Momento Mori: Najibullah and Assad

19 years ago the Taliban came for him. Najibullah was seized from his UN asylum, tortured, castrated, dragged through the streets, and hung as a warning. No one knows exactly when he died during this ordeal. 

Najibullah’s death marks the end of an era for Afghanistan. Well, that may be too bold of a statement; the Taliban was already well established. The grisly events of 28 September 1996 were a final rejection of Russian meddling. The secular pro-Soviet Najibullah was propped up by the Soviets during their hasty retreat from Afghanistan. Meanwhile civil war waged on. The Soviet exodus hadn’t changed anything. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 doomed Najibullah. He managed to hold out for a while, but it was only a matter of time before the Taliban made their move. Najibullah’s bloody, mangled corpse was the final tombstone of Russian imperialism in Afghanistan…

Left 4 Dead 2.url

Last night’s 60 Minutes featured an excellent interview with Putin. After a decade and a half in power Putin seems to be reaching his peak: he exudes shrewd confidence and meets, or dodges, every question with a perfect answer. Currently, Putin is looking for ways to keep the Assad dynasty, a long time ally of Russia, afloat. This is no easy feat since Syria is crumbling into brutal, bloody, conflict ever since the arrival of revolution. The rise of ISIS does not help the situation.

Russia’s grasp in the Middle East has always been loose. Russia was in chaos when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and failed to keep pace with Great Britain in the “Great Game” of conquering Afghanistan. Attempts to pressure Turkey and Iran in the early Cold War were squarely rebuffed by a vigilant Truman. The 1950s brought some improvements for Russia’s position: Russia was able to take advantage of anti-colonial and anti-Western sentiment in the Cold War to make inroads into the Middle East. Soviet leaders encouraged the brand of Arab nationalism championed by figures like Nasser. Unfortunately for the USSR (and its successor, Russia), Middle Eastern politics proved exceptionally volatile. Russia’s interests in the region evaporated, with Syria and Afghanistan being two strongholds (maybe Libya too). Fearing an Islamic coup after the Iranian Revolution, the Soviets fumbled Afghanistan with a failed war that turned nearly the entire Muslim world against Russia. Luckily al-Assad remained faithful.

Al-Assad remains faithful. Yet again, what other choice does he have? His regime rapidly fell into disarray with the onset of civil war after the Arab Spring protests. The rapid coalescence of ISIS has had a massive impact on the conflict, with ISIS making enormous territorial gains against a tottering Syrian regime.

Just as before with Afghanistan, Russia is seeking to sure up its interests in a difficult region by funneling in military aid. They have some presence in Syria, largely in an advisory role; yet again, Vietnam and the Soviet-Afghan War were proceeded by advisers being sent. There is talk nowadays of Russia starting airstrikes against ISIS, although Putin has not yet expressed an interest in having Russian boots on the ground.

On the interview with 60 Minutes Putin made his intentions sound genuine. Always a friend of sovereignty, and always fearful of unlawful revolutions (is there any other kind?), Putin defined his interests as preserving the lawful government of Syria.

While this defense of de jure government is typical of Putin there are much deeper factors at play here. For starters, Putin is obviously trying to sure up Russia’s last ally in the Middle East. Anyone with eyes can see that.

Why else might Putin be choosing to get involved at a time when Russia is economically hamstrung? Shall we make a list?

  1. What better way to fly in the face of sanctions and international ridicule than by being even more active than usual. A nation like North Korea defies sanctions by steaming ahead with nuclear programs. A nation like Russia is not so easily slowed by sanctions and its not difficult for Putin to project regional power.
  2. The current events in the Middle East are notable in that they are profoundly influence by a non-state actor, namely ISIS. They are also notable in that the United States is atypically sitting this one out, preferring to play a supporting role to regional actors. America’s strategy remains ambiguous, as does its approach. By getting directly involved in the conflict Putin once again reveals that he has a consistent, clear, and carefully calculated foreign policy. Putin didn’t just jump into this right after Ukraine; he is carefully pulling his punches. Putin is picking up slack and taking the initiative: he is the leader here and he is two steps ahead. Apparently Syria, Iraq, and Iran secretly pledged intelligence sharing to Russia. Maybe Russia’s “foothold” in the Middle East isn’t as weak as it seems?
  3. Russia is being proactive about the inevitable collapse of ISIS. After the Soviet-Afghan War many of the mujahideen fighters who gained experience fighting the Red Army went back to their home countries, destabilizing them further. Russia does not wish to see further instability, and it also does not wish to see the return of fighters to the currently pacified Chechnya.
  4. Finally, entering Syria further enhances Putin’s anti-American rhetoric. Putin sees the US as the primary impetus in the collapse of Ukraine and Syria, and he views the unilateral War on Terror as the event which created ISIS. Putin doesn’t seek global influence, but he does want Russia to be a regional hegemon. He cloaks his regional activities in the language of fixing problems created by the US. If you believe that the US indirectly created ISIS, than you are going to respect Russia when they undertake the burden of fixing the ISIS problem-a burden which the US has thus far ignored.
  5. Keeping Syria alive justifies Russia’s foreign policy coup some years back when the US was considering airstrikes. Russia negotiated an agreement for Assad to let go of his chemical weapons, which took the wind right out of the US sails. Saving Syria years ago leads to another point:
  6. Putin believes Assad can be saved or, at least, he wants to believe it. Assad is the last chance Russia has in the region and Putin needs Assad. Contrary to what some media outlets suggest (that Russia is prepping for what happens once Assad falls) I believe that it is Putin’s goal to see Assad’s regime remain stable.
  7. All of this likely enhances Putin’s own popularity with Russian citizens who generally wish to see a strong, vibrant Motherland.

