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.
By David Michael Newstead.
War crimes investigator David Crane returns to discuss the conflict in Syria, proposed human rights laws in the United States, and the impact of populist elections around the world.
David Newstead: How do you think this wave of populist elections around the world will impact international law and human rights?
David Crane: The honest answer is, I don’t know. One could certainly seem to think that it is not going to augur well for the future. However, that just remains to be seen. I would hope that we could at least keep where we are as opposed to taking steps back. But frankly, I am not confident. This is a clarion call for all of us to work harder, particularly in the public relations realm, to keep the concept of seeking justice for people who are oppressed in some kind of light so that it just doesn’t disappear back into the shadows as it was before the early 1990s.
David Newstead: Human rights laws like the original Magnitsky Act were bipartisan pieces of legislation and had strong Republican support. Do you see any hope for the expanded version of the Magnitsky Act or the Caesar Act in either the Republican controlled Congress or the Trump administration?
David Crane: I helped draft the Magnitsky Act and had testified on the Caesar Act before the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the summer. You know, it’s interesting. It’s kind of a bellwether as to what the sense of Congress is at least right now. The other week, the Caesar Act passed on a voice vote in the House, which was a positive sign.
I’m not so sure about the Senate. I don’t have as good a read on it as I do in the House. I’m very good friends with Congressmen Ed Royce and Chris Smith, two champions of human rights who have worked with me since 2002 when I was doing my work in West Africa. I just don’t think it has the sense of urgency in the Senate that it does in the House. I’m not confident, though I could be surprised, that this is going to move forward. It has to move forward now obviously or it will not see the light of day. And I can’t see within the next year anything like a Caesar Act working its way through a Trump Administration.
I could be wrong, but I’m just not sure. I don’t think the new President-elect has any interest in this area at this point. Sees no need in it. Sees no political benefit in spending his time and energy on these types of issues. I’m not even sure who his main contact is in this area. If it’s Michael Flynn, then that doesn’t augur well.
To answer your question, it’s really up to the likes of Senators Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell. I’m just not getting a sense that they’re going to spend a lot of time of this. I could be wrong, but we just don’t have that momentum in the Senate that we used to have even when it was bipartisan. People like Senators Pat Leahy and Judd Gregg worked the hallways for these laws and worked together for decades. I’ve worked with them myself on getting international criminal law and human rights legislation through and they’ve been pretty good on it. But you know, I’m just not seeing a lot of momentum in the Senate on this.
David Newstead: If Trump’s recent endorsement of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war is any indication, what kind of human rights policies do you think we can expect?
David Crane: I’ve thought this through a lot. We either have a great moment or a moment of tragedy. For some bizarre reason, we have this moment with Russia that is something that is not comfortable for those of us who are old Cold Warriors, but also just individuals who look at Russia very skeptically for a lot of reasons. What an interesting thing if Trump and Putin actually formed a kind of grand alliance to handle some of the challenges internationally. The method may not be palatable, but the end product may be a solution for Syria, for example.
But I don’t know. This is the first time in a long, long time when everything is new and everything is on the table. No one really has a sense, because it’s a complete paradigm shift. Even all the key players in that crazy town that I lived in and worked in for so many years, all the key contacts and the people that make things happen… They’re no longer in power or even in anybody’s inner circle. We can’t shape, mold, or effect current and future policy, because they’re just not listening. Either the new administration is eventually going to come around, because they’re going to have to or they’re not going to get anything done. Or we’re going to see an amazing series of policy shifts internationally the likes of which we haven’t seen since Harry Truman and the Truman Doctrine.
David Newstead: But a modern rendition of that?
David Crane: Yeah. Whether we like it or not, we’re at a very fascinating and interesting time and both of us in different disciplines are a part of this. And it’s going to be fascinating to see how this evolves. I don’t have a cornerstone by which I can rely on and take my answers to you based on that, because there’s no cornerstones anymore. Everything is being questioned and challenged.
David Newstead: In your view, what’s behind this rise of populism internationally and the “Strong Man” figure common to many of these movements?
