Are Sanctions Working?

Define Working? 

I accidentally turned my car radio on AM and found myself listening to an edition of Encounter on Voice of America that was discussing the efficacy of US policy towards Russia (click here for the link)… “My this is awfully convenient.” It was a nice ride home.

War is a nasty business. Modern warfare doubly so. Maybe that is why the West relies on sanctions as a means of subduing nations we deem as rouges. We have used them against N. Korea, Iraq, Iran, and, most recently, Russia. Economic sanctions, such as embargoes, are relatively potent in an age of economic globalization. States can also be diplomatically sanctioned by being removed from or have their roles reduced within certain IGOs. Why are sanctions put into place?

1. To dissuade a state from undertaking certain actions, such as harassing a neighbor or developing nuclear weapons
2. To cripple a state’s capabilities to perform these actions
3. To pillory a state and reduce their standing  and prestige in the world
4. To create domestic hardships among the state so as to make citizens of these states less supportive of their leaders and more revolutionary (neoliberals love this one…)
5. To save face and show commitment
6. To prevent a situation from growing worse: 
this was one of the interesting points brought up in Encounter and is probably the most effective consequence of sanctions. Sanctions may not fix situations but they at least force the sanctioned state to pause before making additional moves.
7. Deterring other states from acting out

Having studied the Cuban Missile Crisis I understand and respect the logic of sanctions. You are passing on the burden of decision to your opponent and giving them the chance to make the right choices and redeem themselves or else face continued withering. The West has a tendency to love sanctions, in part because the West has enough stability to sacrifice some economic activity to achieve political goals, but I tend to disagree with their efficacy. Most American’s seem to agree with me, disliking the indirect course sanctions offer. It should be noted that Putin’s Russia has a tendency to employ sanctions against Eastern European states who rely on Russia for natural gas.

We have a pretty long history of sanctioning Russia. Efforts were made to restrict trade with the Soviets in the 1920s although investment occurred regardless. The Cold War resulted in the formation of separate and somewhat isolated economic blocs (the Soviets had COMECON [sounds like Comic-Con]). We  did not extend Marshal Plan support to the Soviets when they requested it. The United States was later more willing to trade with the Soviets in the 1970s although there were still certain reservations. For instance, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment put economic pressure on Russia for not letting Soviet Jews emigrate to Israel. It would eventually have some impact and bring about results, although certainly not immediately.

There have been quite a few sanctions erected against Russia in the last few years. The Magnitsky Sanctions were levied against Russian elites in response to their presumed involvement in the death of the titular Magnitsky. Recently there have been prominent US and EU sanctions against Russia as punishment for the latter’s involvement in Ukraine. Russia’s active role in the NATO-Russia Council has been suspended while Russia has also been removed from the G-8. Putin has generally opted for a tit-for-tat strategy. The Magnitsky Sanctions likely inspired Putin to ban US adoption of Russian orphans in 2012. In response to economic pressure in 2014 and 2015 Putin has put several economic barriers up against the West.

Regardless Putin is generally presumed to have the weaker hand. Sanctions have hit the Russian economy hard and the second half of 2014 was a merry-go-round of ruble inflation. Of course no one seems to be sure if this was the result of sanctions or the devaluation of oil caused by Saudi Arabia flooding the market, so who knows. Oil prices have gone up and Putin’s predictions of doom and gloom in last year’s State of the Union seem to have been avoided. Russia seems to have bounced back slightly although the standard of living has certainly taken a hit. Will sanctions be effective? Who really knows. According to Encounter they will be in the long run, although this is a big “if”; EU members need to vote unanimously for the application of sanctions, a unity which is looking increasingly tenuous.

I don’t really believe that sanctions will be all that effective. In some ways they may even be exacerbating the issue:

1. Sanctions do not undo what is already done. Putin has Crimea and Ukraine has been temporarily prevented from joining NATO or the EU. If these were his goals he has already won. Sanctions may restrain and weaken him, but he likely would have been weaker if he had simply given up they key Russian naval base at Sevastopol (Russia’s lease on this would have expired in 2017). Putin weighed the costs and benefits and did what he set out to do.
2. Sanctions strengthen resolve. Putin is a well-known macho man (muzhik). Saddam and Kim Jong-Il, among other leaders of sanctioned countries, also try to project this tough guy image (although lets face it Putin does it best). If you slap them and tell them to back down do you really think they are going to? They are just going to become more unruly. To step down would betray the nationalism on which their regimes are built. Stepping down is never an option.
3. Sanctions hurt citizens most. Feminist IR theorists are especially big on this point, and for good reason. States that are sanctioned are usually fairly corrupt, meaning that elites can adapt while burdens are shifted onto citizens. Small business owners are hurt. Iraqi mothers can’t receive adequate healthcare for their children. North Koreans starve and die. Iranian teenagers suddenly find that they are unable to log into World of Warcraft. Far from hating your corrupt regime, citizens may just hate the nation levying sanctions, thus perpetuating a siege mentality and further building nationalist resolve. Targeted sanctions levied against elites may be more effective and humane, especially in a country like Russia where elites has inordinate power and influence. Of course, does it really matter if you are barred from entering the United States when you can just stay in Russia and swim in a bathtub full of rubles a la Scrooge McDuck?
4. Sanctions disrupt economic activity on both sides. Not only are businesses in the targeted country hurt, but businesses in nations levying sanctions are hurt. German companies in particular are being hit by the sanctions and counter-sanctions which is putting Chancellor Merkel in an increasingly awkward position. Sanctions become unpopular and ineffective in such circumstances. If you can’t ensure that they are maintained then they lose a great deal of teeth.
5. People are already used to hardship. N. Korean’s have it rough regardless of whether or not sanctions are in place. Anyone who study Russian history and literature will be happy to remind you that the Russian’s have an unparalleled ability to take abuse. What is the last year in comparison to the economic collapse of the 1990s which saw a decline in the Russian standard of living only surpassed by the decline following the Great Patriotic War and/or the Russian Civil War. Some optimists point to growing protests and labour strikes that have appeared in Russia but these seem unlikely to change anything. A strong middle class never really appeared in Russia, and therefore there are few people who would be willing to become politically radical in order to save what they have.
6. Diplomatic Sanctions Undermine International Cooperation. If you are going to humiliate and marginalize a country they will almost certainly be less cooperative on other critical issues such as counter-terrorism. Russia has had its active involvement in the NATO-Russia Council suspended. I can only assume that this means that Russia and NATO are no longer engaging in the sharing of air traffic information (the Cooperative Airspace Initiative). This gravely undermines Eurasian security, especially at a time when terrorism is highly active due to the rise of the ISIS. Incidentally this only gives more fuel for Russia to use against the West; Sergei Lavrov has said on several occasions that the West is placing a premium on political issues at the expense of real issues.
7. Diplomatic Sanctions only go so far. Applying diplomatic pressure to Iraq and N. Korea is fairly simple. For Russia diplomatic pressure is just a slap on the wrist. Nothing can wrest the Permanent Seat on the Security Council from Russia. Is it even feasible to apply diplomatic sanctions to states so embedded in the international system?

