L’appel du Vide

L’appel du vide. “Call of the void.” The common man or woman might experience it as the urge to veer off the road or hop off a cliff. It’s a fleeting, transitive moment of sudden insanity. The sane mind summons the call with a spark of morbid curiosity and dismisses it just as easily.

Do world leaders ever suffer from this same lapse of reason? Does the leader of a superpower ever get a sudden inspiration to launch nukes and start World War III? Yes, I suppose so, but I don’t imagine they entertain the ideas for much longer. This isn’t to say that WWIII isn’t possible, or that nation-states don’t prepare for it-I am simply saying that WWIII is not a viable policy choice, especially because states prepare for it.

Increasingly though the media would have us believe that this is not the case. Various news channels argue that Vladimir Putin is preparing for war. Quite frankly, there are some scary signs. Putin has given unfaltering support to Assad in Syria where Russia and America are increasingly at loggerheads. Russia is apparently escalating the situation by moving a fleet into the Mediterranean, although the fact that Russia has halted its campaign for the time being may come as a relief. Still, there are other acts as well, such as the stationing of short range missiles in Kaliningrad, a sizable exclave just north of Poland. Putin is increasingly rattling the nuclear sabre.

But the idea that all of this could signal future aggression on the part of Russia is simply implausible for a rather important reason: namely that WWIII would likely be a suicidal venture. Unfortunately, people just don’t seem to pick up on this fact. There is a false perception in the media, the Pentagon, and beyond that there is such a thing as limited war. The idea is that it is possible for two superpowers to restrict themselves to using only a few nukes while relying primarily on conventional power.  Different agents use this falsehood to justify various ends: the media likes to drum up fear, the Pentagon wants to justify its budgets, the President wants to seem tough, and, most importantly, Russia wants to try and cultivate the perception that nukes are on the table as an option.

This strategy isn’t new; Nixon tried to convince North Vietnam that he was ready to nuke Hanoi as part of his “madman theory.” Why else would the U.S. have declared DEFCON 2 before the Gulf War if not to put the fear of the bomb into Saddam? In these circumstances this just might work. A nuclear power can afford to blackmail a non-nuclear power because the latter party has no recourse. The nuclear party could, conceivably, launch a one-sided nuclear war and win with no losses: the question simply becomes “how desperate does the nuclear power have to be to consider this option.” The intent of such a strategy is to have a chilling effect on the other side’s policy, but history has shown that this seldom works. N. Vietnam didn’t seem to care much at any rate.

And if a non-nuclear power wouldn’t care, then why would another nuclear power care? Threatening to use nukes against another nuclear power is the equivalent of contemplating suicide, only on a vastly larger scale. No matter how desperate either side might get, it is better to remain desperate and alive than risk annihilation.

Suffice it to say, the nuclear alarmism of the media is bogus. Even if relations are completely sour, even if Syria is being bombed into oblivion, even if Russia remains in control of Crimea, I don’t think that there is any possibility of a new World War breaking out. The risks are simply too great. Russia is just bluffing in the great international poker game, using its nukes as chips. Far from being an irrational, unpredictable foe, Russia is taking carefully calculated risks.

Recent statements by Gorbachev reveal that the real danger in these conditions is not that Russia is willing to use nukes but rather than Russia is willing to use nukes as a bargaining chip. Russia has de-prioritized nuclear disarmament, in the process undoing a great deal of Gorbachev’s legacy and the lengthy status quo of mutual disarmament embodied in the so-called New START initiative. By reviving and updating strategic nuclear forces, Russia is beginning a new trend that other great powers will surely follow. It seems that nuclear weapons will stay with us for a little longer now…

But why even bother? What are Russia’s ultimate aims. Russia of course wants to impress people at home and intimidate people abroad. Russia remains skilled at taking advantage of organized chaos and playing out events for its benefit as it seeks normalized relations with the West and stability for Assad.

But I think the main reason for so much recent activity is something far more sinister, and silly: Russia wants Trump to win. A Clinton victory on November 8th (which seems increasingly likely) would mean continued sanctions, neo-liberal policy, and marginalization for Russia. Trump, on the other hand, has stated that he would try to get along well with Putin and place a priority on cooperation against terrorism (something the Kremlin has been wanting for years now as a way to brush over that whole Crimea thing). There are allegations, probably well-founded, that Russia is involved in leaks and hacks aimed at smearing Hillary in order to keep her from the White House. Obviously this does not sit well with Washington and there is growing talk of a retaliatory cyberattack against Russia being readied.

Cyberwarfare is a totally new front. Since they don’t necessarily result in collateral damage or casualties, there is far less stigma in using a cyberattack. Who knows how this might end up: undoubtedly it will just be a series of tit-for-tat assaults with a gradual escalation. I don’t think that cyberwarfare will lead to any actual, physical conflict. Actually I think it is possible that cyberattacks may even be a healthy outlet for nation-states to release aggression. They may ultimately result in a decline in tensions once states reach the point where the costs of successive attacks outweigh any possible, ephemeral gains.

That being said, the fact that Russia is so brazenly attempting to influence the American election is deeply troubling. We may launch a cyberattack against Russia, but they can do far more damage to our elections than we can do to theirs since ours are (arguably) more free, fair, and open. I suppose we could reveal something aimed at casting a shadow on Putin or his cronies, but Putin tends to be skilled at acting through proxies and enjoys a teflon popularity among his people so pinning him down wouldn’t be feasible.

Fortunately the actual damage done by Russian hacks are negligible. Leaked information on Hillary have done some damage to her. I, at the very least, decided to support alternative candidates after a Russian leak revealed that the Democratic Party had effectively arranged for Bernie’s defeat. But ultimately good old fashion mudslinging does more damage. The leaks of audiotape revealing Trump’s creepy, womanizing tendencies by Hillary did far more damage to him than Russia could hope to do in a million years. Russian leaders like Putin and Zhirinovsky, and maybe even Russian citizens may prefer Trump to Hillary, but I think their attempts to manipulate public opinion here in America will most likely fall on deaf ears. Trump’s support base is built heavily on nativism, appealing more to voters caring about domestic issues than international policy. Many of his voters are people who thought that Obama was soft on Russia.

