal peril, were ungratefully cut off by political correctness laws – where the Islamists did not cut off their heads for real, that is.

Some Europeans realized what was happening. Some “reverted” to the Islamofascist wave of the future, making their peace with the new world. The enterprising and quick-witted emigrated to the US of A, one of the world’s few remaining citadels of freedom and prosperity. Most accepted their fate passively – aging, deprived of their pensions through state bankruptcies, forced to pay jizya to their new masters who cut their beards, took away their beer and covered up their women. Though a few bands of neo-Nazi “patriots” tried to stem the Islamic tide, they were outnumbered and crushed in the ensuing civil wars.

*soundtrack*

The world retreated into a new Dark Age of nuclear-armed tinpot dictatorships, transnational terrorists equipped with the latest technology, a totalitarian China, a re-primitivized Russia of nuclearized anarchy fought over by the Chinese Army, brutal Muslim warlords and the dispossessed remnants of its original denizens, and a civil war-torn Europe alternating between fascist black and Islamist green. The barbarian of chaos and destruction leaves only a single, tattered Stars and Stripes fluttering on the winds of time, for now America stands alone as the last bastion of enlightenment amidst the stifling darkness that threatens to engulf it too.

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Categorizing the Russia Debate

Here I will try to categorize all the major Russia-watching schools along two axes: 1) a Russophobe – Russophile axis and 2) a values spectrum on attitudes towards the West as a universal mental matrix. Along these lines I created the image map below which attempts to graphically deconstruct the belief systems many prominent Russia-watchers today subscribe to. I mostly limited myself to those with a presence on the Anglophone blogosphere, though I’ve added in some nationalities and ideological groupings to clarify the terrain and fringe elements to demarcate the boundaries.

Jeff Nyquist ( A Step at a Time (David McDuff) Window on Eurasia (Paul Goble) Thomas P.M. Barnett Gordon Hahn (Russia: Other Points of View) The Ivanov Report (Eugene Ivanov) Dale Herspring Moscow Tory (Carl Thomson) Mike Averko Andrew Wilson (Virtual Politics) Vilhelm Konnander Mark Ames (eXile) Mat Rodina (Stanislav Mishin) Kirill Pankratov Russian Blog (Konstantin) Russia in the Media (Fedia Kriukov) Truth and Beauty (Eric Kraus) Nicolai Petro Vlad Sobell Eduard Limonov Siberian Light (Andy Young) La Russophobe (Kim Zigfield) Edward Lucas Streetwise Professor (Craig Pirrong) Robert Amsterdam Russia Blog (Charles Ganske & Yuri Mamchur) Sublime Oblivion (Anatoly Karlin The Russian Government (Dmitri Medvedev & Vladimir Putin) Peter Lavelle The Spirit of Terrorism (Jean Baudrillard) The End of History (Francis Fukuyama) Sean's Russia Blog (Sean Guillory)

Introduction: A Very Brief History of Russia-Watching

Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930’s. The following remarks made by John Scott in Behind the Urals, an account of life in a Soviet industrial town, are as relevant today as they were back then:
In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren’t we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.
So basically, opinions on Russia were binaried amongst those who cared to express an interest. And they were almost all wrong. The hardcore Communists would not admit that life remained hard for most people, that Russia’s level of development remained far below that of the West (despite the Depression) and ignored the high level of political repression. On the other hand, the anti-Communists were just as wrong. Their ideologized refusal to acknowedge the high morale, technological progress and the huge rise in Soviet military-industrial potential under Stalin did them no good, especially for those Nazi strategists who thought all they had to do was kick the door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would come tumbling down.
Another point I would make here is that Russia’s history is highly cyclical, going through a pattern of collapse, recovery, expansion, stagnation and collapse. There are some convincing reasons that much of this is tied to its geography and derived cultural traditions. The archetypical Russia is economically weak (cold climate, vast distances and subpar riverine interconnectivity) and insecure (open, undefended borders). This traditionally meant that the Russian state had to marshal all available resources to compete as a Great Power, necessitating a strong state capable of maintaining superior armed forces, keeping abreast of foreign technological developments and providing bread and games to the people. However, the strain of supporting a metastasized empire out of proportion to its economic development, as well as the ideological rigidities necessary to thwart its premature dissolution, meant that when critical amounts of pressure did build up collapses tended to be far more total and catastrophic than in the West.
A succinct summary of this theme of eternal rise and fall can be found in Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century:
At present, all we see is chaos, struggle, economic collapse, ethnic disintegration – just as the observers of 1918 did. How could they have foreseen then that a decade or so later the USSR would have begun to produce chemicals, aircraft, trucks, tanks, and machine tools and be growing faster than any other industrialized society? By extension, how could Western admirers of Stalin’s centralized economy in the 1930’s know that the very system contained the seeds of its own collapse?
And as is well-known very few Kremlinogists accurately predicted the breakup the Soviet Union until 1989 (although it should be noted that contrary to current conventional wisdom, they were well-justified in their complacency because the Soviet political economy was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant, and collapse was precipitated by Gorbachev’s abandonment of central planning in the absence of evolved market mechanisms). And yet soon after the pendulum swung the other way. Now quoting myself in Reading Russia Right:
Wildly optimistic predictions of tigerish growth rates and flourishing democracy were confounded, as practically every socio-economic statistic worsened and reforms were perceived to have authorized the wholesale looting of Russia – ‘the sale of the century’ – and the creation of a ‘historyless elite’ focused on the ‘exchange of unaccountable power for untaxable wealth’. By the end of the 1990’s, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, tax collection and monetary emissions had eroded; market fundamentalism had transformed the Upper Volta with missiles into a ‘looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy’ in a demographic death spiral presided over by the ‘world’s most virulent kleptocracy’ about to splinter along ethnic lines and fall into fascism sometime tomorrow. The Atlantic put it nice and simple: ‘Russia is Finished’.
And we all know what happened since 1998, even though some Russophobes have yet to catch up with the times – much like the ideologized anti-Communists of the 1930’s… (Of course, this is not to say that Putin is the next Stalin. I’m talking about the economic recovery, and the increasing investments into things like nanotechnology, which will probably be as important in this century as coal and steel were in the last).
Russia and Ideologues: Past Debates on Russophobia