So are sanctions working? Who knows? We will never really know until they work or fail. Who knows when that might be? Personally I don’t think they are working and I don’t think they will ever work. Putin has enough popularity and control, and Russia enough economic vitality, to keep trudging on through sanctions. He likely believes, as I do, that Russia can outlast the unanimously supported sanctions put into place by the EU. Putin rose to power on nationalism and for his firm stance against the West. Sanctions are likely just making him stronger and more influential than ever by confirming the fears of the West among the people that he has played on. At the same time though, and this is yet another major point of discussion on Encounter, Putin has not taken every possible step in Ukraine. He has paused and blinked at times where he could have taken decisive action. Sanctions at the very least make effective damage control, but they are all for nothing if they cannot be followed up by a more effective, firm, and consistent foreign policy. Of course, it is hard to imagine what such a policy would look like. The same logic of the old Churchill quote rings true here: sanctions are the worst possible instrument of foreign policy except for all the others…

22 June 1941: Stalin Takes a Holiday

June 22nd is an important date. It is my birthday. It is also the day when the Nazi’s commenced their invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. Barbarossa was the largest military invasion in history. The Eastern Front, which can be best described as hell on earth, stretched over a thousand miles. In general the German’s had three objectives: conquer Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. A northern campaign held Leningrad under siege for 900 days. The Nazi’s came within 40 miles of Moscow but were unable to take it. They actually managed to enter Stalingrad but lost the brutal urban battle that followed and, as a consequence, the war. In retrospect the Nazi invasion seemed doomed to fail, but it was very nearly successful. It wasn’t until 1943 that the Soviets were able to turn the tide. Anyone watching the opening battles of the Eastern Front would have bet on the Nazis. Hitler was almost correct in his famous prediction of how the invasion would go: You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” Hitler was partly correct. A significant portion of the “rotten structure” did collapse. Hitler failed to predict that the structure would collapse on top of him.

Why was this opening move so devastating? Thus far I have talked little of Stalin, which is remarkable given his impact on Soviet history. Kenez (2006) wrote that Stalin was the centerpiece of Soviet history: he was the product of the revolution, he presided over the USSR’s key years, and all subsequent leaders constantly wrestled with the legacy of Stalin and his methods. Stalin was often attributed with the success of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Many Soviet citizens loved him and Ally propaganda always spoke favourably of him. It was not until 1956 that people began to question his role in the war.

The power accumulated in the hands of one person, Stalin, led to serious consequences during the Great Patriotic War.

When we look at many of our novels, films and historical-scientific studies, the role of Stalin in the Patriotic War appears to be entirely improbable. Stalin had foreseen everything. The Soviet Army, on the basis of a strategic plan prepared by Stalin long before, used the tactics of so-called “active defense,” i.e., tactics which, as we know, allowed the Germans to come up to Moscow and Stalingrad. Using such tactics, the Soviet Army, supposedly thanks only to Stalin’s genius, turned to the offensive and subdued the enemy. The epic victory gained through the armed might of the land of the Soviets, through our heroic people, is ascribed in this type of novel, film and “scientific study” as being completely due to the strategic genius of Stalin.

We have to analyze this matter carefully because it has a tremendous significance not only from the historical, but especially from the political, educational and practical points of view. What are the facts of this matter? (Khrushchev 1956, Secret Speech taken from 

Khrushchev goes on to list all the failures of Stalin during the war. The Vozhd remained willfully ignorant of fore-warnings of the war. He hindered the Soviet war effort by purging military leaders years before. He did not adequately ensure that troops were provided for. During the battle of Kharkiv Stalin’s ignorance led to the unnecessary deaths of many Soviet soldiers. Khrushchev is fair to make these critiques of Stalin since he was actually the Party presence on the battlefield. Khrushchev, who was closely tied to Ukraine, was usually on the front lines. He was also present at Stalingrad. He had indirectly prepared for the coming War: in the 1930s when the Moscow Metro was being built it was his idea to make the subway’s deeper so that they could double as bomb shelters. Khrushchev frequently challenged Stalin’s orders, and it was Khrushchev who had called the Kremlin to try to save the aforementioned soldiers at Kharkiv. Stalin couldn’t be bothered to answer the phone. Stalin was never at the front (although he did stay at Moscow when the Nazi’s approached). Stalin apparently also planned out military operations on a globe. While some of this is likely embellished by Khrushchev in the Secret Speech and in his memoirs as a ploy to win legitimacy, historians generally agree that Stalin was completely unprepared for World War II and mishandled it.

Most egregiously, Stalin took a vacation. When he learned of the invasion Stalin retreated to his dacha and drank heavily for several days. Nobody heard from him. Imagine building an autocratic dictatorship only to abandon ship when it needed you most.

So lets take a time machine back to 1941. Actually we’ll have to visit some points before this as well. Lets figure out exactly what resulted in Stalin’s handling of 22 June 1941. Why did he go have a drunken cry fest? Was Stalin an effective war leader? This is one of the prickliest subjects of Soviet history. Most mainstream scholars will likely say “NO.” Stalinists, students, some scholars, and history buffs will be inclined to say “SURE.” Plenty of people like to apologize for Stalin. The Soviet Union emerged as a superpower under his rule, so he must have done well. He was serving history! He was a brutal dictator, he could not have been as stupid as the evidence suggests. I myself am not sure of what went on. Scarily enough there is an argument to be made that Stalin actually handled WWII intelligently for his own purposes. Did Stalin use the war as a means of building his own power? A lot of layman may see it this way but scholars are less inclined to make such judgments. Stalin may have been a mad dictator but he was not stupid and he was absolutely committed to Marxism-Leninism and believed he was serving that (this too is a very controversial point). I am going to present what I see as the major events leading up to the war and indications of Stalin’s worldview. Only then can we properly assess the events of 22 June 1941. I will divide arguments into two categories: skeptic and apologist. Please note that these don’t necessarily correspond to academic or Communist views, I am just trying to present views. At times we may find that both sides are inadequate. This is an exercise in straw-men of course, but hopefully we will learn something.

1) Marxist-Leninist Worldview

First we are going to actually look at a specific event of 22 June 1941. After learning of the invasion Khrushchev alleges that Stalin withdrew into apathy, isolation, and alcoholism for several weeks. Apparently he had declared to the Politburo: “Lenin left us a great legacy and we’ve lost it forever.” Historical assessments lend credence to Khrushchev although it should be noted that Stalin’s actual quote used the Russian equivalent of the F-word. The reason I have this first in the list, and apparently in violation of chronology, is because it is a matter of worldview. Many people use Stalin’s withdraw to say that he was totally unprepared for the war and that he didn’t expect it.

In reality Stalin was expecting war at some point. It was part of his Marxist-Leninist heritage which stipulated that Imperialist (read: Capitalist) countries would inevitably start wars as they struggled for markets. Stalin’s perception of conflict as inevitable drove him to adopt a policy of Socialism in One Country which saw the Soviet Union turn inwards and focus intensely on development. This gave birth to the Five Year Plans. Stalin’s concerns of war are visible in many speeches he gave.

The majority of the questions boil down to one: shall we have war this year, in the spring or autumn of this year?

My reply is that we shall not have war this year, neither in the spring nor in the autumn.

The reason we shall not have war this year is not that there is no danger at all of imperialist wars. No, the danger of war exists. There will be no war this year because our enemies are not ready to go to war, because they more than anyone else fear the outcome of a war, because the workers of the West do not want to fight the U.S.S.R., and to fight without the workers is impossible, and, lastly, because we are conducting a firm and unwavering policy of peace, and this fact makes it difficult to make war on our country (Stalin, 1927 Speech to railway workers)

Wait was Stalin a pacifist? This seems awfully un-paranoid of him. Well wait. A later speech that same year clarifies his position. During the 20s Capitalism was stabilising. This stabilisation was fleeting however, and the Vozhd predicted that Capitalism would eventually contort into crisis that would lead to wars (Stalin 1927, 15th Congress Party Speech). Stalin used this fear to justify his Five Year Plan and crash course industrialization. He used The Great Depression would fulfill Stalin’s prophesy of crisis, although whatever pride Stalin may have had in predicting its onset would be buried under the fear of conflict. Luckily Stalin was quite assured that the Soviet Union had at least bought itself some time. In a 1933 speech extolling the success of the First Five Year Plan Stalin said that the Soviet Union had adequately laid a strong foundation for defense against the capitalist powers which, by that time, were in crisis. The Soviet Union made it through the Depression relatively unscathed: their policy of inward development gave them some of the best growth in the world. How does this relate to 22 June?