David Crane: Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing. This isn’t just a U.S. thing. I mean, it’s happening across all of Western democracies. And it’s that we have just been complacent in our democratic processes. We were just almost prefunctionally moving democracy forward in these countries, which had begun to drift from the general populace from which they are elected. What caused the spark, which started this low-burning bush fire, is the Great Recession. People were directly affected personally: job loss, concern about the future, loss of houses, etc. They began to become angry and lashed out particularly as democracies failed them.
Remember back in 2008 how excited we were around this time? Barack Obama had been elected and it just seemed like the world was brighter. Truly, there was hope. Boy, that has faded and I think everybody is just disappointed. Even some of us who are more establishment oriented, even we began to go “Are these really the best candidates that we can offer out of all the talent that’s in this country?” And so we see the same kind of thinking in Great Britain, in France, and even in Germany now. And of course, last month in Italy. In the Philippines, etc. The “Common Man” is just pissed off and he’s getting even. He’s shaking things up. I think this is a trend that will go on for years.
And in some ways, it’s a backlash to the rapid global development of the world. When the Berlin Wall came down, everybody was thrilled with the idea of a global village. Remember that term? We embraced it. At the end of the day, we’ll all go back to this more global approach to life, because our entire information and financial systems are now global. We can’t go back. Tariffs and those kind of things would be too disruptive. It used to be that tariffs were cyclical and affected goods and services from one country to another. But now, raising tariffs and increasing the costs of trade on a nationalistic basis is just bad for business. It affects everybody. So, we’re going to have these spikes that we’re seeing and this nationalistic trend is going to fly in the face of it. But at the end of the day, it’s just a practical reality that we are now global anyway. The United States or France or Great Britain can’t turn back internally to an industrial age mentality of nationalism. It just doesn’t work anymore. We’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid and we’re all a part of it now. We’re not going to see things like World War 3, because anybody who does something stupid in a cyber war or a nuclear attack their economy fails as well. Their destroying their own country regardless of their intent. In the information age, conflict is bad for business. In the industrial age, conflict was good for business, but those are days past.
It’s a fascinating thing. Russia is really kind of the beginning of that. For political reasons, Putin is doing these 1950s-style nationalistic policies that make him very popular at home. But at the end of the day, Putin realizes he really can’t do what he would really like to do, because we are all global now. His entire country is tied to the global financial and information systems. And his country would fail if he broke off from that.
David Newstead: Since you mention Russia, I wanted to ask about your current work. How do you think Russia’s recent decision to leave the International Criminal Court will impact the investigation and future prosecution of Syrian war crimes?
David Crane: We’re still continuing to investigate. Nothing changed in that respect. I think the Syrian conflict will continue until Russia allows Assad to win the war or at least militarily bring it to a point where it doesn’t make sense anymore. Now, they’ll be ruling over a completely devastated piece of Earth, but Russia isn’t leaving. Russia will not pull out of Syria until Assad wins. So, that could be next week. That could be five years from now. There’s nothing the U.S. can do to stop it other than this strange bromance that’s going on between Putin and Trump. If for some strange reason, Trump says “Let’s go get drunk somewhere and hash this out,” and everybody sits down at the table and stops the war. And we throw the rebels off the boat. I don’t see this ending well. It’s just a matter of when.
I’ve coined this term called Kaleidoscopic Conflict where we have a new kind of paradigm and Syria is one of these situations. For the first time, we cannot use our old planning processes to predict outcomes. We don’t know anything. No one can advise the President of the United States as to what we should do or what’s going to happen in Syria, because no one knows. Because if one thing changes, everything changes. We’re starting to enter into a geopolitical circumstance where we can no longer restore international peace and security as we’ve tried in the past under the UN paradigm. We’re reaching a point on various parts of the planet where we can only manage international peace and security. To use an analogy, the situation in Syria is like a cancer. If managed, the person can live a generally normal life. So we can manage the disease, but we can’t get rid of it. Same thing with Syria. We can’t solve Syria, but we can try to manage Syria to the point that it doesn’t spread to other parts of the world. And keeping Israel out of this, which is the ignored and unknown part of the conflict. As we all know, Israel has bright red lines in the sand and if you step over them, they don’t ask anymore. They just launch.