Sadly I agree more with Trump’s policy towards Russia than Hillary’s. Even if World War III is unlikely to the point of impossibility I would hardly advise backing Russia into a corner anymore. We’re in a position of strength, and we have been for some time. By directly confronting Russia with diplomacy we may be able to thaw relations. Unfortunately my relationship with Donald J. Trump ends here, and I have nothing else in common with his platform.

By my estimates Clinton will win. I predicted this back in 2015. This just means more of the same-a status quo. Same old sanctions, same mistrust, same Russian aggression. Things will stay as they are, boring and “normal,” and minds will start to wander. Seems like we are destined to experience l’appel du vide for some time longer.


Red Armies and Paper Tigers: Unpacking Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat”

I love old books, and not just for that quaint, musty smell of vanilla and cigarettes that accompanies them; old books are literally time machines, transporting us into earlier contexts and perspectives. Once the dust of history has settled we can fairly analyze them. How well has the book aged? Was it accurate at the time? Is it relevant in the present? What insights into the future can it give us?

Today we’re going back in time to 1983.  Americans look back on the 80s with tremendous nostalgia. The malaise of Vietnam had worn off, the hazy 70s were behind us, and voters threw their bipartisan approval behind the stone-faced Reagan. Technology and hair size were on the rise. Meanwhile on the other side of the Iron Curtain the Soviet Union was in decay. Misguided spending and the incredible lethargy of Brezhnev and his cadres had led to total stagnation.

The writing was on the wall, although this fact was obscured by a rise in tensions. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sent red flags to the U.S., leading to a vast increase in defense spending. The arms race showed no signed of stopping, and the Europeans trapped between the two superpowers were holding their breath as new medium range missiles were being deployed on their soil. The mood was tense, and the spectre of nuclear war was lingering in the background. Two great armies warily eyed each other, waiting for the order.

Given this background, you can imagine what I expected when I picked up this book at a thrift store.

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I anticipated a gloom-and-doom inflation of the Soviet threat. Thankfully, Andrew Cockburn pleasantly defied all expectations, masterfully employing evidence to not only deflate the Soviet bear but also draw the entire military industrial complex into doubt.

A few words on Andrew Cockburn. From what I gather he is an Irish expat living here in the United States. Cockburn has spent much of his career writing about military and security establishments. Suffice it to say that he is not a friend of militarism or the military industrial complex; he is a tenacious skeptic of official claims and public perceptions. His investigations have followed U.S. foreign policy trends, and he seems to have accommodated well to the fall of the U.S.S.R. by switching to the War on Terror and U.S. hegemony. His writing style varies from straightforward and technical to clever and sometimes even brilliantly descriptive, and he knows exactly when to adjust his style.

Cockburn soundly reveals in the Threat that the Soviet armed forces of the early 1980s were a shambling corpse. Far from Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” the Soviets were almost laughably incompetent and hapless at all levels. Cockburn organizes his book well, starting by summarizing the perceptions both superpowers had of each other and then progressing into an analyses of the individual branches of the Soviet military.

The military of the U.S.S.R. had five branches: the Red Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Air Defense, and Strategic Missile Forces. Each branch is generally staffed by a mandatory draft of young men (who had to serve 2 years in the armed forces, or 3 years if they were in the Navy), who were supplemented by officers. While the U.S.S.R. had an apparent numerical edge, Cockburn shows how these advantages were undercut by the total lack of morale and unity among men. Officers had difficulty in motivating forces, and their desire to earn benefits and promotion led them to ignore or cover up issues. Cockburn smashes the myth that the Soviet Armed Forces were merely a puppet of the Party. The Soviet military was an active player in politics, using a control of information and close ties to leaders to accomplish goals. The Soviet military is not unlike the military industrial complex (MIC) that Ike warned us all about.

Cockburn draws numerous parallels between the Soviet and American military bureaucracies, claiming that both are plagued with corruption, ambition, and the extreme inefficiency that naturally follows bureaucracy. These parallels ultimately feed into his broader thesis, where he accuses both sides of “threat inflation.” The Soviets, he writes, intentionally cultivated deception and mystery in order to force opponents to overestimate their capabilities. This fear of inadequacy (the security dilemma for you neorealists) led to the U.S. bulking up their forces, which in turn prompted the Soviets to made tangible updates to their own military forces (often following the example set by the U.S.). What followed was an arms race mirroring the one that preceded World War I. Ultimately the military industrial complexes of both superpowers assumed the worst about each other and manipulated public fears and policy makers in order to get the requisite resources and deference they wanted. Along the way Cockburn believes that military efficiency was degrading, with each side increasingly relying on unreliable and untested advance technology, which seemed like the logical solution to meeting the threat posed by the other side.

In terms of the individual military branches, the Soviets were clearly lacking. The legendary armour that beat the Nazi machine is plagued by faulty engines and a wide swath of other technical and training issues. Brezhnev’s vast pet project, the Soviet Navy, was mostly just for show. Soviet air power suffered from the same issues of reliability and range. I almost feel like Cockburn is too skeptical at times; he even finds fault with the legendary Mi-24 “Hind” gunships that were made famous by the Soviet-Afghan war. Still I have to commend his approach, he often focuses strictly on details rather than conjecturing about World War III, and the technical issues alone (which exist for both U.S. and U.S.S.R.) are startling. Basically the only weapon systems he does not find fault with are the ever reliable AK-47, the classic T-34, and the user-friendly RPG.

Cockburn’s book reaches full stride in the section on nuclear forces, and he finds tremendous fault with the idea held in both East and West that nuclear war could be won. Nuclear weapons more or less invalidate all other weapons or competition between East and West, although even the assured destruction wrought by ICBMs is up to some debate. Ultimately the uncertainty of how a nuclear war would progress and the imperfect ability of each side to destroy the other’s second strike capacity are enough to ensure continued reliance and expenditure on weapons. It was especially interesting to read the parts dealing with how the Soviets prepped their citizens for doomsday: they seemed to share the dark humour held by many Americans.

Cockburn draws upon a wide swath of sources to reinforce his argument. He relies upon official public statements, interviews with military men and Soviet expats, and Soviet papers such as the official publication of the Soviet armed forces, Red Star. Ultimately I would say that his research is solid, and his conclusions and extrapolations were more or less confirmed once the U.S.S.R. actually fell and their records became available. There are still some inaccuracies to be sure. The Soviet expats obviously left the U.S.S.R. for a reason and are liable to carry bias. The most glaring flaw I found in the book was the claim that Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 1972 (he actually made it to 2013). These seem more like issues with editing and fact checking than anything else, and given the veil of secrecy under which militaries and Communist bureaucracies operate this is no easy task to begin with.