Of course, Charlie Rose brought up a sharp criticism of Putin’s plans for Syria. What if Russia is just contributing to the problem? Putin defended Assad and ultimately justified brutality over disorder, but I can’t tell if he appreciates the connection between brutality and disorder. To what extend is Assad the force of order and to what extent is he the actual disease? Can you go on ruling a population after you unleashed chemical weapons to choke their cries for democracy?

While the destabilization of Iraq contributed to the birth of ISIS, what can be said about the backing of secular Muslim leaders that was common practice on both sides of the Cold War? Is Arab nationalism sufficient for stable, inspiring governments?

Is nothing else, radical Islam is a reaction against this form of secular government. It is a rebellion against the perceived Western interference that inflates these regimes, and it is a flat out rejection of secular norms. Supporting dictators was the logical move in the Middle East. Democracy doesn’t exactly have strong roots and atheistic Communism lacks a widespread appeal for a culture that does not separate religion and politics. But secular governments are become increasingly untenable in a region, and the rise of terrorism as a last resort is a key indicator of this. In fighting ISIS is Russia cleaning up the mess left by the USA, or is Russia merely trying to pay off a cheque that has bounced one too many times?

Do I think that Russia will get involved in the same way they did in Afghanistan? No. Putin is too smart for that. But to some extent I feel like Russia has not learned anything. Somehow, they didn’t get the message from the bloody tattered corpse of Najibullah swinging in the breeze. It is abundantly clear that secular dictators have failed.

Of course, it is even more abundantly clear that radical ideologies are even more dangerous. Secular governments are mired in the past while terrorism destroys its own future. What then is the logical policy to take in the Middle East? Can the major actors of the world create any stability here?

Putin has cast his die, and he is in support of the lesser evil. When faced with Assad or ISIS, choose Assad. This isn’t a long term solution, but a short term patch. Yet again, Putin seems to implicitly accept-and embody-the notion that a nation needs all the time it can get to finally achieve stability. Of course, what if the Assad regime has lived its lifespan and what if now we are finally seeing a revolution that will bring lasting stability to the Middle East? Will democracy somehow manage to emerge from the smoldering wreckage of ISIS? Can we even be confident that ISIS will collapse.

Backing Assad is a temporary move and can go any number of ways. Far from coming from a position of strength, it seems like Putin is living paycheque to paycheque, pragmatically taking advantage of whatever he can and hoping risks pay off. Putin has been very lucky so far.

Meanwhile Assad’s luck seems to be scattering to the wind like the last agonized screamed of Najibullah.

Update: 10/1/15. So Putin is not attacking ISIS but rather Western backed Syrian Rebels. Of course, by Putin’s definition the Syrian Rebels are terrorists.

1, 2, 3, 4! I declare a Cold War: Twilight Struggle (Part One)

And now for something completely different…

We are currently living in a Renaissance of Gaming. Expanding computer horizons and the increasing omnipresence of the web has truly brought multiplayer gaming to its logical conclusion.

But the topic of this post isn’t a video game. Its something much more low-tech. Today we’ll be looking at a board game! Fantastic board games have come out in the last few years. Perhaps you have played some of them or at least seen them; Puerto Rico, Agricola, Dominion-the list goes on and on. But today we’re going to the top of the list, today we’ll be looking at the reigning champion of Board Game Geeks best list: Twilight Struggle. I highly recommend looking into it although it is on a limited production so good luck getting your hands on a copy.

Named after an epithet Kennedy gave to the Cold War, Twilight Struggle is a game about the Cold War. There are two players, the USA and the USSR. While not Russian per se I feel that discussing the appearance of Russian in non-Russian media is important. Twilight Struggle is one of the rare games that I feel gives an accurate and intelligent portrayal of the Soviet Union so I feel that it merits discussion. I plan on also reviewing, at a much later time, Russian’s appearance in Axis and Allies.

Because Twilight Struggle is massively complex I have decided to create two posts about it. The first will just detail the mechanics, while the second will actually be a review of the game.

The game is filled to the brim with references to the Cold War, both pop culture and obscure, and the manual actually includes a chapter giving you the history behind each and every event card. Wait. Event Cards?