We have to manage Syria now, we’ll never solve Syria. In a world where we try to solve everything, particularly in Type-A Washington D.C., that’s anathema to anybody’s thinking. I’ve mentioned this in public and given speeches on it. I’ve said “Gosh, I’d love to solve Syria. But tell me how do we solve Syria?” And of course, they can’t answer, because there is no solution at this point. To show you how absurd this is, we are allied with Syria and Russia to fight ISIS. But yet we’re also sending money and personnel to fight Syria by supporting the rebels. We’re actually working with and working against the same person. That’s absurd.
David Newstead: I just feel like, you know, the Syrian conflict led to the migrant crisis, which influenced all these elections. And it all interrelates and it’s very complicated and really dark.
David Crane: Oh, it is. You’ve got the middle class and the lower class who have been affected by a Great Recession, who are trying to just get basic services. And all of a sudden, the country is letting in a million refugees and giving them more than they are getting. And all of a sudden, they’re choking on it. You know, European liberalism and progressivism went out the window when this wave of human beings with a great deal of hope showed up at their doors.
David Newstead: As we wrap things up, I’m curious. For people who work in human rights and for people who support human rights, where do we go from here and what do you think people should do in the interim?
David Crane: Well, continue what we’re doing. But also in the business that we’re in, there are a lot of altruists. They’re always out there trying to buy the world a coke and make them live in harmony. I’m the complete opposite. I’m a practical, hard-nosed person who has a goal in mind, but realizes that I have to do it from a practical point of view. We just have to look for places and spaces where we can affect policy in the new administration and make them see that this is good for America. But just coming in with your hair on fire, screaming “This isn’t right! These people have a right to do XYZ!” As we say in North Carolina, that dog isn’t going to hunt. You’ve got to come in and show them practically why this makes sense, why this is good for America, and why we should continue to do this. Speak their language. Don’t sit there and be arrogant or think that these people are cretins and that they’re just a flash in the pan. So, I’ve been advising others. I’m on a couple of boards of some big human rights organizations. And I’ve been telling them to stop running around with their hair on fire and sit down and think about what we can do to start developing contacts and have a voice in appropriate places to continue our work.
Now I think people are starting to calm down a little bit more. And I think more reasonable voices are starting to echo that it is what it is. Let’s figure out strategies and policies by which we can have a voice where that makes sense. But not stop what we’re doing! This is a political event, not a world changing paradigm. You know, we have a politician who has now been elected for four years. They come and go, but our work never ends.
By David Michael Newstead.
In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev discusses his nine years working in reality TV in Moscow. It’s a place where beautiful gold diggers who never knew their fathers dream of meeting a rich husband, ex-gangsters become local heroes who direct action movies, and religious cults try to warp the minds of their followers to an absurd degree. But as he looked deeper, the British producer finds the scripted reality of television merging with the scripted reality of authoritarian politics into something new and frightening.
The book opens with Pomerantsev reflecting on his time in Moscow.
“Performance” was the city’s buzzword, a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin, Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints. Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just on glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable. “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known,” Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe would tell me. He was a performance artist and the city’s mascot, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. When I first landed in Moscow I thought these infinite transformations the expression of a country liberated, pulling on different costumes in a frenzy of freedom, pushing the limits of personality as far as it could possibly go to what the President’s vizier would call “the heights of creation.” It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”
The author discovers how control of the media, particularly of television, allows for Orwellian levels of manipulation over the truth, creating phantom threats to the country and phantom supermen to defend it. And on TV channels like RT, journalism and propaganda go hand in hand, while every political voice seems to just be playing a part in some stage production mimicking a democracy. In particular, Pomerantsev focuses on key Kremlin spin doctor, Vladislav Surkov, as he churns out post-apocalyptic novels and discusses art ad nauseam, while simultaneously orchestrating the elaborate political theatre in Russia as well as the wave of propaganda that engulfed neighboring Ukraine. Of other politicians like Surkov, Pomerantsev writes:
Glance through the careers of these new religious patriots, and you find they were recently committed democrats and liberals, pro-Western, preaching modernization, innovation, and commitment to Russia’s European course, before which they were all good Communists. And though on the one hand their latest incarnations are just new acts in the Moscow political cabaret, something about their delivery is different from the common Russian political performer who gives his rants with a knowing wink and nod. Now the delivery is somewhat deadpan. Flat and hollowed-eyed, as if they have been turned and twisted in so many ways they’ve spun right off the whirligig into something clinical.
The Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-wing nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the Far Left is co-opted with tales of fighting US hegemony; US religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support, all broadcast on RT.
But behind that curtain of misinformation, Pomerantsev details a system that robs owners of their businesses, proliferates corruption at all levels, and embezzles massive wealth right out of the country into the welcoming arms of Swiss and British banks. Eventually, the author returns to London only to find it inhabited by many of the Russian oligarchs and supermodels he thought he left behind in Moscow. Dismayed, Pomerantsev learns of a young tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky who died horribly in a Russian prison for exposing a corruption scheme: money that eventually made its way to safe havens in the West. And in an excruciatingly relevant interview, he quotes Magnitsky’s former boss, Jamison Firestone, on the changes already in progress.
London shocked me. The whole system is built around wanting that money to come here. We want their money. We want their trade. And now you’ve got former German chancellor Schroeder and Lord Mandelson and Lord So-and-So working for these Russian state companies, and you know I think they should just be honest and say ‘some Kremlin company offered me 500,000 to sit on their board and I don’t do anything and I don’t know anything about how the company is run but sometimes they ask me to open some doors.’ And the argument I hear from everyone is ‘well if the money doesn’t go here it will go somewhere else’: well here ain’t going to be here if you take that attitude, here is going to be there. We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end point of evolution, and we’re dealing from a position of strength, and people are becoming like us. It’s not that way. Because if you think this thing we have here isn’t fragile you are kidding yourself. This,” and here Jamison takes a breath and waves his hand around to denote Maida Vale, London, the whole of Western civilization, “this is fragile.”
Timely and ominous, the book is a must-read and perhaps a warning of things to come.
By David Michael Newstead.
The Washington Post once called Richard Pipes one of America’s great historians. Pipes served on the National Security Council in the Reagan administration and did analysis for the CIA. Now a professor emeritus at Harvard University, his books include Russia Under the Old Regime, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, and Communism: A History. Today, Richard Pipes joins me to discuss the upcoming centennial of the Russian Revolution and the unusual state of U.S.-Russia relations in 2016.
David Newstead: How do you think the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution should be marked?
Richard Pipes: Of course, there were two revolutions in 1917. I would mark the February-March one with great ceremony, but I would totally ignore the October-November Revolution. The February Revolution was a democratic revolution accomplished by the population at large. And the October Revolution was a conspiracy and a seizure of power.
David Newstead: Is the world still feeling the impacts of that seizure of power?
Richard Pipes: For almost three quarters of a century the world felt it very, very powerfully. The Twentieth century was very much dominated by the Soviet Union and its actions. Today, no. Today, it’s pretty much history.
David Newstead: So, do you feel there’s any significance to Russian President Vladimir Putin being a former agent of the KGB?
Richard Pipes: Yes. He is not fit to be a democratic leader. A democratic leader listens to the population and does what the population commands. He is still mentally and psychologically very much of the Soviet mold.
David Newstead: What do you think is often misunderstood about the October Revolution that people should remember today?
Richard Pipes: People should remember that the Cold War and a great deal that happened in the Twentieth century was due to that. And it was all evil. And the only good thing about the Bolsheviks was that they created a regime that could resist the Nazis when they invaded them. And that was one great solid achievement of Bolshevism. Otherwise, I see nothing but evil.
David Newstead: In light of that, do you think Vladimir Lenin’s body should still be on display in Moscow?
Richard Pipes: No, he definitely should be removed.