The covers of my copy have something scrawled on them; something about the book being out of date since 1991. I would have to disagree, I think the Threat stands the test of time as a great look at the Soviet and American militaries at a key time. Furthermore, I think the book has caught its second wind with the revival of Russia in recent years. The American military machine (and the Russian one for that matter) are both still in tact, still using their standard ploys to manipulate public opinion and secure a continued role in politics. The American MIC has only grown in size and proportion since finding hegemony and the War on Terror, and their continues to be an inflation of the Russia threat. Politicians here still treat Putin like Hitler for annexing Crimea or taking action in Syria and they try to predict future Russian aggression in the Baltic states. Sometimes they even read Russian tests of missiles as a sign that a nuclear strike is possible: the myth of limited nuclear war is still alive. In many ways it is still business as usual, we even see newfound alarmism about Russian capabilities as Putin plots a course of military updates. The T-14 Armata, a new tank for the cyber age, was rolled out on parade just last year, and nearly all arms of the Armed Forces are up for an upgrade. Still, the harrowing truth is that Russia is under immense economic pressure; spending more on the military at the expense of other areas would be repeating the Soviet mistake. Likewise, is it possible that Russia could have possibly updated its forces and overcome its historic deficiencies? Is the Armata really a supertank?

The book raises some questions as well about the realm of cybersecurity. With apparent Russian hacking aimed at impacting the U.S. election, cyberwarfare looks like the latest and most dire front. The line between hacking and war is still blurry, and this is shaping up to be the next great arms race. There is constant talk of investing in our cybersecurity, and there are even talks of launching cyberattacks of our own (we already retaliated against N. Korea after the Sony incident). Is this worthy or just another example of threat inflation? We will see…

As an aside I should also say that the book appeared to me in terms of ideology and methodology as well. In my own personal studies I am interested in both neorealist and constructivist theories and how they interact. Neorealism dictates that conflict is an inevitable product of international anarchy. Constructivism states that what actually matters is identity forming and interaction between states, with anything being possible. I lean more towards constructivism, but I personally am fascinated by the concept that free social interactions (of the kind constructivism is based on) can lead to realist assumptions. Cockburn explains threat inflation and the security dilemma as a product of perception and uncertainty, so his book entertained the ideological intersections I am interested it.

Andrew Cockburn’s tireless criticism and well grounded cynicism are contagious, and I will certainly be looking into his modern works.

Learning Russian

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to write about this week. I could talk about how Assad (and Russia?) abrogated a hollow, delicate truce in Syria. Or maybe a better topic would be the recent triumph of the United Russia party in last week’s Duma elections, which saw the lowest turnout since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia is also hitting close to home with allegations of hacking and interference in the U.S. election cycle done to support Trump against Clinton. But why even bother talking about business as usual? United Russia was bound to win, the truce was made to be broken, and I have no doubts that the Russian bear has its paws in the election.

Why focus on bad news when we can focus on the good! While Russia maintained its status quo I have made a decision to move forward: I am going to try and apply for grad school. While I had originally intended to go into Russian/Eurasian Area Studies a cursory investigation of my options has prompted me to abandon this route. There seems to be virtually no doctorates in this area; I would be pigeonholed into a master’s degree. Furthermore, Eurasian Area Studies programs generally have a prerequisite of fluency in the Russian language whereas a doctorate program would give me more time to pick up the language. So as it stands now, I am looking at doctorate programs in international relations. Being in Maryland, I have plenty of local options that would work well.

Regardless of what I end up doing, I am taking every action I can to learn the Russian language.

A little bit of backstory: foreign language has always been my Achilles’ heel of sorts. That is not to say that I am bad at it. I don’t find foreign languages particularly difficult, I merely have lacked the intent and motivation to thoroughly master them. I took three years of Spanish in grade school which has mostly evaporated. In high school I studied Latin for three years, and I still boast some knowledge of Latin. I put off language courses in college. Unfortunately I decided too late to start Russian so I only have a year’s worth of actual coursework in my belt (although my alma mater’s Russian program only offered 4 courses, so even if I had taken all available classes I still would not meet the criteria for most master’s programs).

I have been making every effort to learn, although I did fall off the wagon for a brief while. Duolingo has been a pretty big help, but I am looking for something that will help me master the grammar more in-depth. Grammar has always been a challenge, probably since I skipped second grade. I can write with a fair amount of skill and clarity (hopefully you’ve noticed), but the finer details of grammar have never really stuck. This helps make language more challenging for me to master…

Luckily I do have a leg up on Russian grammar. Russia uses the same sort of case system as my ex, Latin. Syntax and structure is derived from specific endings of words. Russian and Latin both share certain cases, such as the accusative and dative, and this has made the language much more approachable for me.  Of course this can be a double-edged sword. Some cases have identical or similar endings, meaning that you have to rely on syntax, and the sheer abundance of endings and alternate forms can be as baffling as it is intimidating.

Ironically the easiest part of the Russian language, the Cyrillic alphabet, impresses most laypersons. It only has a few more letters than English, and for the most part the sounds are verily similar (the alphabet has actually been simplified over the years by successive regimes, with the modern alphabet stemming from the Soviet edition. Some Russian letters are merely just familiar sounds grouped into one, such as ч for the “ch” sound or ш for the “sh” sound (not to mention щ which is a bizarre, punctuated “shch” sound). Learning a few easy rules, like spelling peculiarities and the split between soft and hard vowels, makes the learning process much easier. Writing in Russian is easy once you master Russian cursive. I am pretty comfortable with English cursive and calligraphy, so Russian cursive came fairly naturally. I even incorporated some the strokes from Russian into my English cursive.

Pronunciation of Russian is fairly straightforward. Certain vowel have a “y” sound before them which can be a little tricky, and sometimes the “i kratkaya” (й) is used as a y-glide which can be difficult to notice or incorporate into spelling. The only difficult pronunciation rules really revolve around stress, which has an impact on how vowels like “о” and “я” are pronounced. Every language has its strange sounds, and for Russian this is the “yuri” (the letter Ы). Ы ends up sounding like the French “oui” with the front loaded “w” sound dulled. The exact pronunciation is hard to articulate here, but you would likely be able to pick up on this relatively common letter by listening to Russian speech. The good news is that most Russian native speakers could still make sense of a butchered pronunciation mistake like this. I was told by native Russian speakers from Ukraine and the motherland itself that my pronunciation sounds natural, something I take a particular pride in.

