The New Russia: Book Review

By David Michael Newstead.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s book, The New Russia, offers a glimpse at history from a decidedly rare point of view. Few Russian leaders have lived for so long after their time in office. So then, few others could ever provide the kind of perspective that Gorbachev gives as he reflects on the end of Communism and his last day in the Kremlin to the tumultuous years that followed and events right up to the present. Of those first years after Communism, he lists off a string of crises that plagued the nation as it transitioned to a new form of government.

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union; the rolling back of democracy in almost all the republics; chaos in the economy, exploited by the greediest and most unscrupulous, who succeeded in plunging almost everyone else into poverty; ethnic conflicts and bloodshed in Russia and other republics; and, finally, the shelling of the Supreme Soviet of Russia in October 1993.

The book is filled with letters, speeches, photographs, and interview excerpts from throughout these years. But in all, it shows a man trying to defend the decisions he made and watching from the sidelines at the people who came to power after him, for better or worse. He explores the war in Chechnya, the economic turmoil throughout the 1990s, the eventual rise of Vladimir Putin, NATO expansion, the rollback of democratic reforms, the war with Georgia, Ukraine, and more. As Gorbachev thought about the past as well as the present, two passages stuck out at me.

  • Already I was aware of just how deeply rooted the legacy of totalitarianism was, in our traditions, in people’s mindset and morality. It had seeped into almost every pore of the social organism. That deeply troubled me in those days and, more than 20 years later, still does.
  • We are living in the twenty-first century, a century of new technologies and new challenges. Conservative ideology has no answer to these. Traditional, conservative values do, along with others, have their place in society. But where have conservative policies taken us in the history of Russia? They have led, as a rule, to stagnation followed by upheaval. Sometimes the years of stagnation have been relatively prosperous, living off reforms carried through earlier and favorable external factors. Sooner or later, however, that energy runs out, the external factors change.

How Social Media Became Forbidden Planet

By David Michael Newstead.

What if a machine could manifest people’s thoughts? In the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (and the Crichton novel Sphere), scientists stumble onto a device like this. It’s of alien origins and it materializes thoughts into reality. Powerful and with limitless potential, the machine could make the world a better place. But instead of this device leading to a new and enlightened chapter in history, it just amplifies the worst parts of people’s psyche: fear, anger, paranoia. In the story, violence and chaos quickly ensue as the characters’ unconscious runs amok.

Unfortunately, the social media landscape is starting to look a lot like Forbidden Planet, more dangerous than it is enlightening. But when platforms like Twitter and Facebook first launched, the idea that they would one day be overrun with rabid misogynists, white supremacists, stalkers, personalized threats, and propaganda would have seemed far-fetched. We have this notion, after all, that technology always makes things better. In this case though, it’s like social media removed the polite veneer that masks everything under the surface of our culture: swallow materialism, intense insecurity, sexism, and racism. The problem didn’t start overnight, of course. No one joined Twitter thinking they were going to get doxed. But like a tidal wave, problems began moving from the comment section into the real world. And vice versa. Now, the carefree early days of social networking seem wildly naïve. And our optimistic vision of an interconnected world may be the biggest piece of science fiction of them all.

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Good Night and Good Luck

By David Michael Newstead.

Good Night and Good Luck is about 1950s America and the famous clash between pioneering journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. Made during the Bush administration, the movie was always political and highlights journalism’s role in confronting abuses of power especially in a climate of fear and intimidation. Now, twelve years after it was made, Good Night and Good Luck is worth re-watching for several reasons. For one, good journalism is more important than ever and confronting abuses of power sustains our democracy. Yet, there’s another reason to watch the movie. Surprising as it is to realize, there’s a direct link tying our political past to the present: the disreputable lawyer Roy Cohn. Cohn was McCarthy’s top aide during the dark days we now call McCarthyism. Also involved in the infamous Rosenberg execution, Cohn would later in his career represent and mentor Donald Trump before being disbarred for unethical conduct. Having more than a few historical parallels, the film should be required viewing in the Trump era. The only thing that remains to be seen is if someone of Edward R. Murrow’s stature could even exist in our now fractured media landscape.

The End of Tsarist Russia

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By David Michael Newstead.

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I & Revolution by Dominic Lieven offers a critical reassessment of events a century ago. It’s a story of empire, geography, and long festering social problems that destroyed many lives and reshaped history. Below, I offer select excerpts from the book.

From Page 2

Contrary to the near-universal assumption in the English-speaking world, the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict. Its immediate origins lay in the murder of the Austrian heir at Sarajevo in southeastern Europe. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, led to a confrontation between Austria and Russia, eastern Europe’s two great empires… It is true that victory in World War I was achieved on the western front by the efforts of the French, British, and American armies. But the peace of 1918 was mostly lost in eastern Europe. The great irony of World War I was that a conflict which began more than anything else as a struggle between Germanic powers and Russia to dominate east-central Europe ended in the defeat of both sides… Worse still, the Versailles order was constructed on the basis on both Germany’s and Russia’s defeat and without concern for their interests or viewpoints.

From Page 61

Autocracy survived in part through tradition and inertia, in part through fear that liberalization would release class and national conflicts that would tear the country apart.

From Page 343 to 346

Russia’s World War I went roughly as Petr Durnovo, Russia’s most intelligent “reactionary” leader, had predicted in his February 1914 memorandum (Read Here). The Russian army was inferior to the German and was defeated in a number of battles, most notably at Tannenberg in 1914 and Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915. In a number of areas, German superiority in material was important: most notably in heavy artillery, airplanes, and communications technology. Deeper-rotted problems of Russian personnel mattered more. The relatively small number of professional officers and noncommissioned officers in comparison to Germany proved a great disadvantage. Russian armies also usually had less competent commanders and staffs than their German enemies. But the British and French armies were also on the whole inferior to the German until the latter was crippled by General Ludendorff’s spring offensive in 1918. On occasion, Russian armies did defeat the Germans. They were in general superior to the Austrians, whom they defeated heavily in 1914 and 1916. The Russian army also outperformed the British in the war against Turkey.

By the winter of 1916-17, the Russian army was tired and had suffered heavy casualties, including high levels of surrender and desertion. In a few units, there were signs that morale and discipline were slipping… In the Russian case, it was the rear, not the front, that collapsed first and undermined the war effort… As Durnovo had predicted, the railways became a major problem with very serious consequences for military movements, food supply, and industrial production. Neither the railway network nor the rolling stock was adequate for the colossal demands of war, but in addition industry was diverted overwhelmingly to military production, with repairs to locomotives, rolling stock, and railway lines suffering as a consequence. Inflation too its toll on morale and discipline among railway men, as it did across the entire workforce. Durnovo was once again right in predicting that Russia would face great difficulties in financing the war.

From Page 351

The end of tsarist Russia came in the course of a few days in late February and early March 1917. A dynasty that had ruled for three hundred years departed almost overnight and with a whimper rather than a bang, because very few Russians were willing to defend it.

From Page 365

For Russia as for Germany, 1914 was year zero. The catastrophe of World War I led directly to other, even more terrible disasters. From war sprang revolution, civil war, famine, and dictatorship. Hopes in the 1920s that the revolutionary regime might in time become more moderate were dashed in the 1930s as an even greater wave of famine, terror, and revolutionary development engulfed the Russian people.

Social Media Propaganda

By David Michael Newstead.

Aldous Huxley once said that technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards. With that in mind, it occurred to me that these satirical propaganda posters about social media from a few years ago are surprisingly (and disturbingly) realistic depictions of life in 2017. Take a look and judge for yourself.