David Newstead: You’ve also done a great deal of research on Russia under the Tsar. I’m curious what you think Tsar’s legacy is a hundred years after his downfall?
Richard Pipes: It’s ancient history, of course. But the legacy of the Tsars and of all previous Russian governments was that democracy was not good for Russia. And that Russia needs a strong ruler, even if he rules in an autocratic manner. And that is very deeply ensconced in the Russian political culture.
David Newstead: You were in the Reagan administration for a time. Do you feel the Reagan administration offers any lessons on how America should deal with Russia today?
Richard Pipes: No, because the situation is very different. When Reagan was in the White House, the Cold War was on. There’s no Cold War today. I mean, our relations with Russia are not terribly good, because of Putin and the administration. But it is not as dangerous as it was then.
David Newstead: I’m curious if you have any views on the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election right now?
Richard Pipes: Well, yes. They are participating in it. In my view, the Russians are friendly to a very bad candidate. Trump, if he’s elected, would be a disaster. And Trump is friendly to Putin and Putin is friendly to Trump and that’s not good. I hope that Russia changes its attitude to the rest of the world – that it becomes more cooperative and less hostile. But I am not very optimistic that this will happen.
David Newstead: It seems like Russian politics have been going in a bad direction for some time now…
Richard Pipes: It goes back to authoritarianism and hostility to the rest of the world. I’m afraid it is so. And I hope it will change, but I’m not very optimistic.
By David Michael Newstead.
Next year marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution and to reflect on the significance of those events I reached out to historian Peter Kenez. Kenez is a professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Cruz where he specializes in Russian history and the history of Eastern Europe. His books include The Birth of the Propaganda State, Varieties of Fear: Growing up Jewish under Nazism and Communism, and A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Recently, Professor Kenez joined me for an in-depth discussion on Russian history, politics, and propaganda.
David Newstead: There’s a new edition of one of your books coming out entitled The Soviet Union and Its Legacy. What are some of the main points of that legacy?
Peter Kenez: As far as the world is concerned, it’s one thing. And as far as the Russian people are concerned, it’s another thing. That is, the Russian people remember Stalin. A large number of them remember him very fondly, because Russia was propelled to be one of the two great powers. However silly it is, people do derive pleasure from being citizens of a major power. And that is what the Russian people today recall as the legacy of the Soviet Union. Namely, that “We were respected!” And people want to be respected. As far as the world is concerned, it was a great blow against Marxist ideology. People identify the Soviet experiment quite wrongly with Socialism of any kind. And that obviously is false on the face of it.
David Newstead: So, the Socialism of the British, the Swedish, and Bernie Sanders doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Socialism of the Soviet Union?
Peter Kenez: Certainly not!
David Newstead: One thing I did want to ask concerns your book The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization. Do you see any similarities between the propaganda techniques pioneered by the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago and the techniques of modern Russian?
Peter Kenez: No, I don’t. There are two kinds of historians: those who see patterns all the time and those to whom every event seems as something new. Now, obviously the similarities are always there. But how much stress are we going to put on it? My sense is that looking for the similarities is likely to confuse us, because our task is to look at the work as is. We should understand how effective propaganda can be and what are effective propaganda means.
Yes, obviously the Soviets were pathbreakers inasmuch as they believed that they were in possession of a blueprint for a perfect society. Consequently, for them to try to advocate for that blueprint seemed like a noble undertaking. So in their understanding, propaganda was not a dirty word.
Now, I think the power of propaganda goes only so far. What I mean by this is, it depends on your target audience. There is an audience that finds an appeal in what Donald Trump says. That doesn’t mean that he’s a superb propagandist. It means that he stands for something which resonates in the soul of many. So to ask “Who is the better propagandist?” it is pretty much an impossible question to me, because it does matter on your target audience.
In the Soviet case, this was not an issue. Because the success of Soviet propaganda was their ability to suppress every opposing point of view. This kind of approach to propaganda in the modern United States does not exist. And as far as I can tell in the foreseeable future, it could not exist. In Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Russia, it was easy to be a propagandist, because anybody who wanted to shout “What you are saying is silly. It’s not true!” was hit over the head. And that was that. It’s not that they were such clever propagandists. They had the means to suppress every opposing point of view. You know, it’s not that they hit on some brilliant ways to influence the human soul.