Skeptic: Stalin was unprepared for War. His stressing of war merely created a crisis atmosphere that he could use to inspire industrialization and create a climate of fear that he could take advantage of. It was a smokescreen, not an actually policy. Stalin was not actually worried about war.

Apologist: Stalin predicted WWII and was preparing for it. His Marxist-Leninist training imbued him with a need to prepare for inevitable conflict and the events of the 1930s show it. (Incidentally I hear mention of a source written in 1931 where Stalin predicts war 10 years later. I have yet to find this source but it may be out there.

Verdict 1: We may reject the skeptic view with qualifications. Stalin was most likely prepared for war but he did use the fear of war to drive industrialization and promote his own power base. It seems like we can accept the apologist view although perhaps we should be wary of portraying Stalin as an omniscient god.

2) Diplomatic Maneuverings

This covers a long period of time from the 1930s to the very eve of the war so I hope you excuse me for using less sources. The Soviets actually built a lot of ties with Capitalist countries and attracted plenty of private investment. Stalin saw no lapse in logic between predicting war with the Capitalist countries and trying to use their resources to prepare the USSR for the war. The Soviet Union finally got recognition from the US in 1933. FDR may have foreseen conflict with Germany, although the more likely story (given by the Office of the Historian) suggests that recognition was granted with the aim of containing Japan (which was forming the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere at the time).

The Soviets were wary of German expansion and vibrancy. Ironically they themselves had helped Germany to re-arm itself in violation of international law, but the USSR likely did not predict that Germany would emerge as powerful as it had.The Soviets were still industrializing and were still behind, so they sought to avoid war at all costs. This drove them to join the League of Nations in 1934 in hopes of containing Germany by reinforcing the doctrine of collective security. As we all know the League of Nations was unable to constrain Hitler and prevent him from grabbing various territories, so the Soviet Union naturally came to reject the feasibility of the League as a strategy. The Soviets would try to join with Britain and France in curbing German ambitions (why not play the Imperialists off one another?) but with Munich, Britain and France resigned themselves to inaction. Where were the Soviet’s to go from here? Britain and France would not join them in the coming fight against Germany?

Why not ally with Germany against Britain and France then? By 1939 the USSR realized that its “alliances” in the West were hollow and so it decided to ally with the only game in town. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact brought together Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The pact promised non-aggression but also had…other stipulations. These secret aspects of the treaty split Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviets. The German invasion of Poland to claim what the treaty offered them was the event which led to the onset of World War II in Europe as France and Britain declared war on Germany. The Soviets meanwhile were able to coalesce their holdings in Eastern Europe, taking over the Baltic States, half of Poland, and parts of Southeast Europe.

Skeptic: Stalin ultimately sought to avoid any kind of war with Germany, however they falsely believed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact assured security for them. Stalin was also focused on conquest of Eastern Europe and took advantage of the deteriorating political situation to fulfill these goals.

Apologist: Stalin ultimately sought to avoid any kind of war with Germany but still recognized that War was inevitable. After exhausting options he realized that the only promise of success was to split Eastern Europe with Germany. This would buy more space and time in the event of invasion that would prove critical.

Verdict 2: I am inclined to adopt the apologist view here. Stalin’s behavior was always formulated with war with Germany in mind. Stalin wanted to not only avert war but, when it came, to ensure that the Soviet Union was in the best possible position. This view is great and rational, but we shall find that it ultimately contradicts other verdicts I reach. Specifically, Stalin squandered the space and time that the Pact afforded him.

3) The Great Purge

In the 1930s (and 1920s) Stalin purged many party members/kulaks/government officials/etc. Most were killed or exiled to Siberia. The purge reached its apex in the late 1930s, which saw an almost total turnover of party and military leadership. I have not read Robert Conquest and will refrain from saying much, but let it suffice that many military leaders (and military engineers) with experience were killed. The Soviet Union was stripped of many of its greatest minds.

Skeptic: Stalin succumbed to his paranoia and insanity. He killed his military leaders out of a fear of their prestige and influence.

Apologist: Stalin recognized the need for strong centralized rule and realized that only his autocratic leadership could ensure success. By killing military leaders he was ensuring the construction of a completely unitary military structure that he could lead. The Purge also brought new blood into the military that was needed to accommodate modern tactics.

Verdict 3: Stalin was paranoid, but I do not think that he was power mad. The purges were a valid strategy for Stalin. I do not want to sound like an apologist: the purge did not have to happen and I think the purges damned innocent people and ultimately destroyed whatever hope the USSR had.  I will therefore clarify: the purges made sense TO STALIN. Presiding over such a large political system, Stalin believed that terror held the most promise over granting him control and he was absolutely right. To what extent did Stalin run the purge? The “beauty” (if it can be called that) of the purges were that they decentralized terror. To a great extent the Great Purge was just Stalin letting the entire system get carried away. That being said, Stalin bears primary responsibility for the Purges and is a horrible person. The Purges challenge the notion that Stalin was ultimately concerned with survival: why would he kill so many military leaders when the prospect of war was ever-growing? Maybe Stalin was crazy. Maybe Stalin was worried about a fifth-column. Conclusions are made even more difficult by the fact that certain individuals (both in the Party and in the military) survived the Purge. Regardless the Purge throws a great wrench into an conceptions of Stalin as a genius who was always preparing for the war…

4) The Winter War and Peace with Japan

In 1939, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was made, the Soviet Union went to war with one of its neighbors, Finland, over land. They were kicked out of the League of Nations for this (not that it mattered). Did the Soviet Union want to conquer Finland or just gain some land? Finland was very close to Leningrad, and a Finland sympathetic to Germany (which was the case) could spell disaster in the event of war. The war proved to be a disaster and the Soviets were hopelessly defeated by the Finns. The Soviet’s threatened continued warfare and the Finns relented and gave up, but the war is still considered a general defeat for the Soviets. At the very least the Soviets gained a buffer zone, although when war broke out Leningrad was surrounded. Maybe this buffer zone was the one thing keeping Leningrad from being overrun?

In 1941, only two months before the fateful Operation Barbarossa began, the Soviets made peace with Japan. They had several skirmishes near Manchuria and it looked like they might fight but the Soviets managed to arrange a peace treaty with Japan. This saved the USSR from having to worry about East Asian security (and enabled them to transfer battle hardened troops led by an experienced Zhukov to the European front). Japan liked this treaty likely because they were beginning to eye up America and, likewise, wanted to avert a two-front war. The USSR would abrogate this treaty in August 1945 with Operation August Storm. In the process they were able to play a critical role in the future of East Asia, so this treaty was overwhelmingly positive to the Soviets.

Verdict 4: I am not going to present “skeptic/apologist” arguments here. I think it is pretty obvious what Stalin was going for. If anything the skeptic might suggest that the Winter War was an unnecessary risk undertaken for conquest that only exposed Soviet weakness and made war with Germany more likely. The Winter War and Japanese Peace treaty represent perhaps the most important of Stalin’s preparations for the war.

5) 22 June 1941

Let us return to the date in question. 22 June 1941. Remember that Stalin completely withdrew when he heard of the Nazi invasion. He did not believe it was happening and his orders were ambiguous at best. The Soviets could have fought back and launched counterattacks, but Stalin gave no orders to this effect. The opening weeks of Operation Barbarossa saw enormous destruction of life and property, and rapid gains by the Germans deep into Soviet territory. So why did Stalin withdraw from public life?

Skeptic: Stalin was absolutely unprepared for the war. He was confident that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would last or, at least, had hoped that it would have last longer. He likely believed that the Soviet Union would be defeated and that the cause was hopeless.

Apologist: Stalin retreated from public life on purpose to increase his power over the system and reveal the dependency of the Soviet Union on his judgment. Much like how Lenin would threaten to resign to make people bend to his will, Stalin retreated so that people would ask for him back.

Final Verdict: WHO KNOWS?

