The Trump Thaw

I never really went to bed on Tuesday. I stayed up until 1:30AM watching. Despite all polls, despite a confident Democratic party, despite all of our fears, hopes, and expectations, the stars aligned and the seemingly impossible happen. Well in retrospect it isn’t so unbelievable, but it is still shocking nonetheless. We could go into why Clinton lost for hours. We could spend days trying to figure out what this election means for women, African-Americans, immigrants, intellectuals, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, and so on. Quite frankly, nobody here or abroad knows what is going on. Trump ran a campaign heavy on criticism and light on policy. His real viewpoints and ideologies remain to metastasize. Personally I don’t even think Trump knows what he is doing yet. The election surprised him most of all.

But Russia knows exactly what this all means. Putin was quick to extend congratulations and cooperation. Russia’s ultra-nationalist fringe candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, held a party at the Duma to celebrate. Even Gorbachev was happy at the prospect of a Trump presidency. And why wouldn’t they be? After years of sanctions and Western opposition Russia finally has a reprieve: one of Trump’s few stated, plausible policies is relaxation with Russia.

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, U.S.-Russian relations have more or less collapsed. Disarmament initiatives, cooperation against terror, and the NATO-Russia council fell apart. Crippling sanctions were placed against Russia by the West, and these have had a substantial impact on the Russian economy. Russia has responded in kind with continued support of Ukrainian separatists, military involvement in Syria, cyber intrigue, and pressure on NATO states. Tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen to the point where media outlets have been falsely advertising World War III and discussing nuclear preparedness. Many were paranoid about Russian conquest of Ukraine or the Baltic States, two completely unfounded fears.

At the start of this election both the GOP and Democrats were anti-Russian. Hillary wanted to continue Obama’s policies and perhaps create a no-fly zone. Meanwhile the Republicans were calling for greater preparation and increased military presence in Eastern Europe. I remember quite clearly when Ben Carson suggested that he would consider all viable options to stop Russia, including nuclear weapons. This bluster resonated well with  conservative voters who had long criticized Obama’s policy as too soft on Russia, and yet they ultimately chose the softest candidate on Russia, Donald J. Trump. It turns out that Trump’s economic and nativist message mattered more to people than foreign policy.

But now we are faced with an interesting question: can Trump manage to revive relations with Russia? Undoubtedly he wants to, and Putin would certainly be willing to oblige him. But can he actually do this? How far can he go? Here is where everything gets fuzzy. Trump is building his cabinet with many people who were tough on Russia, and the Senate and House are both controlled by the Republican Party who, just a brief while ago, were calling for a harder reaction against Russia. Trump and the Party differ over a number of issues, and this is one of them.

Of course, foreign relations are increasingly the domain of the imperial presidency. Trump has plenty of room to visit with Putin, work out deals, and his word carries a tremendous deal of symbolic weight. Trump is willing to end sanctions and acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and he has unlimited opportunities to work towards this effect. I think that the GOP, for all their jingoism towards Russia, will be happy to let Trump heal relations with Russia. It would mean a symbolic break with past policy; why would Republicans pass up a chance to try to bury Obama’s legacy? Russia may become a bargaining chip for other disagreements between Trump and “his” Party, but I think Trump will be able to deliver on his only tangible and realistic policy goal.

Let’s call it: the Trump Thaw. You heard it here first folks. I searched, it seems like people use the words “Trump” and “Thaw” and “Russia” in a sentence but not as I have. Some people say “Trump Thaw” as a phrase to discuss GOP acceptance of Trump. Well that is ok, I have another name picked out if Trump Thaw doesn’t stick. Maybe we could try: Trumptente! Kremelania? Should we give them a power couple name? Is Vladonald catchy enough? Maybe we should move on…

How will the healing process take place? Here is where things get interesting. Trump and Putin are similar in  some ways. I believe they are both masters of symbolic action: read their body language, look at how Putin arrays his foreign policy and reigns over opposition, look at how Trump managed to win an election. Far from Trump being a madman who says anything and everything, I think he has very carefully cultivated and acted out this part. Putin and Trump are also used to negotiating with businessmen: Trump makes deals and Putin took out the oligarchs. So how will these wily cats approach each other? I can imagine Trump going to Putin, although it would be a very powerful statement if Putin set foot on American soil. Regardless, the Thaw will occur, and a meeting will make a profound impact.

Of course, Russia isn’t just happy about immediate direct benefits of a Trump presidency. The Kremlin is also going to benefit from the ripple effect Trump will have on Ukraine, NATO, and the EU.