Mechanics (you may wish to look up some pictures)

 You see, Twilight Struggle is a card based political wargame. Each player is dealt a hand of cards representing Cold War events and figures. Each card has an event, an “operations point” value, and an affiliation. If I play either an event tied to my country or a neutral event I can choose whether to trigger the event or just take the “operations points” (herein known as “ops”). If I play a card affiliated with my rival I am forced to trigger the event (not in my favor) and use the ops, although I can determine whether or not I play the ops before the event triggers. Very rarely will you have a hand completely favorable to you, so the art is determining how to play your cards and in what order. Hell, its actually disadvantageous to have a hand completely favorable to you since you will have to discard your hands. Adding to the strategy of card placement is the Space Race, which allows players to discard cards and roll a die for a chance of gaining points and temporary advantages.

After both players choose a “headliner” card which takes effect immediately, play progresses into alternating Soviet-US actions (both of which make up a round). 6-8 rounds make up a turn and there are 10 turns total (each represented by a Soviet or American leader). The first 3 turns represent the Early Cold War, the middle 4 represent the Middle Cold War, and the last 3 represent the Late Cold War. Cards are cycled at set intervals in a way that forces every card into play at some point, and as the game enters the Middle and Late phases new cards are introduced.

There are two main goals in the game.

  1. Come out with the most victory points [VP]. Unlike most games which feature points as a sort of limitless commodity, the points system of Twilight Struggle creates a zero-sum game. The points track is a continuum ranging from 20 (Soviet victory) to -20 (USA victory), and any side which reaches its end will immediately win. What results is a brutal tug-of-war where both sides are constantly trying to gain the upper hand or, at the very least, hinder the other. There are many ways to gain points, although the main method involves using score cards (see below).
  2. Ensuring that nuclear war does not start on your turn. This results in an automatic loss. The proximity to doomsday is represented by the DEFCON countdown, another continuum ranging from 5-1, with 5 being peace and 1 being nuclear war. Certain aggressive cards and acts will lower DEFCON, while other cards and patience will increase DEFCON. As DEFCON falls both sides will find their options constrained, and manipulating the DEFCON meter is a critical skill. Its generally easy to avoid starting nuclear war, although it is possible to accidentally cause it so be careful.

All of this plays out on a map featuring many countries strung together across different regions. Starting from positions reflecting the actual post-WWII political arrangements, the USA and USSR work to consolidate their posts and push into other territories by spreading influence. Each nation has a stability factor: states like Haiti have a meagre 1 while the UK has a stability of 5. A player controls a nation when their influence matches or exceeds stability. Keeping with the zero-sum motif, the presence of enemy influence in the same country subtracts my own influence, which forces me to pump even more energy into that country or attempt to remove enemy influence. Certain, historically significant countries are deemed “battlegrounds” and are worth more points. Aggression towards battleground states also degrades DEFCON. Why does it matter to control countries? The answer is simple: scoring cards. There are a few cards in the game that each player cannot discard or hold past 1 turn that score a region based on how many countries and battlegrounds I control in that particular region. You get points for having a presence in the area, but you get far more for having domination or total control, and therefore you have an incentive to constantly expand and force the opponent out. Since each card is cycled you must keep mental tabs on what score cards are in play and recognize that your opponent may have one. Scoring cards structure gameplay and often lead you to focus on a particular region (although its always fun to focus on other regions as a diversion from your grand strategy). At the very end of the game every region is scored and points are tallied.

Events are huge in spreading influence and definitely shake up the game. Certain events can only be placed once while others have special prerequisites or compliment other cards, but they aren’t everything. Remember how each card is worth a certain number of “ops?” I can use these ops in three ways to further my control:

  1. I can use ops to place influence in countries adjacent to those that have some of my influence (domino theory anyone?). One ops equals one influence. I can also choose to place influence in an opponents country although if they control it I must use 2 ops instead of 1 to make any headway. This is the primary and most predictable method of spreading influence.
  2. I can use ops to conduct a coup anywhere my opponent has influence. I add the ops of my card to a dice roll and weight it against the stability of the target nation multiplied by two. (Yes, there is some chance involved but the mark of a good game is controlled risk rather than rampant risk). The difference between my roll and the stability of the target, if there is any, will remove enemy influence and potentially add my own. While its hard to coup a nation like Israel, it is easy to shake up a country like Angola. Coups count as aggressive acts and have the potential to lower the DEFCON. Coups also fulfill “required military operations”; basically if I do more powerful coups than my opponent I gain extra points.
  3. Ops can also go into realignment, which enables me to remove enemy influence from a country. Realignment is strongest in countries surrounded by my own influence, although they are less likely to succeed in countries embedded in the enemy camp. For this reason, realignments are highly context based although they can be enormously successfully. I can do one realignment per ops, which makes them very interesting and fun.

Are there any mechanics I am missing? I think I am only missing the “China Card.” The third wheel of the Cold War, China provides as much leverage in the game as it did in real life. The USSR starts with China (the whole Chinese Civil War thing), but the card gets passed to the other player once used and can be used once a turn. China does nothing but grant lots of ops, but this makes it exceptionally valuable. Certain cards (“Nixon Goes to China” for instance) can rip the China Card from an opponent.

Wow. That was a lot to cover…Now lets actually review the game shall we?

I’ve been fairly busy as of late so I apologize. I will roll out the other half of this post within the week hopefully, so stay tuned.

