May 3rd 2022

Tough Times Ahead for Russian Studies

 

Russian studies are at a crossroads. Putin Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine has raised difficult questions that Russia specialists will have to confront and answer, if they want to retain their integrity as scholars and, ultimately, as human beings. 

They’ll have to start with the most fundamental of questions: How should Putin’s Russia be categorized—as fascist, genocidal, and imperial or as something else? Words obviously matter. If Putin’s Russia is fascist, genocidal, and imperial, then it merits comparison with Hitler’s Germany and deserves the opprobrium of good people everywhere. If, instead, Putin’s regime is merely authoritarian, cruel, and overbearing, then some form of modus vivendi can presumably be found.

Since the 1960s, Russianists have generally given the USSR and its successor, the Russian Federation, a pass on these terminological issues. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the Soviet Union was considered to be “totalitarian”—and thus similar to Nazi Germany in its violence, use of terror, single-party rule, control of public space, and secret-police dominance. The nomenclature changed in the 1960s, after Nikita Khrushchev abandoned Stalinism’s worst features and the Soviet Union looked like it was morphing into a modernizing autocracy like many other states in the third world. 

Since then, Russianists have preferred to abjure controversial terms such as fascism, genocide, and empire in discussing the USSR and Russia. Putin’s regime has often been described as “Putinist,” a less than helpful term that smacked of tautology. The mass destruction of regime opponents was never genocidal. And regime violence against non-Russian peoples was merely a function of Russia’s need for geopolitical security. 

All these happy assumptions must now be reconsidered. The Putinist regime has all the hallmarks of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s. Fascism looks like an accurate way of defining all three. The deliberate destruction of Ukrainians—in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Bucha, and scores of settlements—the kidnapping of thousands of children, and the destruction of Ukrainian culture all smack of genocide. And Russia’s expansion into Transnistria, Georgia, and Ukraine, its bellicose threats to Kazakhstan and the Baltic states, and its near-absorption of Belarus all look like empire building.

The next question that Russia specialists must then confront is this: How could Russian political culture have made Putin, his regime, and its war and genocide against Ukrainians possible? The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes.

After all, Putin is not quite an anomaly. Imperial Russian and Soviet history is full of bloodthirsty tyrants who committed what we would today call genocide. Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were mass murderers. Nikita Khrushchev was implicated in the 1930s’ Great Terror and the Ukrainian genocide-famine, the Holodomor. Leonid Brezhnev was a tyrant. All these leaders enjoyed popular adulation. As does Putin. Indeed, over 80 percent of Russians support the war. No less telling is the latest Russian fashion craze—tee shirts stating the “I am not ashamed.” (Really? One is tempted to ask. Aren’t you a mite troubled by mass killings?)

Something is decidedly wrong with a culture that is proud of genocide. Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?

Finally, Russianists will have to answer why Putin and so many Russians have such an animus against Ukrainians. For starters, Russianists will have to realize that Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union were empires that oppressed the non-Russian nations. Violence, aggression, and war were the lifeblood of these states, as they are of Putin’s realm. Peter I and Catherine II weren’t just building states and streamlining bureaucracies. They were actively killing hundreds of thousands of people in their rush to greatness. 

And Poles and Ukrainians had a special place in the mad schemes of Russian czars and Soviet leaders. The Poles were Muscovy’s main rivals for several centuries, and it was Russia that then took part in three partitions of Poland in the 18th century and a fourth in 1939. Ukrainians, meanwhile, challenged the historical myths invented by the czars in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Russians claimed lineage with the ancient Kyivan Rus state, despite the fact that Moscow wasn’t more than a speck on the map when Kyivan culture flourished over a millennium ago. The Ukrainian claim to that lineage—which resembles Italy’s claim of continuity with Roman Italy—explodes the Russian myths, destroys Russia’s claim to greatness, and therefore serves as an existential threat to Russian identity.