Stalin was a complicated man, but I think we should start by remembering that he was a man (Kenez talks a lot about this). There is a temptation to think of him as a demon or a god, or some combination thereof. I think any historiography of Stalin needs to start with reminding the reader that he is a man. He killed 40-60 million people yes, but he is still a man. Maybe he withdrew because he was depressed. It seems a perfectly normal thing to do when Hitler decides to invade your country. After some time Stalin jumped into the war effort and lead the Soviet Union to victory (although not by himself) although his record, as we have mentioned, is a mixed bag. On the one hand he demanded that factories be moved East of the Urals, a move which protected Soviet industry from Nazi attack. On the other hand he often made obvious blunders with massive loss of life, such as by refusing to move regiments in Kharkiv.

My conclusion is anti-climactic isn’t it? That is fine. I still haven’t decided yet. I likely never will. I am not sure if anyone will ever be able to ascertain why Stalin withdrew from his office and, like the proverbial ostrich, stuck his head in the ground after the Nazi invasion. Stalin expected war, and took all kinds of steps to prepare for war and then, in his moment of truth, he completely failed as a leader and temporarily gave up. It is one of the great paradoxes that makes Russian history so frustrating for academics and yet so perfect for armchair history. How do we reconcile the various verdicts I have reached? How do we make sense of all this information and the progression of history? In the wake of uncertainty and difficulty we are left alone and in the dark, wrestling with concepts over an alcoholic beverage or two. Maybe in this musing lies the answer. When confronted with such a strange and paradoxical history that defies sense and reason we just have to think it to death. Maybe that is precisely what Stalin did during his sudden war onset vacation. In history and in life it is not enough to expect the unexpected, we also have to accept it.

Oh and as if this wasn’t all complicated enough some argue that Stalin never retreated into his shell like Khrushchev suggests…I tend to be biased towards Khrushchev and the Stalin-apathy story is what is commonly taught and assumed to be true, so lets just go with it. Russian historiography is unique in that you have to make some tenuous assumptions to get anywhere…

Flirting with Midnight or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?

I have always been fascinated with atomic weapons and the politics surrounding them. Why were they first built? Why do we spend so many resources building weapons that cannot be used? How do we prevent other states from getting them? Should any states have them at all? Regardless of your perspectives you have to treat nuclear weapons as a fait accompli. The United States and Russia built a lot of them. Despite agreements to limit building of or destroy warheads and delivery methods there are still plenty of nukes to ruin everything. Each nation has their preferences. The United States prefers a tripartite (bomber/missile/sub) delivery method that offers flexibility. Russia likes to build really really big missiles, and they are generally pretty good at it. Russia also apparently has a system not unlike the doomsday machine from Dr. Strangelove. Perimetr (aka the Dead Hand) is capable of automatically launching nukes is it detects signs of a nuclear attack on Russia (light/heat/radiation spikes and seismic activity). There is no confirmation that this exists although there have been several insiders who have mentioned it and there are a few books out about it. I personally believe that it exists. I believe that America has something similar (why not?). We may shudder out of fear of machine takeover or, as the Clash would put it, a nuclear error, but I would just like to remind everyone that Britain’s last resort system involves submarines and some element of human judgment which I find a little less comforting.

I hope everyone sleeps well tonight. If you still think that you will then its time to bring up the central reason for this post. As you know Russia and the United States do not get along very well. Where relations will be next year is anyone’s guess. At times it seems like we are seeking rapprochement; at times it seems like NATO is looking to take more substantive action. I am not sure if this is intentional or not. Strategic ambiguity is a legitimate approach in certain cases but with a nation like Russia, which has realpolitik and security concerns ingrained into its DNA, sending mixed messages is likely going to result in them assuming that we are merely stalling or, worse, that we are actually belligerent. What do you do when the West comes knocking and threatens involvement? What do you do when anti-missile systems are being built in Poland and you fear that they are aimed at you? You probably do something like this.

Realist scholars of international relations often talk about the security dilemma. All states what to bolster their security, but in the process of making myself secure (lets say by buying a gun) I make you less secure. You in turn feel the need to buy a bigger gun, which just makes me insecure again. This is the key problem with anti-missile systems and exactly why the ones we have in Poland may be doing us more harm than good in trying to keep Russia calm. If I know you can shoot down my ICBMs I am just going to build better ones, which just leads into an arms race. Things have been heated for a while now and our nuclear agreements with Russia are becoming increasingly tenuous. I won’t go into the history of our arms control agreements, that would recover several posts to cover, but the New START treaty (the latest arms control agreement) may have been abrogated. Please note that Russia would probably not be violating treaty obligations by building 40 ICBMs. I believe that this is within the parameters of the treaty as long as they don’t go over the missile caps. I am interesting to see if Russia actually adheres to the limits if it goes forward with expanding its arsenal: a respect for the terms of the treaty may reveal that Russia at least honours its international obligations.

Please note that 40 more missiles doesn’t just mean that Russia can hit 40 more targets. A single ICBM can be loaded with several warheads. These Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) are capable of exceptional destruction: one missile can effectively take out a handful (or more) cities. The Russians, as previously mentioned, really likes big missiles and therefore would get along just fine with MIRVs. Building potent MIRVs that can make it through ABM systems is therefore a massive problem.

Now let us turn to the reasons why Russia looks to update its nukes. Analysis will reveal that this recent announcement by Putin is generally in part of the strategy he has adopted thus far in Europe. Why does Putin want 40 minty fresh missiles?

1) Good old fashion deterrence. Nukes are scary and can conceivable kill a nation-state and possibly end the world. I sure as hell wouldn’t attack a nuclear power just due to the risks involved. Deterrence is powerful and likely kept the Cold War from going hot. The Russian military is good but could not beat NATO. ICBMs make all sides equal. 40 new missiles is not only a good insurance plan but a stark statement. Putin is willing to revive the darkest spectre of the Cold War, the arms race. Will we follow him down the rabbit hole? Perhaps Putin is trying to deter us from further developing our ABM systems? Russia has firmly committed itself and we would likely feel week if we did not make a firm commitment ourselves to preserve our credibility, so there is a real risk of falling into an arms race again and of completing the helter-skelter slide into the security dilemma. Regardless an arm’s race with enhanced nukes is just more likely to reduce the chances of conflict; no matter what way you cut it a nuke is a nuke. I don’t believe that Russia wants to restart a Cold War arms race; it would be far too expansive to maintain. Russia would ultimately be unable to beat the West in making a stronger deterrent, so something tells me that this is a more immediate strategy with short-term goals. There is more to Russia’s strategy of deterrent than just 40 more nukes…

2) Throw dirt on NATO.  NATO has been amassing weapons in Eastern Europe and erecting ABM systems. In a twisted way NATO may actually be more likely to start war than Russia with its new nukes. Nuclear weapons will probably never be used and are just for show. Conventional arms though have a use. Building nukes is a relative tame and sane strategy in comparison to amassing conventional arms. Russia is of course amassing its own conventional arms on the border and working to develop them, so we shouldn’t demonize NATO and celebrate Russia for its commitment to international peace (yes there is sarcasm in some places here). Russia is not trying to raise any broad dialogues regarding the efficacy of nuclear vs. conventional weapons, Russia seeks results. Nukes may kill fewer people each year than conventional weapons but they carry far more fearful connotations. Putin is seeking to put NATO in an awkward position by forcing them to respond to an awkward problem. NATO will need to tread very carefully in forming a response. An eagerness to counter Russia weapon for weapon will likely make Europe shudder and begin to doubt US strategy. By the same token a retreat would simply reveal NATO to be a paper tiger. NATO needs to simply continue what it has been doing and not feel obliged to respond to Putin’s nuclear ambitions. Modern ICBMs will take years to manifest away so we have all the time we need to feel Russia out on this. Making no changes in our policy will likely just put Putin in an awkward position, more on this later.