Anyone familiar with Western commentary on Russia will know that much of it is bifurcated into two camps, the so-called “Russophiles” and “Russophobes”. Both range the whole gamut of opinion from classical liberalism to nationalist arch-conservatism, and tend to invoke Orientalist interpretations of Russian culture to make their points. This dichotomy has a millennial heritage, going back as far, perhaps, as the medieval period when Western Christendom first acquired a primal aversion to the dark, chaotic steppes to the east; yet an aversion tempered by seductive legends such as that of Prester John, who ruled a perfect Christian kingdom in a place beyond the darkness of Tatary.

Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930’s. The following remarks made by John Scott in Behind the Urals, an account of life in a Soviet industrial town, are as relevant today as they were back then:

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Book Review: Steven Rosefielde – The Prodigal Superpower

Rosefielde, StevenRussia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (2004)
Category: political economy, Russia, transition, military; Rating: 4/5
Summary: Google books; Introduction

This is a book about Russia’s past, and its alleged return to the future. Rosefielde outlines his theory that the Soviet Union was a “prodigal superpower”, exchanging Spartan living standards for great military power – a state of affairs he calls “structural militarization” (borrowing from Vitaly Shlykov), and alleges that Russia is likely to reinstate a political economy prioritizing full-spectrum, fifth-generation rearmament in the near future. This is because he is pessimistic about Russia’s prospects of evolving into an advanced, Westernized liberal democracy (which he regards as indispensable for economic prosperity) pursuing a security policy of optimized defense expenditures supporting downsized, mobile, RMA-enhanced military forces. Instead, Russian cognizance of the increasing threat posed by China and the West will impel it to reconstitute its “dormant structurally militarized potential”, dooming it to renewed impoverishment and an arms race it could not win in the long-term.

Although it contains an unfortunately high number of misconceptions about Russia, the conclusions are nonetheless mostly evidence-based, pertinent and though-provoking. (I originally planned to make this post a straightforward review, but my ideas ran ahead of my typing fingers and transformed it into a broad exploration of Russia’s military-strategic future. So enjoy 😉 ).

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Top 50 Russophobe Myths

This is a list of common Russophobe myths about Russia and its people, and the successor to a March 2008 post on a similar theme. Please be sure to check the supporting notes at the bottom before dismissing this as neo-Soviet propaganda. Also partially available en françaisна русском thanks to Alexandre Latsa’s translation.

1

MYTH: Life has only improved for a few oligarchs, while the poor and everyone outside Moscow remain impoverished.

REALITY: During Putin’s Presidency, poverty rates more than halved and wages nearly tripled, fueling an on-going consumption boom shared across all regions and social groups.

2

MYTH: Russia is in a demographic death spiral that has gotten worse under Putin and which will soon sink its economy.

REALITY: The birth rate has increased, the death rate has fallen and mortality from murder, suicide and alcohol poisoning has plummeted. Projections of Russia’s future dependency ratios are no worse than for China or the G7.

3

MYTH: Putin abused human rights, personally murdered 200 journalists and returned Russia to its totalitarian past.

REALITY: Too bad that only 3% of Russians agree, despite having easy access to such views via the press, cable TV and the Internet. The number of journalists killed under Putin (17) is less than under Yeltsin (30), and only five of them can be definitively linked to their professional work. Elections have been mostly free and fair.

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