Game of Corn: Medvedev and Medvedev’s Khrushchev

game of corn

Sometimes the wrong man in the right place can make all  the difference…

Bookended by the vicious and cold Stalin and the stodgy and dreary Brezhnev we find the most unusual tsar Russia has ever seen. Born to a peasant family, this tsar had a unique tie to the common people and frequently paid visits to his subjects and shared some crude jokes with them. Prone to mischief and bombastic polemics, here was a tsar unrestrained by formalities. His name is synonymous with failure and “hair-brained schemes” but he was probably the greatest reformer Russia had seen since Tsar Alexander II. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was a complex man.

While inarticulate in Marxist-Leninist theory, Khrushchev was able to rise to the top of Stalin’s inner circle by virtue of his supreme ability to organize and manage people. Khrushchev was not afraid to get dirty and during WWII was a political presence on the front during Stalingrad. Nikita was complicit in Stalin’s terror, but unlike other figures associated with the terror Nikita would seem to show regret and repentance towards the end. He had a good head on his shoulders and an earthy soul; as such he was a much needed change from Stalin.

I recently finished Khrushchev: The Years in Power by Roy and Zhores Medvedev. The twin Medvedev’s were prominent dissident writers of the Soviet Era. Roy, trapped inside the USSR, and Zhores, living in exile in London, made a unique pair since they were in a position to publish abroad while making the samizdat circles behind the Iron Curtain. Samizdat refers to works unofficially passed around and copied by hand; a necessary step to circumvent censorship.

The Years in Power refers to the period from 1953-64. Following the death of Stalin, Khrushchev would emerge as top leader after a brief power struggle. He would rule for a few years before being deposed by the Communist Party and forced into a pensioned retirement. Many in the West know Khrushchev best for his wild foreign policy forays including, but not limited to the U-2 incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his now famous shoe-banging incident at the UN. Khrushchev was a dynamic and challenging foe in the early phase of the Cold War but he was too unfocused and fell by the wayside due to this.

The Medvedev brothers challenge this international relations-centric view however. Their book scarcely dedicates any time to Khrushchev as a participant in the Cold War, and they see his rise and fall as primarily due to isolated domestic factors, namely agriculture.Khrushchev understood agriculture better than anyone else in Stalin’s inner circle which mattered at a time when agriculture was in tatters. Collectivization enabled the Soviet Union to scrape by but after WWII agriculture was in an especially poor state. Many leaders, under the influence of the quack geneticist Lysenko, wanted to push Soviet agriculture to adopt bold experimentation that anyone with common sense would have rejected. Khrushchev understood the need for more realistic agriculture and rejected Lysenko’s inane theories, and he was able to stand up to other members of the top leadership to push his solutions (and defend the Ukraine that he had long reigned over). Several good harvests validated Khrushchev and gave him greater legitimacy in the leadership to such a degree that, following Stalin’s death, he was put in charge of the Party.

This position didn’t make grant Khrushchev all power as one who watched Stalin might have thought. Rather, a system of collective leadership emerged where Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich, among others, all ruled together after having the creepy Beria killed. Medvedev and Medvedev do a great job of tracking Khrushchev’s in-fighting within the leadership. When in competition with others for decision making, Khrushchev’s political sense was legendary. He was able to use his Secretary position to make all the right friends and put them in all the right places. He was the most ardent supporter of de-Stalinization, with won him support among the intelligentsia, the common person, and those being returned from the Gulag camps to resume their careers with the Party. Again, Khrushchev’s knowledge of agriculture gave him a distinctive edge as well, and a few decisions ended up drastically boosting Soviet agriculture. With this, Khrushchev was able to win out over the top leaders who opposed him and by 1957 he had reached a position of virtual autocrat. The Medvedev brothers clearly organize everything and show how all of the aforementioned elements culminated in the rise of Khrushchev.

But things did not bode well for Khrushchev…

Medvedev and Medvedev’s book rides like a roller coaster. It starts off quiet and slowly builds up. Finally we reach the top, our protagonist has finally succeeded and now stands poised to overcome all obstacles! But then the roller coaster immediately goes downhill before mellowing out again and ending up where it started.

The moment Khrushchev succeeded, he failed. Khrushchev gained power by having an inexplicably keen political awareness. He could sense the issues and needs of the common man and average Party member and, more importantly, could use this to outmaneuver rivals. Khrushchev was a brazen, boisterous, and bouncy brawler; here was a real political animal. But what happens when you take the lion out of the jungle? What happens when the wrestler is out of the ring? What do you do in pokemon once you defeat the champion?

Its all downhill from there. Once Khrushchev is in power he had nothing holding him back. Without criticism and foes, without people to outwit, Khrushchev just ran around aimlessly full of good intentions and self-assured confidence. Medvedev and Medvedev present this change as almost night and day. The first half is nothing but up, up, and away. The second half is a crash course fall down the stairs. Khrushchev’s trademark common sense seems to simply fade. Rather than concentrate and develop the collective farms that had the potential to be efficient, Khrushchev sought corners to cut. Lets introduce corn! Lets raise production quotas to outstrip the US! Lets go out to Kazakhstan and grow on Virgin Soil! Never mind the fact that corn is unfamiliar and unpopular. Never mind the potential fallout of trying to meat goals without any fertilizer or safe supply lines. Never mind the fact that virgin soil quickly just turns into soil after a few harvests.