So here was a brief primer of my journey through the Russian language. As of right now I am mildly conversation and literate, but I lack the depth and exposure needed for more articulate, natural sounding Russian. Its easy to learn any language with a modicum of patience, but you also need actual, tangible motivation as well. Looking to the future, I will definitely need to develop and perfect my Russian. Moving forward, I simply need more work (and greater organization: I think I will start a Russian notebook).


Make the Game Great Again!

The “Great Game” was Kipling’s name for the competition between Russia and Great Britain in Afghanistan, in particular, and Central Asia, in general. Great Britain wanted to defend its imperial ventures, while Imperial Russia wanted to both thwart these while enhancing its own designs and perhaps even satiating that age-old Russian lust for a warm-water port.

What exactly is “Central Asia.” We might know them better as the “Stans.” Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan (Pakistan is South Asia though). Central Asia is the body of countries between the Middle East and East Asia, Siberia and South Asia. The people are almost universally Muslim, and most are of Turkic descent. While the region seems politically inert, it has its own rich history of conquest and dominance. Of special note is the city of Samarkand and its most famous son, Tamerlane.

In recent history the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union came to largely dominate affairs in all of Central Asia, save for Afghanistan. The “Stans” under Soviet control were among the last countries to leave the Union, and in the post-Soviet era many have maintained close ties to Russia. Russian domination largely defined the borders of these states. The Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics served some interesting roles. They were major agricultural producers and provided plenty of land. This land, particularly the wide expanse of Kazakhstan, would provide useful testing nuclear weapons and performing launches of rockets and spacecraft. Kazakhstan, incidentally, became one of the world’s most formidable nuclear powers following the 1991 breakup of the U.S.S.R., but it transferred its massive stockpiles to Russia shortly after. Stalin was also a fan of relocating people to these areas.

The Soviet Socialist Republics of Central Asia also added a great deal of diversity to the Union. Their contributions to the total population meant that about 20% of the Soviet population was Muslim. On paper, the Soviets generally discouraged religious practices in favor of state atheism (Communism and the cult of Lenin was its own faith, arguably). In practice however, getting tens of millions of Muslims to abandon their faith was simply not feasible. The Central Asian Republics were so remote and large that suppressing religion was impossible, so they retained their Islamic character. Technically speaking this may have made the Soviet Union a great Muslim country. John Gunther recalls in “Inside Russia Today” one Muslim in Central Asia at the time who was exceptionally proud that the U.S.S.R. was the world’s greatest Muslim power.

As mentioned before, Afghanistan was the exception. It was never under Russian or Soviet domination. In fact, Afghanistan has shown a profound ability to resist foreign domination. The Soviets attempted to maintain a friendly Afghanistan after the Saur Revolution of 1978, which resulted in a disastrous, lasting conflict. The Soviets were unsuccessful in fighting the fundamentalist mujaheddin, and Afghanistan was sufficiently destabilized enough to fall under Taliban control by 1994. Afghanistan would become a haven for terrorists looking to wage near and far jihad, and the country was catapulted into the international spotlight following Al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks on the World Trade Centers on September 11th.

Needless to say, the 9/11 attacks changed the geopolitical calculus of the region. The United States began its War on Terror, and it not only needed a presence in Afghanistan but a presence in surrounding regions that could supply access. Suddenly the sleepy, wind-swept deserts of Central Asia regained the international spotlight.

But it was foolish of my to characterize the Central Asian countries as “sleepy.” Free from the yoke of their Soviet masters, the countries of Central Asia (again, excluding Afghanistan), have been searching for new purposes and possibilities. They had already tasted Russian domination, what else could there be? Fortunately they found a potential suitor in the form of a rising neighbor to the East: China.

So what we have unfolding is a three-way race for Central Asia. The United States wants friends in the region to aid in deployment and check China and Russia. China is courting Central Asia to help enhance economic and regional power. Meanwhile, Russia wants to hold onto Central Asia for historical prestige. Russia also has dreams of a broader Eurasian Union, if only for purely economic collaboration.

Who has the strongest claim?

Probably not the United States. The U.S. is largely disengaged from Afghanistan at this point. Russian and China would prefer for the U.S. not be involved.

Russia probably has (or had) the strongest claim. The Soviet Union may have collapsed, but the Central Asian states stuck with Russia. Some semblance of unity remains: there are plenty of IGOs that unify Russia and the Central Asian republics. However, institutions like the Commonwealth of Independant States and the Collective Security Treat Organization are light on substance.

Trends seem to favor China. While the Central Asian republics are in a lot of IGOs with Russia, they are also pulling double duty in several Asian IGOs that China reigns over. Partnership with China promises cheap goods, economic vibrancy, and growth. It also promises something new, different, and dynamic. China has already been pouring plenty of money into developing physical ties to these regions to start trade.

Ultimately thought we shouldn’t just view the future of Central Asian republics as a product of superpower politics. The Central Asian countries themselves know their interests, and they will undoubtedly play the superpower game in order to maximize their gains. It is not just a matter or siding with one country or the other, the Central Asian countries may be able to play sides against each other or continue “double dipping” in IGOs. Similarly, the superpowers are not necessarily playing a zero sum game here. Russia and China may ultimately view cooperation as the best way forward, and by using their mutual interests to generate an arrangement that will almost certainly exclude the United States.


Obituaries: Islam Karimov and the Levada Center

This week we need to commemorate two deaths…

R.I.P. Uzbekistan’s Dictator

Uzbek president Islam Karimov died on September 2nd, 2016. The cause of death was a prolonged downward spiral following a stroke that was veiled in state secrecy, a fate that seems to befall many autocratic leaders in the post-Soviet sphere. Speaking of which, like any great post-Soviet tyrant, he ruled his country from 1991 on-wards after winning plenty of “free and fair” elections. The word “dictator” is getting thrown around a lot in the media, which may be warranted since his regime brutally suppressed free expression, tortured political opponents, and had street protests crushed in stereotypical fashion. Sensationalist media has been reminding everyone that at least 1 or 2 people were boiled alive during his tenure, which is actually pretty horrendous I’ll admit. Mr. Karimov may be a relic of an earlier, by-gone era, but his state administration remains. There is talk of the state security apparatus or even one of his daughters taking the helm. Regardless, I suppose Uzbekistan will stay on its accustomed post-Soviet trajectory, although his death may create opportunities for states interested in Central Asia. Perhaps a post on the current superpower showdown in Central Asia is warranted at this point?