Can Russianists introduce a perestroika of their profession and their assumptions?  Chances are they will resist, if only because Putin enjoys a remarkable degree of support among Slavics professors. Moreover, many Russian studies centers have institutional and financial ties with Russian partners and oligarchs. Finally, Russianists will, like all people, prefer to disregard painful questions that threaten to upend their life’s work.

But change will come nonetheless. The public atmosphere has changed. Much of the world now recognizes Putin as a monster and Russia as a force for evil. Public opinion will be hard to ignore. In particular, students will ask their professors just what they were doing during the Russo-Ukrainian War. Evasion won’t work, and professors will have to fess up to their shameful roles in sustaining Putin’s Russia.

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Nov 24th 2022
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Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Today’s autocrats wear staid business suits and pretend to be democrats, and that has been sufficient to grant them access to high-level meetings in Davos or at the G20, where they actively recruit former Western politicians, lawyers, public-relations consultants, and think tanks to make their case in the West." ---- "....whatever the weaknesses of Western democracies, they still command a degree of soft power that their autocratic competitors could only dream of. Democracy remains popular around the world – among citizens of both democratic and nondemocratic countries. That is why modern dictators pretend to be democrats." ---- "....there is no shortage of criticism about how the US and Europe function. But that itself is a product of the press freedom and political opposition that one can find only in democracies. But actions speak louder than words: Immigrants from around the world are eager to come to Europe or America, whereas few are trying to get into Russia or China."
Nov 9th 2022
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Nov 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "First and most obvious – it has happened before. And in an historical sense, it has happened relatively recently, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 rightly considered a seismic event in world politics. The rub is that nobody predicted the end of the USSR either. In fact, it was confidently assumed in the West that Mikhail Gorbachev would go on ruling the Soviet Union, until the hard-line coup that failed to topple him (but left him mortally wounded in a political sense) made that view obviously redundant." ---- "So is it speculative to talk about a future Russian collapse? Yes. Is there evidence it is imminent? No. But in many ways that’s the problem: when authoritarian regimes implode, they tend to do so very quickly, and with little warning."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: " But in celebrating the CPC centennial, he [XI left little doubt of what those challenges might portend: “Having the courage to fight and the fortitude to win is what has made our party invincible.” A modernized and expanded military puts teeth into that threat and underscores the risks posed by Xi’s conflict-prone China."
Oct 8th 2022
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Oct 7th 2022
EXTRACTS: "While some Russians have opposed the attack on Ukraine from the outset and publicly protested against the mobilisation that has just been declared, others, on the far right, feel that Russia is holding back too much and are increasingly calling for total mobilisation, the carpet-bombing of Ukrainian cities, and even the use of nuclear weapons." ----- "Will the Kremlin be able to channel the growing warmongering zeal? In view of the intensity of the rhetoric of the various wings of the Russian far right, backed recently by several Putin allies including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it is doubtful: whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, nationalist pressure is likely to become a serious and lasting threat to Russia’s internal stability."
Oct 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "But US and global equities have not yet fully priced in even a mild and short hard landing. Equities will fall by about 30% in a mild recession, and by 40% or more in the severe stagflationary debt crisis that I have predicted for the global economy. Signs of strain in debt markets are mounting: sovereign spreads and long-term bond rates are rising, and high-yield spreads are increasing sharply; leveraged-loan and collateralized-loan-obligation markets are shutting down; highly indebted firms, shadow banks, households, governments, and countries are entering debt distress. The crisis is here."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS "Ever since she became a prominent political figure 12 years ago, Truss has been a shapeshifter. She started as a Liberal Democrat before becoming a Conservative, and she voted to remain in the European Union before championing Brexit. As a minister, it is hard to think of anything she accomplished. She signed a few EU trade deals as Secretary of State for International Trade, but most of those were rollovers." --- "But if until recently it seemed that Truss was driven solely by political ambition, her government’s 'mini-budget' proposal sheds light on her deeper ideological affinities."