3) Adapt to economic challenges. Russia has faced increasing economic pressure but it has shown that it can continue to be dynamic. Russia has continued to develop and modernize its military, recently unveiling the new T-14 Armata tank just over a month ago. This has significant symbolic meaning both as reassurance for citizens and as defiance of the Western sanction regime. The symbolic meaning of the Armata is worth much more than its actual use on the battlefield. With current economic conditions Russia is unlikely to be able to modernize its massive conventional army. Developing new ICBMs circumvents this problem. Russia can develop a new generation of rockets to keep on hand without the need to mass produce them.  Enhancing the nuclear option carries the same symbolic power as a new tank but at a much more reasonable price tag. Nukes however also carry greater symbolic ramifications than conventional weapons. Due to their destructive potential nukes are somehow more threatening and grim than conventional weapons, even if they see virtually no use. Russia may choose updated nukes to adapt to economic times, but by doing they are raising the stakes to a point that heightens hostility and makes rapprochement with the West, and the lessening of economic sanctions, less likely.

Can it be said therefore that Russia is acting rationally?
NO. Russia is not making a very rational decision if its aims are to reduce tensions and reduce NATO relations to a simmer. This means two things. Either A) Russia has different goals with a different sort of rationality that I am missing or B) Russia is intentionally courting chance and has deemed irrationality as the best strategy. I am more inclined with the latter explanation. By giving an impression of irrationality and uncertainty Russia is playing a strong strategic card. Russia is perfectly rational in assuming an “antic disposition” not unlike that of Hamlet. Threatened with action by NATO, perhaps restricted perhaps not, Russia is raising the stakes as high as they can go and then poking and prodding. We find ourselves in Cuba. The year is 1962. We are playing nuclear chicken all over again.  What do we do? Do we continue to raise the stakes further? Do we retreat and seek diplomatic solutions?

I wrote a game theoretic analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I will likely post it at some point, but for now I will talk about it. When confronted with a seemingly irrational Khrushchev and attempts by the Soviets to arm Cuba, Kennedy decided to neither pursue a military option nor a diplomatic one. He did not give in to UN urges or the convictions of his more military-minded advisers. Kennedy carefully analyzed the situation and reviewed the policies given to him by ExComm and decided on a middle road option: a quarantine. A peaceful option would have done nothing to curb Russian ambition while a military option would have been unable to destroy all nukes and had too many variables that may have resulted in escalation. A quarantine, that is, a blockade around Cuba that barred atomic weaponry from the island, circumvented this choice. Khrushchev thought he put Kennedy in a corner; imagine his surprise when Kennedy just took a very restrained but still forceful option and delivered an ultimatum to him. Kennedy forced the burden of decision back on Khrushchev, who found that he could no longer fake irrationality and had to take responsibility in resolving the crisis. The United States left room for the Soviet Union to contribute to an effective solution.  This is not to say the quarantine was not dangerous. There were still many close calls that could have sparked war, but the risks were arguably reduced the most with the quarantine option. Risks are precisely why Putin’s strategy is so dangerous.

He doesn’t like NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe and will push us as much as he can. By flying Russian planes near our bases he is almost daring us to respond, knowing full well that we won’t. By building nukes he is reminding us of what will happen if we would respond to wayward Russian planes. He is trying to make us and all of our allies uncomfortable and trying to make a NATO presence in Eastern Europe undesirable. It would behoove NATO leaders to look towards Kennedy and his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When there is no willing solution, sometimes the best strategy is a vigilant and firm status quo. We both have very few options on the table, so the best strategy is to leave them on the table and hope that Russia will burn through her options until she has no other recourse but to seek a diplomatic compromise.

It should be noted that the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t just an act by evil Soviets. Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that he was very concerned of Cuba’s safety and was just trying to promote the security of the Castro regime by lending military aid. Had we not tried to kill Castro or invade Cuba Russia would likely never have tried to station troops there. Let that be a lesson to us. Had we not tried to expand NATO or create ABM systems perhaps US-Russian relations would be more positive and constructive than they are today…

For more on nuclear politics I recommend Mueller’s Atomic Obsession. For more on Cuba I recommend Allison and Zelikow’s Essence of Decision.

Amateur Mistakes: Misconceptions of Russian History

Sorting through Russian history can be difficult for an amateur or beginner. Opinions and misinterpretations abound. The intention of this post is to smooth out a few of the kinks and make things a little more easy to understand. These are some things that tripped me up as I was diving into my studies so hopefully I can be of some use here. Even if you already know all of this you may want to keep these issues in mind when you are discussing Russia with other people. Questions are in italics, answers are in bold.

1) When exactly was the Russian Revolution?
The one you are thinking of, the October Revolution, actually occurred on 7 November The Gregorian and Julian calendars do not sync. Russia stopped using the Julian calendar in 1918. When looking at primary sources prior to 1918 always be aware of this discrepancy. You may wish to switch Julian to Gregorian (by adding 13 days), but you should at the very least be consistent and include a footnote somewhere explaining which calendar you use and why. When looking at secondary sources be aware of what format the author is using. Usually they will have a footnote explaining what they use but you can always tell by what date they give to the October Revolution. Julian=25 October, Gregorian=7 November. Some authors say what they use, some do not. Some authors include both dates which is nice.
Also you should be aware that there are several Russian Revolutions. I talk about this more in this post but I will be happy to elaborate. My scholars assume that there are three revolutions. The first in 1905 took the form of widespread protests that led to some democratic reforms. The other two occurred in 1917. The first revolution, which started on International Women’s Day, led to the abdication of the Tsar. The second revolution was the aforementioned October Revolution. Some scholars may also include the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. Overall it is probably easier to say that revolution was a process. At the very least revolutionary pressures were long in the making.

2) Is Russia in Europe or Asia?
Yes. Russia is in Europe AND Asia. Russia has greater landmass than Pluto and is absolutely massive. Usually anything West of the Urals is European Russia while anything East is Asian Russia. It is usually best just to view Russia as “Eurasia.” Russia certainly sees itself in this way. Central Asia and Eastern Europe can also be kind of grouped in with Eurasia although East Asia and West Europe tug at these regions. Russia is a truly massive country and geography defines much of what it does. It has tons of borders with many diverse countries. It has access to both the Atlantic and Pacific although it could always use more warm water ports. Much of European Russia is flat and easy to invade. There is little land to farm. There are massive administrative and infrastructure problems that come with ruling a country this large. Never overlook the impact of Russia’s territory. Russia has a ton of land but it usually wants more. Seems odd right? Well most of the land Russia wants (Crimea, the Dardenelles) is highly strategic. Also be aware of the impact of Russia’s Eurasian locale on its culture and history. Russia is somewhere between East and West. It is in a truly unique position not unlike that of the United States; the difference is that Russia is actually connected to other countries while America is mostly isolated and has domination over its hemisphere. Russia is a Eurasian country. It is the Eurasian country.

3) Were the Warsaw Pact countries all part of the Soviet Union?
No. The Soviet Union was a member of the Warsaw Pact along with several of its satellite states (East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland). These satellite states were dependent on Moscow but were still technically independent and had their own Communist Parties. The Soviet Union as a whole was made up of 15 Republics (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan). Russia lorded over the USSR but there is still a great deal of regional variation. The Central Asian Republics were fairly loyal. The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) were very ornery and are terrified of Russia. Always take the history of various republics into account. Also be aware that there were other smaller regional designations. The USSR had a TON of nationalities and many were granted some degree of nominal autonomy. Overall you can lump the USSR’s republics together, but try to treat the Warsaw Pact satellites differently. This all depends on what sort of paper you are writing of course. The question of satellites and nationalities is hugely important since it is along these lines that the Soviet Union was torn asundre. To answer another question, no Reagan did not win the Cold War. He helped push it along, but the Soviets largely failed due to their inability to resolve internal tensions. Historical and geographic issues continue to define Russia’s relations with many of these states.