Khrushchev had trouble seeing the details. He didn’t put in place the needed infrastructure, meaning that any gains were only temporary and would quickly evaporate into dire crises. The Medvedevs organize their chapters in a rough chronological-topical order and they show how problems rapidly started compounding off of one another. As one reform failed, Khrushchev only sought for greater reform in order to amend it. They also point out the ways in which Khrushchev eventually began to isolate Party support by building up a cult of personality and by relying on a few unofficial advisers (among them Lysenko who managed to work his psuedo-scientific ways into Khrushchev’s agriculture designs with sycophantic promises of bolstered agriculture).

By 1964 Khrushchev would find himself with nothing. His agricultural policies having failed, and the Party increasingly wary of constant reorganization and an unhappy populace, Khrushchev was forced into an early retirement and given a pretty nice pension. I honestly loved the ending of the book; I actually get a little teary thinking about a sad, deflated Khrushchev in retirement.

Medvedev and Medvedev give a very fair assessment of Khrushchev. Generally they see his contribution as a positive one: even if he created lasting agricultural curses he cracked Stalinism and began to open up the Soviet Union for a brief period (just brief enough, maybe, to create the taste for freedom that would power samizdat). 

The Years in Power is a great book because it deals almost exclusively with the question of agriculture and domestic politics. In general I understood the reforms Khrushchev initiated and the shifts he brought to the Party. This book goes far more in-depth and covers all of the reforms in a long-term big-picture perspective. It neatly executes a clean theme of rise-fall.

I really wish that it was longer though. Even if the international dynamics are more familiar to foreign audiences I think it would have been wise to discuss Khrushchev’s approaches to China, the Eastern Bloc, and the United States more in depth. Yet again, the main message of the Years in Power is that it is agriculture, not grand politics, that contributed to Khrushchev’s rise and fall. Of course, the book isn’t always clearly committed to this theme. One of the main reasons the authors praise Khrushchev in the conclusion is due to his commitment to peaceful coexistence, which just feels out of place after reading 180 pages of internal politics.

Oh, just 180 pages? Yep! The book totals 189 which is short for a monograph. This book is very no nonsense; think political writing by Hemingway. They cover a ton of content and a wide breadth of such a brief period. Its a quick read that forces you to reappraise the Khrushchev era. Overall I recommend this book and I plan on picking up some of there other monographs. That’s it. Now excuse me while I retire to my dacha with pension and corn in hand.

Irish Stalin: Red Monarch

Wait…You mean Stalin wasn’t Irish?!

Also spoilers although you will probably never watch the film so don’t worry just keep reading…

My favorite film of 1983 is not Return of the Jedi. As much as I love the Jabba the Hutt first act the final act falls a little flat. Incidentally, the film also isn’t WarGames although that will merit a post later. My favorite movie of 1983 is something that you probably have never heard of. It is something you have never seen, and most likely will never seen. Which is a shame. Would you change your mind if I told you it was a made-for-TV britcom?

Set in the hazy twilight years of Stalin, Red Monarch is a surprisingly deep political satire. At times it is almost too deep; it panders more to well read Sovietologists than your average voter. Despite solid acting, charming set design, and all of the other components that make a good film its humour is vague and hard to decipher…unless you study the Soviet era, in which case its hilarious.

Red Monarch follows Stalin’s last days. Surrounded by a coterie of sycophants and caught up in his own paranoia and intrigue, we get an intimate view into Stalin’s life, and into the lives of those who served him. Certainly there is a great deal of embellishment involved but it resonates pretty well without bastardizing history completely. One of the more memorable scenes has Stalin doing an interview with a clueless American woman in his movie theatre. Meanwhile his cohorts are in the back adjusting reels of film in an attempt to synchronize inspiring movie scenes with Stalin’s monologues. Beria sits in on the interview and dissolves into uncomfortably whimpering as he grows visibly infatuated towards the American. What may seem like an incoherent and clunky scene is actually pretty ingenious while you think of it. Even if Stalin would never grant an outsider an interview in his last years (he did grant interviews earlier though) its all a giant metaphor for his attempt to project propaganda and build a cult of personality. His sniveling servants controlling the background emphasize the reality that Stalin was isolated from the world; his perceptions of reality were largely coloured by reports from others. Beria’s inappropriate behavior…well…we’ll get to that later.

I will admit that the movie is rather dry but each scene is carefully crafted to get a point across. There isn’t much of a cohesive plot but the slow roasted jokes and character arcs come to fruition quite well. Some long scenes end without much of a punchline only to later be finished 20 minutes later in a brief 5 second flash. One such scene just popped into my mind actually. Stalin is being guarded by a soldier while he sleeps. This soldier is by all means perfect in that he is fanatically nationalistic. At one point Stalin wakes up and starts interrogating the soldier. Everything goes well until Stalin asks the name of the soldier’s son. The soldier, ever the loyal communist, named his son after both Lenin AND Stalin. Unfortunately Stalin immediately gets jealous that Lenin’s name comes first and so he has the soldier arrested. At the very end of the movie a very brief glimpse of the soldier is shown: the soldier is praising Stalin while he is in front of a firing squad. This joke accurately sums up the relationship of Stalin and citizen.