By the way, the Soviets were always convinced that the Americans in particular were much better than they were at spreading their message. But everybody thinks that the other side is the better propagandist. The reason for that is because as we live we find that people see the world differently and how can that be? How can that be that people don’t see what I see? The answer to this is, “Because they have been misled by propaganda!” And everybody always thinks that the other side is better at propaganda than their own side. The Russians were convinced that the Americans were very clever.
David Newstead: How does the Putin regime fit that description?
Peter Kenez: To be sure, the current Russian state has the means to achieve not complete uniformity and not a complete monopoly when expressing their views. But at the same time, what Putin has to say is that “We have been humiliated by the West!” This finds an echo in the current Russian soul. It’s not that they’ve been so clever as propagandists, but what Putin has to sell means something to the Russian people.
What is striking to me is how great a rebellion there is in the modern world against liberalism and Putin is not standing alone. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the regime in Poland, Erdoğan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel, the close results of elections in Austria. And Trump seems to be a parody of all that. But nonetheless, it’s a parody of something which is an international phenomenon. What I am saying is that Putin is not standing alone. It’s not that there is something called Putinism that is so extraordinary. It’s not attractive mind you. I mean, I’m no fan. But there is so much that is unattractive in much the same way: nativism, suspicion of foreigners, rebellion against liberalism, craving for identity. Brexit is another example. And Trump fits into this as a parody, but a parody of something that is genuine. I just saw the polls today as I was coming in here and Trump has something to sell. It’s not that he’s so clever as a propagandist. He represents something that reverberates in the soul of man.
David Newstead: Probably not our better angels.
Peter Kenez: We agree.
David Newstead: What’s the historical significance of a former agent of the KGB leading Russia? Recently, a harsh anti-terrorism law was passed there. And, of course, there’s the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party in America. Do these things relate to his background in your view?
Peter Kenez: I think that Putin was an ordinary Soviet man and his work for the KGB matters little.
David Newstead: Because a lot of your research has focused on Southern Russia and Ukraine, have you been paying attention to the current conflict there?
Peter Kenez: Very much so. I just wrote for the new edition new chapters on Putin and there, of course, Crimea comes up. What gave Russians today trouble was not the Ukrainians in Crimea, because there’s a rather small Ukrainian minority in Crimea. But in the Donbass region! The main reason that Putin found it necessary to take Crimea was that he assumed for good reasons that the lease for Sevastopol would not be renewed in 2017, which is the only base for the Russian Navy on the Black Sea. So, it had far reaching consequences.
David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I’m curious. Is the world still feeling the impacts of the Russian Revolution? And if so, how?
Peter Kenez: Every great historical event changes the world. The French Revolution changed the world. Hitler coming to power changed the world. In that sense, the Russian Revolution changed the world. There are continuities and there are abrupt changes. In the case of Russian history, the continuities are striking. But so are the changes followed by the Russian Revolution of 1917.
I do think that the 1917 Revolution was surely one of the great events of the 20th century. I cannot imagine Hitler coming to power without the Russian Revolution. I think that the German’s fear of Marxism and Communism was a major source of Hitler’s strength. This more than anything else enabled Hitler to come to power. And anti-Bolshevism was, of course, a main plank in his ideology. Without the Russian Revolution, that’s difficult to conceive.
This is not to blame Lenin for Hitler, but things are connected. You know, the famous Butterfly Effect of a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia and from this such and such things follow… The Russian Revolution was more than a butterfly. So, I don’t think that anybody would dispute that Nazism and Communism fed on one another, which is not to say that Nazism is like Communism or that there’s nothing to distinguish them. But the great communist appeal in the 1930s and, indeed during the Second World War, was precisely that the Soviet Union was the main bulwark against Nazism.
Let us just say, yes. The Russian Revolution was enormously significant. And even though after seventy years the Soviet Union disappeared, that does not mean it has not changed the world.