Regarding Ukraine, this is a massive defeat for them. Ukraine lost its strongest backer when Trump won the election. It was a little sad to see Poroshenko acknowledge the Trump victory by saying that he hopes for cooperation. I do not see this happening. Ukraine may be at the mercy of Russia, again.

NATO, long-standing opponent of Russia in Europe, it also placed at risk by Trump’s election. Trump called for an end to NATO bandwagoning. He was unwilling to enforce Article V (collective defense) unless allies paid their fair share. For some allies this wouldn’t matter, but a significant amount of NATO members do not contribute their due amounts to the alliance, especially since NATO was used by Bush in an attempt to legitimize US entry into Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of what to do with NATO is trickier to call. Trump may be able to repair US-Russian relations, but convincing the GOP to abandon a longstanding and important alliance would be far more difficult, especially with the GOP in control of the Senate (our treaty affirming arm) and the House (our budgetary arm). I believe that NATO will remain well-funded by the United States, and we may even see the reconvening and strengthening of the NATO-Russia Counsel and renewed attempts to push NATO “out of area” in the fight against terrorism. NATO members are still paranoid though. Estonia’s pro-Western coalition collapsed following the U.S. election: they had a wide list of issues beforehand but Trump’s victory may have been the death knell. Ironically Estonia was one of the most fervant supporters of NATO and they have paid for their membership in human life and monetary contributions.

How can the US election possibly affect the European Union? Well, setting aside the fact that NATO and the EU are interrelated, the election still has a great deal of salience. Viewed in a broader context, the Trump surprise is the second big step in a Western realignment towards nationalism and populism. Remember months ago when we all thought that Brexit was going to fall flat? We all know how that went, and all the questions that raised for the EU. Now with Trump’s victory these movements are gaining more and more legitimacy. France seems next on the chopping block. Hollande’s regime has self-immolated. The next prospective election of France seems to be a toss-up between former President Sarkozy, a candidate mired in intrigue and corruption, and the face of the ultra-right, Marine Le Pen. Does this seem at all familiar to our election? Well, one detail is off: this time the female candidate is the nationalist. France has never had a female leader, so who knows what might happen. Marine Le Pen’s campaign though is energized by the Trump win-the wind is at her back. If France goes the nativist route it could shock the EU. Russia would like this.

It isn’t hard to see why Putin, Zhirinovsky, and Gorbachev celebrated: Trump’s election is tantamount to a Russian foreign policy coup.

I don’t agree with a lot of what Trump does and says. Likewise, his apparent nativism and anti-intellectualism is a big turn off. But I have to say that he does understand Russia better than any other candidate. He was the only person saying that Russia does not have designs against Ukraine (beyond the unspoken reality that Ukraine is and will remain in Russia’s sphere), and I can finally see my dream of renewed Russian-U.S. relations aimed at bolstering international security achieved. I can also say with absolute certainty that Putin will remain in power now at least until 2024. Putin likely had his upcoming 2018 election secure, but with the lifting of sanctions, peace with the West, and tangible, legitimized victory in Ukraine he will be riding high as usual (barring any extraordinary circumstances). The more things change…

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.

The Spirit Haunting Russia Part I: Brief Overview

How do we even begin to deal with a subject like this? Is it even remotely possible to wrap our minds around it? Can we explain why the giraffe has spots? Why water is wet?

I guess we should start with the basics.

Russians like alcohol. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most Europeans like alcohol (as a descendant of Irish and Germans and Italians, oh my, I can attest to this). For the record Russians also like books and are considered to be some of the world’s most prolific readers. Russians are also extraordinarily fond of tea, something often left in the shadow of their vodka consumption.

But we’re not talking about tea here and we’re not talking about books…we’re talking about alcohol. How central is alcohol to the Russian identity? Allegedly Islam’s banning of alcohol is what drove Vladimir the Great to choose Christianity when he was selecting a new religion over a millennium ago. The Russian word водка (vodka) is related to the word вода (water). Yet again this is not really out of the ordinary since other European countries referred to alcoholic solutions as aqua vitae (water of life).

The Russian government has always been precariously dependent upon alcohol. At various times there have been state monopolies on vodka, and the stuff has always been an essential source of tax revenue for the government. A new book by Mark Schrad that I just ordered today deals heavily with this topic. An abundance of vodka has at times been a curse for Russia, especially when gently shaken with economic collapse, poured into a stifling shot glass, and garnished with a failing political system. Public drunkenness became inordinately common in Russia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Brezhnev did not seem to care much but his three successors, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev, did. Gorbachev personally did the most to try and stem it but without much success. Russians were unwilling to give up their alcohol. When Gorbachev raised prices of vodka the economic posturing of the USSR weakened as tax revenues declined. Higher prices just drove Russians to brew their own. The Russian term for moonshine is самого́н (samogon) in case you were wondering.