4) Most Russians are atheists right? 
Not really. Even though Communists are no friends of religion the Soviet Union did not stamp out all religion. Many of the Muslim Central Asian Republics emerged fairly unscathed. Most Russian’s identify as Orthodox (listen to the Levada Center, not the CIA). Russians are deeply religious/superstitious and conservative and religion never really ceased to function as a major component in people’s lives although during the 20s and 30s it was awfully weak.

5) Gorbachev was a successful reformer, right?
The average Russian would say NO. Gorbachev made a good impression with Americans because he was smooth, modern, and approached us about friendship. Ultimately though his reforms failed to preserve the Soviet Union or successfully liberalize the country. Many Russians look back nostalgically on the Soviet Union and see Gorbachev as the cause of a great deal of the economic suffering that dominated the 90s. Gorbachev remains active although many Russians hate him. He is still active in politics and his judgment is pretty valuable because he occupies a unique position between the West and mainstream Russian politics, but he ultimately is not heeded very much. Gorbachev is a tragic figure because he tried to reform the USSR while leaving the Party in tact. He at least deserves credit for winding the Cold War down and accepting the reality of the situation. I don’t think that anyone could have saved the Soviet Union, although Gorbachev did come close with his backing of a new Union arrangement.

6) Do most Russians really approve of Putin?
Yes, but with qualifications. Putin is enormously popular and most Russians like him for the energy and charisma he brings. Still many Russians remain skeptical of him. Many are still living in relative hardship and many push for greater democracy (some actually push for less though). Still many Russians are simply apathetic and don’t know what to think, although they are willing to support their government. Russian people are not Communists or bent towards totalitarianism. They are an industrious people with a high degree of variation in their political preferences. Having been ruled by the Tsars/Soviets for much of their modern history, Russians have simply learned to hide or obscure their leanings. Many people, from my reckoning, would support the government; however, they would have a great deal of snarky comments to pass on the subject.

7) What is a good way to remember the Soviet Leaders?
“A-B-C-G-K-L-S, Now I Know My Soviets!”
I came up with this at work one day. Try to rhyme the S and the “Soviets”.
What does this stand for: Andropov, Brezhnev, Chernenko, Gorbachev, Khrushchev, Lenin, Stalin.
Do you need to know them in order? I will let you know when I get a system for that. Until then just remember five. Lenin->Stalin->Khrushchev->Brezhnev->Gorbachev. Andropov and Chernenko followed Brezhnev (in that order) but they are sort of unimportant and are best used as an example of why you always check the expiration date on things before you put them in your cart.
An even better way that includes Tsars and post-Soviet leaders is BALD-HAIRY. All Russian leaders since 1825 alternate between having hair and being bald. This even allows you to include Medvedev between Putin’s two terms.
Need a way to remember the Tsars? Here are some of the major leaders with generic dates for their rule and what they did:
Rurik (860s/870s): First leader. Founder of the Rurik Dynasty.
Vladimir I (978-1015): Ushered in the Orthodox Faith
Alexander Nevsky: Not a true “tsar” but still a noteworthy leader who was ok with Mongol Rule. He ruled over Moscovy (Moscow) and laid the foundation for the centralization of power there.
Ivan III (1462-1505): defeated the Mongols
Ivan (Grozny) IV/the Terrible (1547-84): The first technical “tsar.” Centralized power with an iron first and expanded Russia. Somewhat of a folk hero since he persecuted nobles. Was also crazy, or at least disposed to great violence. After his son, Feodor I, died in 1598 the line of Rurik ended and an interregnum, the “Time of Troubles” followed.
Michael I (1613-45): First of the Romanovs.
Peter I/the Great (1682-1725): Took steps to Westernize Russia. Father of the Russian Navy. Established the Russian Empire formally in 1721.
Catherine II (1762-96): Enlightened monarch who corresponded with many great minds of her time.
Alexander I (1801-1825): Beat Napoleon
Nicholas I (1825-55): Lost the Crimean War
Alexander II (1855-1881): Liberated the serfs. Major reformer. Assassinated by terrorists in an increasingly unstable political landscape. 
Alexander III (1881-1894):
Didn’t really start any wars, but definitely wasn’t a reformer. 
Nicholas II/the Martyr/the Bloody (1894-17): 
Last Tsar. Apathetic and inept, Nicholas presided over a brutal regime that came to be much maligned. Lost the Russo-Japanese War. Would have lost WWI had he stayed in power. Shot with his family in a basement in 1918.
While we are at it we may as well keep going…
Lenin (1917-24): Leader of the Bolsheviks. Charismatic speaker and brilliant, dogmatic thinker. Engineered Marxism-Leninism that called for a vanguard party to lead the Revolution. Led Bolsheviks through Civil War. Died of a stroke.
Stalin (1927-53): Truly came to power in 1927. Transformed Russia into a superpower with massive cost to human life. Beat Hitler. Arguably created his own brand of Communism. Died of a stroke (most likely).
Khrushchev (1955-64): Master political infighter and the son of a miner. Emerged as part of collective leadership scheme after Stalin’s death, later took primary position of power. One of Stalin’s cronies, he denounced Stalin after coming to power. Tried to reform the Soviet Union while improving agriculture and foreign policy. Forced into retirement in 1964 by the Party. Most Russians don’t like him although his personality makes him a bit of a dark horse.
Brezhnev (1964-82): Boring and bland Party official who entrenched corruption. The Soviet Union reached its apex of power under Brezhnev but at the cost of economic dynamism. Very vain and had mighty eyebrow(s). Left the Soviet regime in crisis but most Russians love him.
Andropov (1982-4): Former KGB head who tried desperately to reform the Soviet Union. Failed. Had bad kidney’s that ultimately killed him.
Chernenko (1984-5): He came, he saw, he died.
Gorbachev (1985-91): Young reformer. Tried to keep the Soviet Union in tact and failed. Much maligned by Russians.
Yeltsin (1991-99): Former reformist leader. First president of Russian Federation. Drunk and corrupt, his attempts at reform just created misery and failure. Not well liked although most seem to at least respected for standing on a tank during a Soviet coup attempt.
Putin (1999-2008): Prime minister who took over after Yeltsin resigned. Master class bureaucrat who is fantastic at getting at he wants. Set Russia back on its feet although he has undermined some civil liberties.
Medvedev (2008-2012): Technocratic leader and right-hand man of Putin who ruled after Putin’s term limit was up.
Putin Prime (2012-?): Putin re-elected. May be in power, under current constitutional arrangements, until 2024. Continues to enjoy high popularity.

I hope this was informative and I hope to continue creating posts that can be of some use to students of Russian history in applying confidence and creativity to their term papers. I certainly learned a lot and have decided upon some new topics I will discuss at some point. In the mean time keep reading up on Russia and challenge the stereotypes.

большое спасибо!

Finally broke 100 views today. Thank you to friends and colleagues who are supportive! Thank you to people who have come to follow me! And thank you to the wandering vagabonds who wander here and spend some time with me (Stalin would have you executed for rootless cosmopolitanism but I’ll take what I can get).

Having fulfilled the first five year plan we will now raise the quotas. 1000 tanks next time!

Surf’s Up: Russia in the Waves of Democracy

Samuel P. Huntington is a cool dude. Most people know him for his theory of the “clash of civilizations.” I will not speak or judge this theory, having not studied it. Probably his second best (or maybe first) idea concerns democratization. I took a senior seminar class dealing with comparative politics and democratic theories and Huntington ended up appearing on my final paper which was a study of (guess what) Russia. This post is going to reiterate some of the points I brought up in my paper. Incidentally schools don’t like when you carry ideas and research over from previous papers. They call this “self-plagiarism” although this sounds like a load of garbage to me; if you make an idea you own it (but I digress). Let’s get back on topic. I warn you, this post is front loaded.