R.I.P. Independent Polling

For years I have been following the work of the Levada Center. Long considered to be the most accurate and valuable polling center for an aloof people, the Levada Center provided  series of excellent statistics ranging from Putin’s approval rating to thoughts on how well the Russian government is warding away terrorism. I have used their figures for numerous papers, and have recommended them previously in this blog, but they were just labeled as a “foreign agent.” Recall that Russia applies the “foreign agent” label to any NGOs accused of receiving support from the West. The actual Russian word for “foreign agent” carries very strong sentiment among the Russian people, and if their hatred was not enough then the mountain of paperwork foreign agents must file to stay in operation is enough to bury them. Yet again, the former is enough to put the Levada Center under. How can you poll a population that perceives you as a danger? Apparently this death knell was sounded after the Levada Center published polls showing that support for Putin’s United Russia party had declined. With elections coming up, and with the last ones being quite controversial, Putin will likely want to sure up his odds as well as he can. United Russia will do whatever to remain in-power, even if it means going beyond their usual election fraud.

Hopefully the Levada Center will find a way to cope with this death sentence, or perhaps all my gloom and doom is simply unwarranted…

You can check out the Levada Center’s body of work here.

All the King’s Men: Stalin and Friends

One of the beautiful ironies of Russian history is the tendency of strong, autocratic leaders to surround themselves with strong, intelligent ministers. Behind every strongman or woman was a colourful supporting cast; even Putin has his fair share of deuteragonists. You might expect that stronger leaders have fewer high major players underneath them, but any such observation would fail to explain the motley crew that handled the day-to-day administration of the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. Even a brutal tyrant who made a habit of killing or exiling anyone suspected of even a sliver of disloyalty had friends. (Well, “friends” is probably a little strong here…)

It turns out that running the Soviet Union took a lot of oversight. Governments compartmentalise naturally, but Communist states compound this by dividing administration of party and government into two separate yet mirror image hierarchies. The party half holds de facto power while the government merely acts with de jure authority. This naturally sets up a system that needs a lot of people to run, and the issue then becomes making sure that both halves of the state are staffed with loyal followers. Joseph Stalin, as the General Secretary of the early Soviet Union, was in a perfect position to stock positions with supporters. This is how he first achieved power in 1927 and then continued to gain power in the ensuing decades.

I guess it goes without saying that Stalin also had a lot of “enemies,” most of whom were imagined. Stalin directly clashed politically and ideologically with darling of the revolution and noted internationalist, Leon Trotsky. Otherwise, unfounded paranoia brought him into conflict with others, such as party theorist Nikolai Bukharin. Trotsky was sent into exile, where he continued to rival Stalin in leading the Communist movement until he was eventually assassinated in Mexico City by an ice pick. Bukharin met with an equally tragic end, being killed in the Great Purges of the late 1930s along with many other perceived enemies. Hell, even those who were pulling the triggers were not safe during the purge. The creepy Genrikh Yagoda was replaced as head of the NKVD by Nikolai Yezhovwho took the Great Purge to new heights only to have his ruthless actions rewarded by being executed and replaced on false charges like so many of his victims.

In this brutal atmosphere, only the toughest, or the most sycophantic, could survive. By 1940 Stalin had a nucleus of favorites. I suppose first we should mention Yezhov’s successor. The position went to Lavrentiy Beria, who shared Stalin’s Georgian heritage. Beria was ruthlessly efficient as head of the NKVD, and after the Great Patriotic War he continued to be tremendously important to Stalin. A spymaster, Beria was critical to the subjugation of Eastern Europe and the nuclear program. He was also absolutely terrifying, what with amassing an army of highly loyal secret police and with having a penchant for abusing his authority to kidnap and rape young girls and women.

Beria was useful enough that Stalin kept him around, and following Stalin’s death in 1953 he became a prospective successor. However, he was scary enough that he did not last long after that. His comrades in the collective leadership scheme that replaced Stalin agreed that he was too dangerous to keep around, and Beria was executed with assistance from the military.

Beria wasn’t the only man close enough to Stalin to be in the running for the leadership: there were a number of other men close to the paramount summit. Andrei Zhdanov was a favorite of Stalin’s, and was considered by many to be his hand-picked successor. Zhdanov sought to purify Soviet culture of cosmopolitan influence, but his hard living and drinking brought about an early demise in 1948. Stalin used Zhdanov’s death to launch the Leningrad Purge, meanwhile other close associates found opportunity for advancement. Georgy Malenkov was a top contender. Intelligent, a ruthless supporter of Stalin, and quite round, Malenkov was a skilled operator in the Soviet bureaucracy, and once Zhdanov was out most people considered him the heir apparent of the U.S.S.R.

Was Malenkov really all that different though? He was a fervent Stalinist, even after 1953. Yet again, most people in Stalin’s inner circle were. They supported Stalin’s brutal approach to politics, and they were happy to actualize Stalin’s will. Vyacheslav Molotov was one of the most prominent offenders. With a warm smile and a huge forehead resting on his pince-nez glasses, Molotov seemed pretty jovial. In reality he was a shrewd and scheming expert on foreign affairs. He conducted policy exactly as Stalin wished, although perhaps with more deftness and charm. Like Beria, Molotov was useful, having worked tirelessly to engineer the titular Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then, 6 years later, the post-War peace. Molotov fell out of favor in the post-war years, but he remained firmly pro-Stalin, even after his beloved wife was held prisoner for her Jewish heritage.

There were no shortage of Stalinists. Of special note is Lazar Kaganovich. Aside from having a great first-name and a vaguely Stalinesque appearance, Kaganovich was virtually Stalin in miniature. Yet again, everyone was Stalin. Everyone was covered in blood to a certain extent. It was impossible to oppose the brutal, bloody excesses of the Holodomor and the Purge and stay alive. At times Stalin’s inner circle was directly guilty of bloodshed. At times they were merely complicit.