Scenes like this work because the acting from everyone is excellent. Stalin is played by an Irish actor, Colin Blakely. While the Irish accent is a little jarring it is easy to get past. Blakely does a great job capturing Stalin. Constantly contemptuous, generally reserved, and seething with suspicion, Blakely still manages to strike a fatherly tone. Somehow he manages to humanize the character. A scene towards the end has Stalin visiting the tomb of his dead wife. Stalin was famously distraught at the death of his wife and in the movie he loses his composure and seems to blame some of his problems on her. There is clearly something wrong with Blakely’s Stalin but it goes far beyond bloodlust. Stalin is deeply troubled and plagued with paranoia, and it is this that drives him, and Russia, into darkness.

As great as Blakely is, I think that Beria steals the show. Now, this film is unique in that it portrays, and briefly introduces, several members of the Politburo. Molotov, Mikoyan, and others all get screen time. Beria gets the most time out of everyone however, and he gets plenty of scenes on his own as well. David Suchet plays a conniving, angry, and manic Beria. Although Suchet’s Beria is a tad squirrely, it only makes Beria infinitely more creepy. Aside from controlling the secret police apparatus, Beria also allegedly had an appetite for abducting and raping girls (we’ll assess these accusations in another post). In the Red Monarch Beria chooses women to assault in between fantasizing about Stalin’s death. In the film Stalin was aware of this and used the threat of exposure to keep Beria in line. While the historical accuracy of all of this is subject it still shows the nature of politics in Stalin’s court. At the very least Beria’s…er…appetites make him a nice foil to Stalin. Whereas the Stalin in this film represent cold, aloof terror, Beria represents a more personal and vile terror.

Essentially we have a plot being driven by two antagonists and we really can’t determine who is worse. This black-black dichotomy is only cemented in the final scene. A play-by-play of the popular accounts of Stalin’s death, this scene is a delightfully charming and accurate portrayal of the tyrant’s final minutes. Beria becomes delighted when seeing the dead tyrant although he instantly recoils in fear when the paralyzed Stalin opens his eyes in anger. At this point Beria does the only thing he can, diverting from history in the process. He reaches down with both hands and strangles Stalin as the other Politburo members file into the room and smile (I’m pretty sure Khrushchev smiles the largest, which is a nice touch). No, Beria didn’t actually kill Stalin (we think), but this is a perfect capstone to the movie. As terrible as Stalin was, this was a key point. Who would leadership fall too? The front-runner at the time and in the film was Beria, which would most definitely not be an improvement. Fortunately Beria would not come to rule the USSR, but are any of the other lackeys any better? Once again, Beria and the personal violence he inflicts seems to resonate more than the impersonal, grandiose nature of Stalin’s crimes. It puts us in a morally uncomfortable position.

The film is far from perfect though. Most people would probably think that the rape jokes following Beria are done in poor taste; Suchet’s ridiculously zany acting is the only thing making them appropriate for a comedy film. Mao Zedong’s scene is also uncomfortably racist although it is funny to see Stalin get worked up in his attempts to entertain someone he doesn’t really understand. I would say some of these less tasteful jokes are ok given the role they serve in promoting the films satire, but I recognize that not many people would be as forgiving as I am. Additionally I would say that the pacing of the film is uneven. On occasional this serves a great satiric effect, at other times it comes off as a tad off putting.

Overall the Red Monarch is a great and unique historical film. It doesn’t pander to popular history but rather anchors itself in deep waters and works from these points. It is most likely the best film that has been made on Stalin and deviates from history in ways that convey deeper meaning and understanding.

Plus Stalin sounds great as an Irishman…

The Spirit Haunting Russia Part II: Schrad’s “Vodka Politics”

Drinking is the joy of the Rus‘, we can’t go without it.-Vladimir the Great

This is part two of a series I am running on Russia and alcohol. If you missed part I, click here! The first post provides some context, a brief overview, and also reveals some of my own thoughts on the topic. I’m no expert, and so you should definitely be able to track the progression and development of my thoughts on the topic at hand. 

Enough introduction. Sit down. Pour yourself a drink. Its time for book reviews.

img025

The quintessential Russia spirit, vodka is an important ingredient in a startling array of cocktails. But is vodka also an important ingredient in Russia’s autocratic statecraft? Mark Schrad would say “yes” and despite this concept being a nice basis for a sci-fi story what follows is a delightfully readable yet harrowing fact-finding monograph.

It is impossible to think of Russia without thoughts of vodka being right around the next brain fold; but usually any deeper analysis stops here. No one really bothers turning the corner or asking why Russians like vodka. Unless you are doing research into public health crises, any undergrad work (or post-grad for that matter) may just look over vodka completely. This is an easy mistake to make since it is more rational to ascribe agency and impact to historical figures, organizations, or contexts. It is tempting, simple, and pretty effective to look at Russian history in terms of Tsars, political parties, secret police forces, the military, etc. Something like vodka can’t possibly be an element of history can it?