Huntington proposed that there are three historical waves of democratization. This idea came forth in the 1990s before the Soviet Union collapsed, and it actually explains the downfall of the USSR pretty well if you stretch it. Huntington assumes that democratization is a process driven by elites. The leaders of conservative, reformist, or radical groups within and without government will, at various times and in various ways, bring about changes. If changes are driven by reformist leaders within government then this is known as “transformation.” “Transplacement” occurs when government and opposition officials compromise and work together to yield change. If the opposition drives change then this process is referred to as “Replacement.” Huntington admits that there is overlap between these three mechanisms of change although for purposes of convenience he likes to sort each example of democratization into one of the three categories. I think however that there is something deeper than overlap; I think that one process, such as transformation, may actually give way to transplacement and/or replacement. Confusing? We’ll deal more substantively with these later…

Now that we understand how changes take place we can look at the waves of democratization. What exactly constitutes a wave? Well just think of a wave. The wave comes in, the wave goes out (thanks Bill O’Reilly). A wave of democratization is a sudden surge in democracy where clumps of states tend to adopt democratic governance.  There are three documented historical waves. Each wave is also followed by a reverse wave where democratic gains are lost and states return to autocratic governments. In my own personal application of Huntington’s theory I believe that we should not just look at regime change. It is not just a matter of total change from democracy to autocracy or autocracy to democracy. Sometimes democratic gains are made within an autocratic system. Sometimes relapses occur in a democratic system (we call this backsliding). So what exactly are the waves? (please note that all dates listed are approximations, waves are a little fuzzy). More specifically for the purposes of this blog: how did Russia participate (or not participate) in these waves?

Democracy Wave I (1776-1919): This is the largest wave and also probably the least consequential in terms of quantity, although it coincides with the substantive development of what democracy means exactly. It starts with the development of the American democracy and includes the French Revolution as well as those that occurred throughout Europe and Latin America. It also coincides with the rise of imperialism, so it doesn’t signify a general shift towards democracy. It ends shortly after World War I which ended with the German and Russian Empires being broken up.

For Russia this wave actually did have some impact at the very end. There were three revolutions in Russia from 1905-1917. The 1905 Revolution, which resulted from nascent liberalism, the harshness of the Tsar, and the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, brought about nominal democratic reforms. The Tsar created a legislative body, the Duma. Unfortunately the Duma largely held no power and was inconsequential, although its creation did lead to the creation of dialogue about how best to reform the system. 12 years later in early 1917 a protest started on International Women’s Day in response to the handling of WWI led to the abdication of the Tsar. The Duma (remember it was a weak and meaningless body) claimed legitimacy as the Provisional Government but it was challenged by the re-emergence of soviets, worker’s councils. Soviets had appeared in 1905 but were suppressed by the Tsar until his abdication. The soviets and Duma competed for power (this situation is called dual power) and ultimately the soviets were able to win public support. The soviets were not necessarily controlled by the Bolsheviks though. The Bolsheviks were one of the parties that vied for power within the soviets. They happened to win a majority in elections and, when they did, staged a bloodless coup on 7 November (Red October, sorry the calendar was different back then). The Bolsheviks actually held elections after taking power but, after losing, took total power for themselves, thus ending the experiment with Russian democracy. (Most of my facts here come from Fitzpatrick’s Russian Revolution; she really does a great job of illustrating the development of parties and conflict that I can’t do justice too with one measly paragraph).

Reverse Wave I (1920-1940): This era coincides with the interwar period. Democracy faded both in terms of numbers and in terms of theory as Communism and Fascism rose.

For Russia the first reverse wave coincides with the consolidation of Soviet power after the Russian Civil War and the rise of Stalinism. The Soviet Union actually actively undermined democracies in this period by stifling the independence of states like the Baltic countries and Poland which had gained their independence at the end of the first wave.

Democracy Wave II (1945-1964): This wave took place after the Second World War and coincides with de-colonization. It also coincides however with the start of the Cold War and thus the installation of puppet states by the USSR and the backing of right-wing dictatorships by the USA.

For Russia this second wave is significant when one considers Khrushchev’s reign. Khrushchev did not democratize the Soviet system but he did attempt to reform. He also took advantage of and encouraged de-colonization. He certainly loosened things up with his Secret Speech. Of course given the events of Hungary 1956 and the construction of the Berlin Wall we should take his contributions with a grain of salt.

Reverse Wave II (1964-74): I don’t know enough about this period and have not researched enough to make any definitive claims, but basically this represents the loss of Second Wave gains.

For Russia this second reversal coincides with the arrival of Brezhnev on the scene. Brezhnev undid many of Khrushchev’s reforms and cracked down harshly on dissent. He also codified Soviet dominance of satellite states with the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Democracy Wave III (1975-1991?): This is the wave that Huntington talks a lot about. It includes nations like S. Africa and represented, at the time of his writing, the modern wave of democratization. It also includes the Eastern Bloc states.

For  Russia this was the big one. 1975 is actually a critical year as it was marked by the signing of the Helsinke Accords. The Helsinke Final Act basically had Brezhnev promise that he would observe human rights (gullible Western fools) in exchange for the recognition of WWII era boundaries. While many saw this as entirely conceding to the Soviets it actually greatly undermined the legitimacy of the Soviets in bashing human rights and led to the creation of some civil society. This would compound with the economic meltdown in the 80s to create a crisis point in the Soviet Union. The arrival of Gorbachev in 1985 provides a great case study for Huntington’s theory of democratization. Gorbachev surrounded himself with a lot of differing personalities which is convenient since Huntington believes that democratization is based on the interaction of various elites with assorted political orientations. So how did the fall of the Soviet Union happen? (This section takes information from Kenez’s A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Incidentally to the novice student of Russian histories the fall is perhaps the most disorienting and difficult period to learn about. I hope I have done it adequate justice and I think Huntington’s research makes it far more comprehensible).

Phase 1: Transformation (1985-89)-Gorbachev tried to make major reforms on his own. Glasnost, perestroika, etc. He was met with resistance from hardliners in his party (Ligachev is the major name to remember for that) and also faced criticism from liberals within his party (someone named Boris Yeltsin) who called for faster and more significant reform. Yeltsin actually continued to criticize the party and was kicked out, at which point he started building an independent power base.

Phase 2: Transplacement (1989-91)-Gorbachev wanted to get his agenda passed but couldn’t due to the actions of Ligachev and others. Gorbachev decided to turn to Yeltsin and his power base and seek compromise. Yeltsin responded by softening his criticism of the party and working with Gorbachev (Alquist has a nice article on how Yeltsin was great at changing his identity to take advantage of situations). This period saw the creation of new positions and government bodies.

Phase 3: Replacement (1991)-Huntington writes that replacements tend to happen after military coups. A failed coup would reveal that the regime in power is totally hopeless and can be overthrown. Gorbachev was working hard with the liberals towards a deal that would create a decentralized Soviet Union. On the day when voting on this proposition was to be voted on the hardliners launched a coup. Gorbachev was under house arrest and tanks were in Moscow. Yeltsin was able to successfully lead a massive protest and the army backed down. This incident convinced Yeltsin both of the weakness of the Communist Party and of the danger of keeping them around. The CCCP was banned and Yeltsin used his position as leader of the Russian nation to bring down the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had tried to preserve the Party at all costs and was therefore part of the problem, so he was marginalized until he resigned.

The mechanisms of change don’t merely overlap, but rather have the potential to lead into one another and beget great change.