Sep 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russia’s focus on Ukraine and Putin’s choice to frame this as a civilisational struggle with the west has created opportunities for China to enhance its influence elsewhere – at Russia’s expense."
Sep 20th 2022
EXTRACTS: ”The Ukrainian army is making spectacular advances,” --- “…the European Union has fully mobilized to confront the energy crisis.” ---- “we are helping our partners in the Global South to handle the fallout from Russia’s brutal aggression and cynical weaponization of energy and food.” ---- “In short: the overall strategy is working. We must continue to support Ukraine, pressure Russia with sanctions, and help our global partners in a spirit of solidarity.”
Sep 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "In 1950, a team of sociologists, including the philosopher Theodor Adorno, conducted an empirical study, later published as The Authoritarian Personality, which ....... “If a potentially fascistic individual exists, what, precisely, is he like? What goes to make up antidemocratic thought? What are the organizing forces within the person?... what have been the determinants and what is the course of his development?”
Aug 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian aggression certainly poses a threat; but it is a familiar one that we know how to deal with. Rising temperatures, dry riverbeds, parched landscapes, falling crop yields, acute energy shortages, and disruptions to industrial production are something else."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACTS: "As the revolutionary founder of a new Chinese state, Mao emphasized ideology over development. For Deng and his successors, it was the opposite: De-emphasis of ideology was viewed as necessary to boost economic growth through market-based 'reform and opening up.' Then came Xi. Initially, there was hope that his so-called 'Third Plenum Reforms' of 2013 would usher in a new era of strong economic performance. But the new ideological campaigns carried out under the general rubric of Xi Jinping Thought, including a regulatory clampdown on once-dynamic Internet platform companies and associated restrictions on online gaming, music, and private tutoring, as well as a zero-COVID policy that has led to never-ending lockdowns, have all but dashed those hopes." ----- "With the upcoming 20th Party Congress likely to usher in an unprecedented third five-year term for Xi, there is good reason to believe that China’s growth sacrifice has only just begun."
Aug 23rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "Less widely noted, however, is that the prices of many commodities fell this summer. The price of oil decreased by about 30% between early June and mid-August. The politically sensitive price of gasoline in the United States fell by 20% over the same period, from $5 per gallon to $4 per gallon. The overall index fell 12%." ---- "There are two macroeconomic reasons to think that commodity prices in general will fall further. The level of economic activity is a self-evidently important determinant of demand for commodities and therefore of their prices. Less obviously, the real interest rate is another key factor. And the current outlook for both global growth and real interest rates suggests a downward path for commodity prices."
Aug 22nd 2022
EXTRACT: "How Trump planned to use the classified documents remains a question that investigators presumably have made a high priority. Depending on the answer and the resulting charges, if any, one thing is certain: Trump will play hardball, including by amplifying his claims of victimhood at the hands of the fictional Deep State, and denying any wrongdoing in purloining the documents. His lies and hyperbole, however, don’t preclude seeking a plea deal. In his previous tangles with the law, such as his Trump University scam, he agreed to compensate the victims (in that case $25 million) after his prevarications were exhausted."
Aug 21st 2022
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Aug 10th 2022
EXTRACT: "Central banks are thus locked in a “debt trap”: any attempt to normalize monetary policy will cause debt-servicing burdens to spike, leading to massive insolvencies, cascading financial crises, and fallout in the real economy. ---- With governments unable to reduce high debts and deficits by spending less or raising revenues, those that can borrow in their own currency will increasingly resort to the “inflation tax”: relying on unexpected price growth to wipe out long-term nominal liabilities at fixed rates."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... the likelihood is that Biden, who spent his life as a senator, played a central behind-the-scenes role in turning Manchin around and keeping the Democratic Party Senators together on this pared-down version of Build Back Better. Biden’s legislative accomplishments, not to mention his administrative ones, will likely end up being very impressive for the first two years of his presidency. ------ In matters of climate, every ton of CO2 you don’t put into the atmosphere is a decrease in how hard life will be for our grandchildren. They will have reason to be grateful to President Biden and the Democratic Party if this bill becomes law."