Vodka is so easily overlooked because it is so universal; every regime since Ivan the Terrible’s has been drenched in vodka so its taken for granted. When you actually put some thought into it the ubiquitous presence of vodka throughout Russian should immediately raise some alarms. Vodka ranks up their with a few other universals in Russian history: autocracy, centralization, and corruption. Among these constants, vodka is the only tangible one. Maybe that is why we overlook vodka: when you look at the big picture you are naturally going to favor bolder, larger ideas.

No one suspects vodka…and that is why it is so effective.

Schrad saw between the lines though. Schrad suspected vodka and decided to give it a chug to see what was in the bottle What follows is Vodka Politics. What does this title exactly refer to? Vodka politics is a term applied to any interaction between politics and vodka. How did government policy affect vodka and how did vodka affect policy. More importantly, how did vodka define relations between state and citizens? Schrad’s thesis is that vodka is an essential ingredient in the cocktail that is Russian autocracy. Russian autocracy has encouraged and promoted alcoholism to such a degree that the two entities support one another. Usually vodka is double-edged sword, with the state relying on vodka for revenue and centralization at the expense of public health. But the relationship between vodka and autocracy is not always clear. I think this makes the topic even more thought provoking: vodka has become so entrenched that it has virtually taken on a life of its own.

Firstly I would say that this is a well constructed book, which is remarkable since we’re dealing with the broad and ethereal concept that is “vodka politics.” This book is from a university press which makes it a monograph; note to students, monographs are great for papers! Monographs tend to be dry, boring, and hard to slog through, but this book reads smoother than a shot of Stoli Elit. A lot of reviews of this book use the word “popular history” in a derogatory fashion. This book is much deeper than a popular history and the attention to detail shows, but it still manages to read like one. Schrad has found the unique intersection between content and artistry. Its not easy to craft a monograph that a layman or novice student could comprehend, but Schrad achieves it.

Students looking to brush up on their writing styles could learn a thing or two (or seven) from Schrad. He juggles evidence, analysis, anecdotes, and procedure with plenty of poise. A student could learn valuable ways to introduce a topic in a way that captures interest. They could also learn how to develop and balance a complex thesis; Schrad takes an ambitious thesis and handles it in a simple, straightforward fashion. You can certainly get a feeling for the process that went into this. Most notable is the way Schrad transitions from raw history to raw analysis while weaving his argument throughout. Not only students, but scholars could benefit from this as well. This work is lucid, and I think “reads like a popular history” is a massive compliment. That still might turn off some people though, so lets just say that it “reads like an excessively well-written monograph.” At least one reviewer was turned off because they felt like this was taking advantage of Russian stereotypes. Schrad isn’t making fun of Russia’s alcoholism or taking advantage of it in any way. Quite the opposite, he treats it as a devastating demographic crisis that is the result of social and political processes rather than any natural inclinations of the Russian people.

Schrad’s work would also be great for a novice student to read because it covers the entire spectrum of Russian history. It hits all the high points, dabbles in the more scandalous stories, summons up cultural references and, perhaps most importantly, speaks all the lingo. The twist is that Schrad looks for the presence of vodka throughout this history. Any history professor will tell you that Ivan the Great centralized Russia, but a reading of Schrad will give you a little more detail. Ivan saw the potential of using vodka to fund state expansion while concentrating power in taverns, and thus he represents the gap between the well-intended social drinking past and the depraved alcoholic future. Vodka would play a key role in bankrolling the state, but it would also have extraordinary importance in courtly politics. It became a central piece of serfdom as well. Peasants worked to produce grain which, with little investment, would be turned into vodka. This vodka, born of exploitative labour, would then be sold to the peasants and squeeze more wealth out of them. Ivan the Great and Peter, anticipating Stalin, would use vodka to keep guests and potential rivals off-guard. Schrad effectively shows how the birth of vodka and autocracy go hand-in-hand.

But, Schrad goes onto show how alcohol plays a much more dynamic role that merely supplying a steady source of income. Vodka is usually present in regime changes, with power struggles often ending in favour of whatever leader kept alcohol flowing into soldier’s cups. An abundance of alcohol could be as decisive as a lack: attempts to enforce prohibition by Tsar Nicholas II and Gorbachev emptied state coffers, bred discontent, and exacerbated economic issues at a time when Russia was at its most vulnerable. The question of prohibition factors hugely into vodka politics. Temperance movements in the late 1800s, which had the sympathy and blessings of eminent figures like Tolstoy, were brutally forced down by the government, with police beating protesters until they would drink. No wonder Russia lacks a strong civil society: it was drown in alcohol! The Bolsheviks originally were strong advocates of prohibition but gradually came around. Stalin felt like vodka, and the taxes it made, was the only way to power his industrial designs and thus reinvented the vodka monopoly. Prohibition, by the way, was one of the major issues that split Stalin and many of the rivals he would eventually bury. Schrad accepts that vodka may not have been the dominant force in these transitions, but his exhaustive research shows us that the presence of vodka in revolution is more than mere coincidence.