Reverse Wave III (1991-?): I am sure literature exists on this but I have yet to read any. Their were reverse waves after the other democratic waves, so why not now? Yeltsin proved to be a good revolutionary but he wasn’t the best leader and he was unable to implement stable democratic changes. Now we see civil society, homosexuals, free speech, and other facets of democracy being stifled under Russia. Just because a regime changes from Party rule to democracy does not mean that democratization will follow. What then does democratization even mean? Is it even worthwhile to use as a metric? Many expected that the end of the USSR would mark the rise of liberal democracy throughout the world (Francis Fukuyama I am looking at you). Clearly it didn’t and problems continue. The fall of the Soviet Union may have actually been a lesson to other autocratic states, convincing them to be even firmer and heavy-handed in their leadership. While the Soviets were failing to keep Berlin in the fold, China was ruthlessly crushing the Tiananmen Square protests.

Democracy Wave IV (???): We might currently be living through another wave. It is too early to tell how the Arab Spring is going. In light of Huntington’s work I think it is always too early to tell anything unfortunately…

Only one thing remains certain: democracy is an immensely complicated concept that is difficult to define and work with. Living in a democracy probably only makes it more difficult to understand what exactly all of this means. Huntington tells us that democracy is a process, so maybe the best we can do is to try to understand the process.

For Huntington’s Work: Huntington, S. P.(1991). Democracy’s Third Wave. Journal of Democracy 2(2), 12-34. The Johns Hopkins University Press. He also wrote a book on this which I should probably read.


George Orwell did not like Communism. He did not like totalitarianism of any sort. He had labour sympathies (they definitely show up in some of his works) but he came to see the Soviet Union as increasingly evil. Orwell was one of the first individuals to predict the onset of the Cold War and he actually coined the term “Cold War.” The end of his life produced two books reflecting these beliefs: Animal Farm and 1984. The former book is effectively a laconic history of the Soviet Union, detailing the rise to power of the Bolsheviks and, in particular, Stalin. The latter is a dystopian novel set in the future of a socialist/fascist country. Essentially one is a history of the Soviet Union and the other is a prediction of what the future holds. Today is actually the anniversary of 1984‘s publishing. It came out in 1949. Orwell seems to be a polarizing author. Most people seem to love him. Other people seem to be more skeptical of his writing style and overt political intentions. Regardless 1984 has greatly changed the English lexicon with the addition of words such as Big Brother and thoughtcrime. Ironically it resonates more with the present than with the 1980s, what with the mass introduction of drones, surveillance technology, and political correctness. 1984 also inspired a pretty great Apple commercial in 1984 that stressed the need to buy Apple products to avoid conformity (oh the irony).

To review, 1984 details the life of a guy living in Oceania. A country that allegedly includes the United Kingdom, America, S. Africa, and Australia, Oceania subscribes to Ingsoc, a blatantly totalitarian form of collectivism. Oceania co-exists, allegedly, with Eurasia (basically the Soviet Union) and Eastasia (basically just a union of East Asian countries united under “death worship). These nations periodically fight and bomb one another. Oceania has two social classes: proles who live in relative freedom and poverty and party members who work for the party and are better off but lead far more controlled lives. Oceania maintains an absolute control over language and the public consciousness and manipulates its entire population in order to preserve the party. I say allegedly here for certain factoids because all of this is supplied by the party. We don’t really know if the narrator is reliable since his entire worldview is dictated by what the party tells him. We aren’t even sure if it is actually 1984!

How well do the predictions of 1984 live up in retrospect?

1-Did Communist states of the 1980s really control every aspect of their citizens lives? While Communist nations are known for doing this it really isn’t to the same extent. State surveillance of the degree seen in 1984 wasn’t really possible in the 1980s. We really didn’t have TV’s that watch you in those days. Nowadays though our tech level seems to be akin to that of 1984 which makes the story timeless and relevant for potentially unintended reasons. The level of state control over life in 1984 is only matched by modern N. Korea.

2-What about party structure. Did Orwell adequately predict how the CCCP would look in the 1980s? Yes and no. First let’s do the no. Orwell died in 1950, three years before Stalin. Orwell really did not like Stalin (see Animal Farm) and he especially seems to despise the cult of personality surrounding him. 1984 has a mythic Stalinesque character, Big Brother, who watches over the population and guides the Party. Orwell did not adequately predict how Stalin would be condemned by Khrushchev and how a lot of work would be done to undermine his cult of personality. That being said, the Soviet Union did develop the Party Member/Non-Member dichotomy that defines Oceania. The nomenklatura which developed prominently under the Brezhnev administration consisted of the upper crust party members who had access to the finest markets and highest pay. Khrushchev, in casting aside Stalin, emphasized the pre-eminence of the Party instead, thus planting the seeds for the nomenklatura. When Khrushchev tried to reform the Party in the mid 60s the Party naturally took measures to defend itself. Khrushchev was removed from power and replaced by Brezhnev, a dull beige coloured bureaucrat with mighty eyebrows who was perfectly content with the Party keeping power. As the Party grew content the ideological drives of the Soviet Union grew stale and the system lost a lot of its motivational drive. Oceania’s Ingsoc Party existed for the sole purpose of perpetuating itself. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union existed for much the same purpose, although it was able to flourish without having to brainwash the population. The CCCP did not bother to redress the apathy and skepticism of the people, which only contributed to the economic morass that would later undermine its hold on power. Effectively Orwell presents a selfish party that would be able to continuously perpetuate itself and its interests. In the Soviet Union the selfish party was there but its inevitable triumph was lacking.

3-How well could such a police state reform itself? Orwell’s Ingsoc Party had no reason to reform itself since it perfected control. The Soviet Union would begin a process of reform in 1985 with the accession of Gorbachev. In 1984 the Soviet Union was still in the weird twilight days between Brezhnev and Gorbachev. This period saw the rise of two leaders, Andropov and Chernenko, who were largely inept and old (Andropov was smart at least but his kidneys kept him from being a dynamic leader). Both of these leaders would die shortly after taking office, and the chaos of leadership transfer would throw the USSR into disarray and make the problems facing the state more apparent. Orwell seems to have overestimated the Communist Party’s ability to maintain firm and orderly leadership and therefore likely could not have fathomed that such a system would enter into a period of stagnant crisis that necessitated reform.

4-Incidentally Oceania’s perspectives on sex seem to mirror that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The Ingsoc Party was puritanical about sex and saw it largely as a mechanism for production. The Soviet Union in 1984 was quite prudish. One individual once declared “there is no sex in the Soviet Union, only love.” So the sex lives of Ingsoc and CCCP officials were equally boring at least.

5-Ok moving past the year 1984 and into the present, how well does Orwell’s story stack up? Far from describing the future of socialism in the West, his story is most appropriate to understand the northern half of a small peninsula in East Asia. North Korea is run with the same stringency and strictness of Oceania, and exerts the same degree of control over its people. Were Orwell alive today he would likely have been a fierce critic of N. Korea. Ultimately though Orwell would likely be surprised by the degree to which Marxism-Leninism was an enormous and resounding failure. He saw totalitarianism as evil but he seemed unable to comprehend that it was ultimately based on untenable assumptions that would cause it to fail. He also likely failed to see Stalin as the exception rather than the rule (a justifiable misjudgment) or perhaps forgot that Stalin was mortal and bound to be replaced. Without Stalin the Soviet Union was bound to transform into a far more open and less mechanical society. Does 1984 stack up well with modern Russia? I am not sure if Putin can be compared to Big Brother. He is popular but there is dissent. The United Russia Party may be strong but it is not as monolithic and solid as Ingsoc. Censorship exists but it is not as deadly or comprehensive as it was in Oceania (Famous blogger and Putin critique Alexei Navalny is still alive.) There is still a large disparity in power and wealth between leaders and citizens. Presumably the sex is more interesting. At the very least sex is being used for purposes besides having kids judging by the declining population. Some people still love Big Brother/Stalin, but it is based on nostalgia rather than fear.

Orwell was a good author and had some apt critiques but he certainly wasn’t a prophet or political theorist. The fears born of 1984 have at least stayed with up past the year 1984 and will unfortunately continue to resonate as we try to navigate the strange cyberpunk era that awaits us.