There is no shortage of stereotypes surrounding Russian drinking habits. Some of us might recall the scene from Dr. Strangelove where fictional Soviet Premier Kissoff was drunk when the American president called him to try to defuse a situation involving a group of renegade nuclear-armed bombers. Robin Williams played on this same trope in a stand-up routine where he assumed a drunk Russian accent and talked about all the nukes that had been misplaced. I distinctly remember Mickey Rourke’s character in Iron Man 2 taking occasional swigs of vodka while building his robot suit. Stereotypes abound…

And there is some truth to the stereotypes. Alcohol is a key part of the Russian socio-political landscape. But I don’t think it is anything to really laugh about. The reality is quite disturbing. Russian food writer Anya Von Bremzen writes in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking about how her father, who worked on the commission responsible for preserving Lenin, would come home with the smell of formaldehyde on his breath after alcohol became too expensive. Stalin, as it turns out, was rather fond of having drunken parties in his dacha with all the boys. Khrushchev and his politburo would also drink heavily, although they did so at public parties and, if Gunther (1958) is to be believed, made some policy decisions while drunk. Yeltsin fought a very public and disturbing personal war with alcohol, although it was always pretty clear that alcohol never lost. Yeltsin was usually drunk in public, including foreign diplomatic trips.

Alcoholism is a grim spectre that greatly affects public health. Vodka became more and more popular during the economic disaster that was the 1990s and Russian men in particular turned to vodka when they were unable to provide for their families. A significant portion of Russian men died, and continue to die, in their early 50s. Women generally outlive men significantly (women incidentally prefer tea to vodka from what I have read) which only leads to a greater demographic crisis since women often have a harder time finding work and are now cut off from their Soviet era social programs.

We might find this odd, but Russians actually have several stigmas against alcoholics. Folk belief ranks those who drank themselves to death with suicides as members of the, so-called, unclean dead. These unclean dead were feared to come back if not properly disposed of and cause all sorts of mischief. The defining character of drunks was their thirst. Drunks who died of thirst in life were expected to come back and, presumably, drink water and create a drought. The unclean dead were not afforded Christian burials, and instead had their bodies mangled so as to prevent their Resurrection. Usually legs were chopped off or stakes were put through hearts. Dead drunks were taken far from civilization and cast into lakes where they could forever quench their thirst (Morrissey 2005; Warner 2011). Even if these stigmas exist (indeed, Russian folklore is still quite alive and well), alcoholism still poses a significant problem.

All in all, alcohol poses a threat to Russian health, demographics, and domestic stability. Mr. Putin, ever the pragmatist, seems to have walked a middle line, albeit a conservative one. Putin has certainly taken steps to try to promote a decline in alcoholism. Anthony Bourdain is a recent trip to Russia met up with the ska-punk band Leningrad, who had been banned from Moscow for promoting alcoholism with their songs (it doesn’t help that Leningrad likes to challenge politics). Putin showed a softened stance towards vodka with the recent economic problems of Russia, setting price caps on vodka. While Puritans might say that this keeps vodka affordable Putin says that is a decision made with public interest in mind. Massive vodka prices may drive some to resort to dangerous substances as they did in the 1980s. I think Putin is pretty mindful of the power vodka holds, which explains his moderate and realistic stance towards it. I am not sure if it really is possible to wage an effective prohibition campaign without losing significant political capital, so Putin is doing the best he can in the context.

I wasn’t actually intending for this to be a post about the history and place of alcohol. I was actually going to have this post be about my own interactions with Russian alcohol in a post-21 world.
DSCN0407

A few coworkers actually got me some Russian Standard vodka and some Baltika Beer; yes Russian’s do have beer although I can’t say they are big on wine-you have to go to Georgia for that.

Since I got so off-topic I have decided to make this part one of a series of posts. As I continue to try different alcohols and study different cultural trends I will report on the actual customs associated with drinking and the history of companies. I also did order that book Vodka Politics so presumably I can write a review of that and incorporate it into this series. I hope you all enjoy. Please drink responsibly and please also remember to do your research before engaging in stereotypes. True, Russians like to drink, but this is not the totality of their culture nor is it something that should be made fun of. Alcohol is a part of the Russian identity, for better and for worse, and it poses unique challenges to public health, economics, and politics.

Amateur Mistakes: Misconceptions of Russian History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surf’s Up: Russia in the Waves of Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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