Still, some of Stalin’s associates apparently had some moral misgivings about Stalin. Of course they weren’t able to voice these until after 1953, but still there were glimmers of hope. The main man we talk about here is, of course, Nikita Khrushchev, who would come to become the absolute leader of the Soviet Union once the dust settled after Stalin’s burial and the subsequent in-fighting. Bouncy, fat, fun, and poorly educated, the miner’s son Khrushchev turned out to have a knack for leadership. If his memoirs are to be believed, Khrushchev was willing to challenge Stalin and his peers in the name of common sense. Undoubtedly there is some embellishment here, but you can’t deny that Khrushchev was devastatingly savvy. He was tremendously charming and, as he would show in the 1950s, a true master of rough-and-tumble politics. Despite being complicit in Stalin’s regime, especially in the oppression of Ukraine, Khrushchev would later immortalize himself by thawing the Soviet Union, introducing a program of de-Stalinization.

Certain members of Stalin’s circle would come, in time, to be members of Khrushchev’s circle, usually as long as they approved of de-Stalinization. Among them was my personal favorite of Stalin’s clique, Anastas Mikoyan. Armenian, Mikoyan was a bit of a black sheep, and yet he was enormously successful in fulfilling a variety of odd jobs. In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen discusses how Mikoyan was also something of a chief gourmet, overseeing nutrition, dietary guidelines, and the publication of cook books. Mikoyan had blood on his hands, no doubt about it, but his backing of Khrushchev and overall versatility ensured that he would stay around.

Stalin didn’t just surround himself with government and party officials, but also with artists and scientists who he became a patron of. Maxim Gorky helped to pioneer Socialist Realism, which essentially amounted to art directed at social purposes. In the fields of science Stalin found a useful associate in Trofim Lysenko, whose counter-current concepts regarding genetics and promises of solving the Soviet agriculture curse arrested scientific advancement in the Soviet Union for decades.  

Say what you will about Stalin, but he had a fantastic capacity for selecting supporters and manipulating them. A madman was able to hold a nation hostage by instilling loyalty throughout both party and government. But Stalin wasn’t just some evil emperor sitting along in the Kremlin issuing out orders to peons (alright, he did this sometimes). Stalin also ruled from the dinner table. From 1946-53, Stalin increasingly spent time in his private dacha, hosting dinner parties into the wee hours of the morning. It is here that he organized politics while keeping an eye on his “trusted” comrades. He usually used excessive amounts of vodka to make them pliable so that he could observe them. It was during these parties when decisions as to how to run the U.S.S.R. were made. Stalin was undoubtedly plotting his next murders while watching the latest American Westerns, feasting on shashlik, and sampling his favorite Georgian wines.

I think it is important to break down the image of Stalin as cold, aloof tyrant. He certainly was distant, brutal, and despotic but his methods were diverse and varied. He could coldly stack Party committees and replace loyal supporters, but he could also mingle and manipulate people. Stalin could make friendships serve his interests and further his goals of centralising the U.S.S.R. Even Churchill and Roosevelt noticed Stalin’s personal magnetism and ability to manipulate emotions and people, and stock footage of Stalin at the Big Three Conferences and beyond show a smiling, jovial manipulator.

So that explains this great irony of Soviet history. How exactly was a totalitarian tyrant able to co-exist with so many strong personalities? It wasn’t just because they were useful, but it was because Stalin needed all these people. The key to his leadership style wasn’t that he was a strong man who could bury opponents and suppress individuals, but rather that he was able to find competent, staunch supporters and manipulate them. Stalin was an expert at human resources. Furthermore, he was an expert at making everyone complicit in his crimes (a must for any leader of Russia). Perhaps you should remember that the next time you deal with your local HR department at work. Or perhaps you should make an effort to learn some of the unconventional names and look into some individual policies that define the support actors of Russian history.

Sochi 2014 and Russian Revival



Ahhhhh…The Good Old Days

The Olympics is a rare example of international good will and cooperation, with countries setting aside their differences to compete on the track field rather than the battlefield. The Summer Olympics in Rio are now in session, accompanied with the standard endless cable broadcasts of the same dozen people swimming in the same rectangular pool. (Personally I prefer the Winter Olympics, largely due to my inexplicable appreciation for ice dancing.)

For all the ideals it represents however, the Olympics have been coming under fire recently, and the games in Rio are only the latest manifestation of this. Underneath a beautiful exotic location and a goal of cooperation is a gritty struggle between globalisation and nationalism. Hosting Olympic games causes an undue financial burden on the host country, something many Brazilians have used to justify protesting the games. The economic aspect is just the tip of the iceberg: other controversies surrounding the Rio games include security, sanitation, and the recent political coup in Brazil. Perhaps we could also mention the haze of Zika-laden mosquitos that threaten to turn Rio into a vector for a deadly virus.

But the Olympics keep on going nonetheless, and should we be surprised? At this point opposition to the Olympics seems token, especially after the extreme controversy surrounding the previous games held in the seaside Russian town of Sochi.

Politics Never Sleeps

It would be naive to believe that the Olympics are divorced from politics. A high-profile international event is going to always be political. Certain Olympics stand out more than others. The 1936 Olympics were used by Germany to try to showcase Nazi “progress.” Throughout the Cold War the games were used to highlight East vs. West.

Russia has had its fair share of infusing politics into the games, and at times it even seems as if they incorporate the games into their political strategy. On Christmas of 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, prompting the West and much of NATO to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics of the following year. Brezhnev was likely pleased when the Soviets swept the games. Later, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the Western games.

With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. the e is not much to report over the next decade or so. The 2008 games in Beijing were put to great use in Russia to launch a quick invasion of Georgia that was swiftly condoned by the international community. Russia’s gambit was as successful as it was unexpected, as the world was too distracted by the Beijing games to furnish a reply to Russia.

After Beijing we had games in Vancouver and London. Then, somehow or other Russia got the green-light to host the 2014 Winter games in Sochi. As usual, this was known some years in advance, but as time went on the IOC’s choice of location came under increasing scrutiny. Why was this?