Vodka politics weigh heavily on economics as well. Not only did the population become dependent on vodka, but the government became dependent on vodka profits. Only the bravest, most noble and suicidal leaders would try to cut off the main stream of revenue by dealing with the demons of alcohol. Top down attempts to sober up often only drove alcohol underground, with people brewing haphazard, toxic samogon that only exacerbated crises. At the very least vodka does serve a valuable function as currency for whenever the economy collapses. This only lends more credence to vodka politics having a mind of their own. There is no effective way of getting rid of vodka politics without causing damage somewhere. The state treasury depends on it for profit. People depend on it for comfort and relief and are more than ready to drink anything they can get their hands on. Many individuals benefit from the blat (a sort of systemic corruption) that vodka production and pouring gives them and are unwilling to part with this power

And herein lies the tragedy of vodka politics. While it is fun to see how vodka influences grand politics and how it rears its ugly head in times of change, there are real human costs. Russian men die exceptionally early. Families are broken and shattered. Russian health and population are in decline. Schrad makes an excellent point when he suggests that vodka has “demodernized” Russia, and he goes to great lengths to show just how gristly the impact of vodka is. In keeping with his thesis, Schrad obviously belief that the solution to Russian alcoholism would be to decouple it from centralization and autocracy, but this would require an unlikely appearance of civil society. Schrad admits this is a difficulty, but still stands by his solution. I don’t see his suggestion as feasible though, at least not yet. Grassroots politics are still very weak and, even if they gained momentum, would have little impact on a Kremlin that is increasingly corrupt and aloof. Yet again, herein may lie the answer: an uncaring government may force people to care about their own issues and problems. Maybe this is the stuff of strong civil society; maybe it is just wishful thinking inspired by the same neo-liberal worldview that loves sanctions. Putin and vodka remain genuinely popular.

The irony is that alcoholism has reached disastrous proportions at a time when the government really has no need of vodka in maintaining power or meeting budgets. Putin’s interest in curbing alcoholism seems shallow. At the very least he is willing to do photoshoots: a recent video has appeared of Putin working out and taking tea with Medvedev. I agree with Schrad that Medvedev is more promising, but Medvedev does not seem to be the power behind the throne. A regime that goes to great lengths to impress and carefully guard domestic support would never undercut itself by trying to confront alcoholism. For now at least it seems as if Russia must stomach more hangovers…

I have tried to do justice to Schrad’s book by discussing some of the major arguments. I could never hope to convey the same amount of detail Schrad does: he somehow manages to find the strands of vodka politics in almost every second of Russian history. His detective work and bold thesis are commendable. Vodka politics isn’t the whole story, and I would never assign it primacy in Russian history, but Schrad never makes any bold claims that he has found the key to understanding Russia forever. He recognizes that he is dealing with a young idea that needs more room to grow and justify itself within the literature.

It might be easier to point out some of the flaws of his work. For starters, I found quite a few typos and syntax errors. I blame these on the editor. Additionally I likely made more errors in this post, so I won’t hold grammar against anybody. I think Schrad structures his work well when he looks at Russian history in sequential eras but I feel like his approach can be too broad at times. At best he writes extremely in-depth and reaches brilliant conclusions. At other times his findings are brief and feel forced. This results in a feeling of uneven pacing in his book. I can’t fault him for wanting to be exhaustive and I will admit that it is often clear when he is making a serious argument and when he is just trying to create intrigue but pacing is certainly an issue. It is probably most egregious in the chapters on the Soviet era, which seems to skip the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He actually opens the book with some discussion of Stalin’s vodka parties but this would probably have been more appropriate if they were fit into the chronological structure of the work rather than used as an introduction. I feel like Khrushchev was all but snubbed. Jumping around is a major problem in a book where the modus operandi is to sniff out vodka in every ounce of Russian history by bringing up every mention of it everywhere. I think the pacing issue could be reconciled by a thesis that matches the book’s structure. Rather than try to define vodka politics as a broad, nebulous idea, Schrad should have built a thesis that grappled with the historical development of vodka politics: perhaps there is an initial age of using vodka to centralize power followed by a more dynamic and uncertain era resulting from unintended consequences.

Overall this book is good. I recommend reading it if you have eyes. It is a delightful read that has the same zeal for Russia that powers this blog. It will be hard to overcome the temptation to bring up vodka from now on when I am trying to discuss something in depth since Schrad covers most of his bases by tying virtually everything into vodka somehow. A scholar may be annoyed that the book revisits a lot of the basics, but any student would appreciate this attention to detail. Unlike most monographs, Schrad doesn’t seem to be writing strictly for an academic audience. He is careful to introduce topics and establish grounding in a way that anyone could pick up on. Pacing issues aside, Schrad does an excellent job of developing and working with a unique, daring, and fresh thesis. You can still see gaps and rough edges, but this isn’t a bad thing at all. There is plenty of room for the concept of vodka politics to grow and develop. I will be watching Schrad and will likely pick up his other books. I hope that he continues to work with vodka politics and publishes work that will polish his thesis more…and I hope that more people will become aware of the big problem facing Russia.

In memory of Dr. Belgrad who taught me how to read and think critically