David Newstead: You’re well-known for writing several histories of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. And I wanted to ask your view on the legacy of the Whites and their relevance today?
Peter Kenez: Well, the interesting thing is those people who want to highlight the Whites in Russian history also look favorably on Stalin. The logic being, they wanted to make us great, they stood for Russia, and Stalin stood for Russia. So, you can have the White leader Denikin as a hero and Stalin as a hero at the same time. Obviously, what the Whites stood for has no future and they are really a throwback to a previous era anachronistic in the modern world. But inasmuch as they were passionate nationalists, they have an appeal. I mean, Denikin fought a war against Georgia, which was absurd. It was absurd given the fact that he also had to fight the Red Army!
David Newstead: One book I read said that the Reds outnumbered the Whites ten-to-one or something to that effect.
Peter Kenez: The Reds mobilized more people, it is true. They occupied more territory. The White Armies were much better led and much better organized. If a White Army and a Red Army met on the battlefield and they were the same size, the Whites were likely to win. And a large number of Red Army soldiers never ever saw combat.
Obviously, the Reds won. But it was not pre-determined. The Whites had things going for them, but they had more things against them since they lost. They were divided geographically. Their policy concerning the peasants was very stupid. If the peasants occupied land, the Whites took it back and returned to the landlords. Therefore, the peasants liked the Whites less than the liked the Reds and that’s very important. Anti-Semitism was also a great force for the Whites. Hatred of Jews and communists was a very powerful propaganda message for the Whites. And for Hitler, for that matter.
David Newstead: Tying the two together, I’ve heard the White Army loosely described as a proto-fascist movement.
Peter Kenez: Again, I shy away from comparisons. We have such a tendency to describe anything that we don’t like as fascist and that’s not very helpful for understanding the nature of that group. They were royalists. They wanted to bring back the old regime. And that’s not what fascism stood for. I mean, that they were anti-Semitic… Well, most people were anti-Semitic then. That’s not enough to make them fascists. To be sure, there is a continuity. Some of these White leaders ended up in Nazi Germany and contributed to their cause during the Second World War and they had a role to play. But in my mind, it’s not helpful to describe them as fascists. Resisting the modern age? Yes. Anti-Bolsheviks? Of course.
David Newstead: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Peter Kenez: You know, many people have made the point that the 20th century was from 1917 to 1991 in accordance with the existence of the Soviet Union. That is, the 19th century ended with the First World War and a new era started with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States becoming the only superpower. This century included the two world wars, included Nazism, included Communism, included all sorts of exciting moments.
By David Michael Newstead.
Winter is Coming is a call to action by chess champion Garry Kasparov. As a prominent opposition activist and former presidential candidate, Kasparov has unique insights into Russian politics and a bitter disdain for the Putin regime, calling Vladimir Putin a “shadow of a man”. In his new book, Kasparov lays out Russia’s recent history with a mixture of observations, pointed criticism, and details on his life experience from the breakup of the Soviet Union to the present.
This includes major events like Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996 as well as things that only proved to be significant in retrospect. Namely, the rise of President Putin and the steady rollback of Russia’s democratic reforms. Kasparov then outlines how the Putin regime “moved from being an ideologically agnostic kleptocracy to using blatantly fascist propaganda and tactics.” Here’s an excerpt.
In Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton includes in his concise definition “the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.” The myth of Russian humiliation at Western, especially American, hands fits the victimhood model perfectly. The false narrative that Russia is surrounded by enemies who are intent on holding it back fills Putin’s need for fuel for his increasingly fascist propaganda.
And although he goes on to label Putin’s Russia as the biggest and most dangerous threat facing the world today, Kasparov offers numerous criticisms of Western governments for their mistakes, inaction, and naive hopes that repressive leaders can be charmed into changing for the better. His solution is to isolate dictatorships around the world and to keep human rights at the center of our policies or risk reliving the outcomes of appeasement.
Throughout the book, Kasparov’s views are passionate and uncompromising. Whether they are actually correct, only time will tell.