Putin Prime

After reigning from 1999-2008, Putin took a brief, 4-year, constitutionally required reprieve from the Presidency by handing it to his right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev. The 1993 Constitution stipulated that a President can only serve 2 terms consecutive terms. It says nothing about total terms, a loophole that Putin exploited in 2012 by re-ascending to the Presidency.

Having won a major constitution victory, and then having re-written the Constitution to allow himself to stay in power until 2024, Putin had just entered his prime. The period from 99-08 was merely prologue. Now Putin had the country, and he could enact his will. Immediately the regime took conservative steps to further entrench its own survival. Civil society came under fire with new laws that harassed and oppressed NGOs and human rights groups. Censorship widened, with bloggers and journalists coming under fire, not to mention Pussy Riot. The state also renewed its ancient ties with the Orthodox Church. Perhaps the laws that got the most scrutiny from the West were those targeting homosexuals, which entrenched the deep Russian antipathy towards homosexuality in stark contrast to the tolerance preached by the West. Meanwhile, the price tag of the games came into question. At approximately $50 billion dollars, these were the most expensive Olympics in history. The price as obviously inflated thanks to the corruption of the Russian state, with contracts being rewarded to many of Putin’s supporters. Despite all this money, the guest rooms for athletes were laughably deficient, with barely functioning toilets. I guess we should also mention the Circassians, a Caucasian people who were displaced from Sochi by the Russian empire. They didn’t get much screen time in the West though.

There were calls to boycott or cancel the games, like those complaints now levied against the Rio games. Much like today, the IOC refused to step down and the games stayed on schedule. Controversy was reaching a fever pitch in 2013, and then Euromaidan happened. Ukraine broke out into civil war as the Russian backed President turned down membership in the European Union. The crisis was reaching a fever pitch by the time the games happened.

Sochi 2014: The neo-Brezhnevite Phoenix

Despite controversy, reproach, and the political collapse of a neighbor, the Sochi games started in February of 2014. While everyone remembered the Beijing opening, which championed the collective values of the state, fewer remember the punk-rock fiddling of Vancouver or the celebration of industrialization in the London games. It seems like even fewer people bothered to watch the Sochi opening, which was a real shame since it had a huge political message.

I have been dying to review the opening ceremony, but I have patiently waited until now to do it:

The games opened up following a young girl as she navigated the Russian alphabet, with various letters and highlights being showcased. Then she appeared in person, and floated among proto-Russian locales and villages, clearly an embracing of early Russian/Siberian life. After an excellent rendition of the Russian national anthem there was the parade of nations. I personally love the parade of nations, and the Russian house music in the background really set the mood. The German team walked out in rainbow outfits, challenging Putin’s anti-LGBTQ policies. The Russian team walked out to “Not Gonna Get Us” by T.A.T.U. For those of you who don’t know, T.A.T.U. is a female duo that used a high school lesbian aesthetic for their marketing. To my knowledge they also performed at the Olympics before the opening, and I find the contrast of anti-gay policy with lesbian fetishization to have an unsettled irony.

After the parade of nations we entered into the main body of the display. A troika brought out the sun, a tribute to Russian pagan beliefs and sun worship. It was followed by colourful onion domes and teapots, clearly representing the ushering in of Orthodox Christianity and the state created by Ivan the Terrible. The young girl from earlier was present in these games, and we were clearly envisioning the situation through her eyes: it had a fanciful and dreamy quality about it. Next we saw a stormy sea with a ship on it, followed by the regimentation of naval officers and the blueprints of Saint Petersburg, paying homage to the glory days of Peter the Great and his Westernization of the country.

Then suddenly elaborately dressed women scurry onto the stage to mingle with the officers, and we enter perhaps the most beautiful of the entire opening ceremony. An elaborate ball room scene with beautiful ballet work and classical music unfolded in front of us. It looked like something out of Tolstoy, and told a story much in the same manner. It followed the romance of a young officer and a beautiful dancer (perhaps this was the young girl from earlier grown up, representing a maturation of Russia?).

A dashing young man who looked a little like Peter the Great (though not as freakishly huge) then took center stage and started dancing in a lovely blue suit. Then suddenly the stage starts to vanish, the lights dim, and a gentle snow begins falling. The nobles seem to be cold and agonized, crowding and moshing and growing frantic as the lighting and music became frenzied. All the nobles die as the stars of the ballet begin to make out, and then the nobles come back, making clock like motions with their arms and sharing one last embrace before being swept aside. At first I thought this would usher in a Napoleonic scene.

I knew after I heard the train noise and saw the red lights though that I was wrong. I had just seen the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Now was the Bolshevik era. Lovely pillars gave way to industrial and farming imagery. Filigree turned into the brash, bold geometry of Malevich. Ornate outfits turned into utilitarian red and black bodysuits as coordinated ballet was abandoned for a robotic, mechanical dance. This was collectivization, Stalinism, and the Five-Year Plan. Georgy Sviridov’s Time Forward! set a hurried, mad tone as the stage below descending into organized chaos. While I was impressed that they were covering the taboo Stalin period, I could tell that there was no love or affection. The people looked pained and indifferent, and some gears even had people inside them, more or less crucified as they were being rolled around.

As quickly as this all appeared, it vanished. Only a small nucleus of workers remained as the lights dimmed and spotlights began to spread throughout the stadium. Suddenly the music stopped and the sounds of war began. The stage turned black and there was a moment of silence, an appropriate nod to the Great Patriotic War.

I am probably getting way off topic though. Really the only part of the open ceremony that means much is the immediate aftermath of the war tribute. The stage came alive again with blueprints and workers. Industrial sounds gave way to Soviet rock-and-roll as the streets below began to bustle with activity. This was the Khrushchev Thaw and the Brezhnev period. Young pioneers, workers, pilots, cosmonauts, athletes, even hipsters took the stage to celebrate the great achievements of this period. The seven sisters, Stalinist skyscrapers, unfurled as the famous statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, made its was across the roof. This wasn’t just an homage to the Soviet era, it was nostalgic. Everyone was happy and busy with their lives. Some slight unrest was featured briefly when the traffic cops pushed the hipsters away, but overall the tone and music were carefree. Then the lovers came on stage, proceeding to get married and have children in a clear state endorsement of reproduction (remember, Russia has population issues).

While some may write this portion off as ridiculous (and it was), I think it speaks a great deal of modern Russia character. There is a fundamental longing for the old days of Brezhnev and the prestige of the Soviet empire. Out of every leader, Brezhnev is generally regarded as the most loved since under his reign the Soviet Union reached its apex in terms of power and economy (most forget that Brezhnev’s policies led to later failures). Nostalgia was best represented at the end of the opening show, when the young girl from earlier let go a red balloon, symbolizing the loss of Russian character that occurred in 1991. There was no other historical or significant cultural display after this: this was the political culture portion of the show.

What followed was Olympic formalities, torches, and so on.

I feel like there really hasn’t been a lot of serious discussion regarding the opening ceremony and what it represents, but I think I have a way to tie it all into something meaningful, so standby.

The Putin Doctrine

The Olympics happened. Russia won big. Sochi was competing with Ukraine in the headlines as the conflict waxed. Amidst all the controversy, the games seem to have gone off despite plenty of criticism.

Meanwhile I was on facebook, arguing what these Olympics meant and what would happen with Ukraine. At some point I apparently predicted that Russia would take action after the Olympics, but I had no clue how quickly it would happen. Soon after the Olympics, virtually overnight, Russia annexed Crimea and took it over, validating the annexation with a local referendum and with the claim that they were protecting good Russians. The fighting in Ukraine reached new heights as Russia began to arm Russian speaking separatists. Suddenly all of the criticism and distrust of the Sochi games seemed warranted: Russia was still Russia after all.

After Beijing people were worried about China, although fears have slightly waned since their economy has slowed. After Vancouver nobody talked about Canada, and after London nobody cared about Britain. Sochi was different. After Sochi, Russian foreign policy became front and center. Of course this is due more to the Russian involvement in Ukraine rather than the Olympics themselves, but I hardly think it is a coincidence that the two happened so soon together.

When the red balloon floated away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was badly hurt. The economy was virtually destroyed. Russia’s prestige and power had evaporated. Russia was weak, lacking in promise and barely able to eke out an existence in a world where the United States reigned as the hegemon.

Putin had been working feverishly to get Russia back ever since 1999. He had to rebuild the economy, which he did by nationalising major industries. He had to settle the Chechen conflict and protect his country from terrorism and secession. Putin had to do his best to check the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s neighborhood so as to ensure that Russia still had a say in Eurasia. We could also mention the colour revolutions, which had Putin fretting over the potential for revolutions. From 1999-2008, his job was to rebuild the country. Medvedev continued this goal from 2008-2012 in Putin’s stead.

Then Putin came back, and Russia came back too. Russia was economically stable, and Putin had proven that he could take liberties with the Constitution. Putin used the next two years to consolidate his hold on Russia and slowly began to exert influence on Russia’s neighbors (hence, Euromaidan in Ukraine).

For all intents and purposes, Russia was back. It had risen from the ashes of catastrophe like a phoenix, poised to once again resume great power status. What better way to showcase this than by hosting the most extravagant Olympics in history? Russian power and prestige were on display. By appealing to the great times in Russian history, Russia was reaffirming its historical role as a superpower. Russia’s display in the games were decidedly Russian, showing her unique Eurasian character and culture, especially the language. Finally, by highlighting the Brezhnev era in the final act of the historical presentation, Russia was appealing to its moment of greatest strength. This is what Russia had been in it’s not so distant history, and this is what Russia could be again. Surely there are some differences from the Brezhnev era and some progress, but overall I would say that Putin’s Russia is reminiscent of Brezhnev’s. At the very least however we must admit that Putin is smarter: he is far more pragmatic, active, and engaged. Brezhnev was not nearly so hands on, nor so competent.

Putin’s foreign policy, which emerged immediately after the Olympics with the annexation of Crimea, is also much better than Brezhnev’s. Brezhnev’s policy was summed up by the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine. Formulated in response to the 1968 Prague Spring, the Doctrine gave the Soviets the right to intervene in fraternal socialist countries where socialism was threatened. This gave the Soviet Union dominion over its members and satellites. Putin’s foreign policy arrangement is more precise and opportunistic. His “Putin Doctrine” seems to deal with the protection of Russian nationals and Russian speakers in other countries. It provides the logic for protecting Russia while leaving enough room for Russia to intervene in unruly neighbors like Ukraine.

While he likely didn’t have it planned out very far in advance, once the opportunity presented itself Putin could not help but jump into Crimea soon after the Olympics. Say what you will about Putin, but he knows how to make a presentation. His Olympics succeeded in the face of criticism from the West, and Russian boots remain in Crimea, which holds its breath as Ukraine and Russia warily eye one another. Within only a few weeks in February, Russia had completely re-emerged. Far from being second page news, Putin ensured that Russia would set the tempo in international affairs.

I think most people label Crimea as the turning point, but I think the Olympics in Sochi were a necessary prologue. Sochi set the tone of Russian revivalism. It captured the publics attention, acting as a smoke screen as Ukraine fell into chaos and as Russia prepared for entry into the conflict. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Sochi and Crimea highlight just how powerful Russia has become. Russia is capable of hosting an international event in goods spirits, and then can immediately switch gears to assert its foreign policy on its neighbors almost effortlessly. The rest of the world was still in a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie, and suddenly this! Suddenly Russia is alive, dynamic, threatening, and dedicated to its goals again. Here is a state worthy of Peter the Great or Brezhnev’s legacy. Here, suddenly, is a great power.

Sochi 2014 will live in infamy. It was held in an increasingly totalitarian regime where freedoms and civil liberties are undermined. It was a globalised event held in a wild, independent, sovereign state. Unwittingly, the IOC allowed itself to be used to advertise and promote Putin’s Russia. In the end they both got what they wanted. The IOC got successful games. Russia got international recognition. Perhaps this is why people hate the IOC: they are willing to get into bed with anyone who offers one, no matter the costs. In Russia, there were only political costs for the West.

Despite the threat posed by a resurgent Russia, ultimately the Rio games may be more disruptive to the international order than Sochi. Sochi merely made a long-standing fact of history, that is, Russian greatness, an indisputable reality. Rio, on the other hand, stands poised to undermine globalisation, and the threat posed by Zika’s spread could very well be unprecedented.

Whatever you do, don’t write the Olympics off as irrelevant or merely ideological. The Olympics in many ways capture the pulse of the world at any given moment, and they prophesy great change.