Streetwise Professor

July 5, 2009


Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:28 pm

Obama’s trip to Moscow has brought more than the usual attention on Russia.  One story that received considerable attention was the President’s drawing a distinction between Medvedev and Putin, and accusing the latter of having a Cold War attitude.  I think that, as usual, Obama’s grasp of history leaves something to be desired.  Putinism is more of a throwback to imperial, or patrimonial Russia, rather than Soviet communism; any similarities between Putin’s Russia and the Cold War USSR are attributable to the latter’s tsarist inheritance.  Moreover, if this is Obama’s idea of a clever turn-the-tables-and-divide-and-conquer-the-master-divider-and-conquerer gambit, fuggitaboudit.  I am sure they are having a good belly laugh in Moscow about it as we speak.  There is a clear verticality in the relationship between Putin and Medvedev (verticality being a theme I return to below), with Putin clearly in the dominant position.  Attempting to play this game betrays a serious misunderstanding of the situation, and a by now familiar overconfidence from Obama.  

Articles in the Washington Post and LA Times identify a key driver in Russian attitudes towards the US that will make any serious rapprochement unlikely: that being a deep Russian sense of insecurity and grievance.  David Ignatius in the WaPo:

The Russia that Obama will encounter is proud and prickly. The country’s leaders aren’t sure what they want from America, other than to be respected and taken seriously. U.S. analysts talk about a new strategic partnership, but Russian officials are mistrustful of large American designs. They think the United States took advantage of them during their years of weakness, and they’re still licking their wounds. Their empire collapsed partly because of a misconceived war in Afghanistan, and they think America’s should, too.

. . . .

“We want equality. We want our interests recognized — to have them considered as significant,” said one Russian panelist. But when Americans attending the meeting asked for specifics, another Russian who is a prominent politician suggested: “The real problem is that we don’t understand what we want.”

 Megan Stack in LAT:

The Cold War is a faded relic in American memory. Now there are Iran and North Korea to worry about; a few years ago, there was Saddam Hussein. And so it is perhaps easy to forget that, in Russia, the Cold War remains a poignant and powerful idea.  

Talk of current events often conveys the distinct sense that Russia is clinging to the idea of an American threat. If there is no hostility with the United States, the thinking runs, it can only mean that Russia is no longer important enough to merit it. And that’s unpalatable to Russia’s political elite.

. . . .  

In this atmosphere of heightened anxiety, a documentary called “” appeared on state television to warn Russians of the threat at hand. This was the gist:

The U.S. State Department and the CIA, jealous of Russia’s vast oil, gas, timber and diamond riches, were backing anti-Kremlin activists in a bid to overthrow the government and dismantle the country.  

“They’re already here on our threshold, agents and professional provocateurs, preparing for a coup in Moscow,” the narrator warned. “In American perception, this state should disappear. Russia should break into pieces.”

I hypothesize that these delusions about American obsessions with Russia are psyche-salving cover for a reality that many Russians probably suspect but just cannot abide: bluntly put, that the vast majority of Americans spend more time deciding between Original Recipe and Extra Crispy than they spend thinking about Russia.  For Russians, Machiavelli’s choice between being loved and feared is easily answered, but the worst thing by far is to be ignored.

This kind of thinking reminds me of an observation sent to me by a SWP reader: the Russian obsession with status, position, hierarchy–verticality, if you will.  Putin, with his obsession with the “power vertical” epitomizes this, but it is arguably a fairly widespread phenomenon (which perhaps help explain his popularity, as he embodies a widespread mindset).  More generally, it pertains to the subject of the peculiar, and to a classical liberal repellent, relationship between ordinary Russians and those in authority.  Obama’s diss of Putin betrays a complete misapprehension about that relationship, and is hence almost certain to backfire, and not just with Putin, but with a large majority of Russians.  

Which, in turn, leads me to a book I’ve been skimming, Daniel Rancour-Laferrier’s “The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering.”  Now, Rancour-Laferrier is a psychoanalyst, and the term “moral masochism” is a term of art in psychoanalysis: after being force-fed Freud as an undergrad at Chicago, few things generate a quicker eye-roll reflex than psychoanalysis.  Although I don’t really buy the psychobabble, Rancour-Laferrier does raise a key question: who is ultimately responsible for Russian authoritarianism, and Russian suffering?  

I can anticipate the head-exploding reactions in some quarters, so I’ll just lay out some of what Rancour-Laferrier has to say:

What are the causes of the great suffering that goes on in Russia?  Whence the Russian “need to suffer” (“potrebnost’ stradaniia”)–as Dostoevsky put it?  Who is to blame?–to ask the perennial Russian question.

Russia is customarily characterized as an “authoritarian” or “patriarchal” culture.  This is no doubt true, but the very terms tend to attact blame toward those exercising “authority,” and draw analytic attention away from those who do the suffering and who might possibly be complicitous in the “authoritarianism.”

. . . .

Little effort has been made to understand just how the Russians manage to consistently get themselves into situations where there appear to have no choice but to submit and to suffer.  How did Russians come to acquire their well-deserved epithet of “long-suffering people (“terpelivyi narod”)?  

The centrality of Russian suffering as a reality, and as a centerpiece of Russian self-identity I think is beyond question.  The issue is why?  

An important issue with respect to suffering is the old Leninist matter of “who-whom.”  The conventional wisdom is that authority is the “who” that inflicts the harm, and the Russian populace is that upon whom the suffering is inflicted.  But Rancour-Laferriere suggests that it is not so simple: that perhaps ordinary Russians are complicit.  He pays special attention to the submissiveness of Russians towards authority.  Discussing Russian folklore proverbs collected by Vladimir Dahl, he says:

These utterances attempt to teach the peasant a sense of absolute submissiveness before authority . . . Note also the “vertical” orientation of many of the sayings, the submissive party being well “below” the dominant party in the spatial configuration.  Perhaps this is what [poet Viacheslav] Ivanov had in the back of his mind when he spoke of a Russian “law of descent.”  

This whole subject of suffering, vertical relationships to power, and status is quite complex.  It is a minefield to which I don’t claim to possess the map.  But the important thing is that Obama doesn’t either, and his extremely clumsy foray into such dangerous terrain is quite frightening as a result.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The mistranslated, written in Latin (rather than Cyrillic) characters “Reset Button” looks like a canny move by comparison.

What would be a better approach?  Well, certainly not the kiss up to thugs approach a la the outreach to the Mullahs.  There’s no need to lie or flatter–it won’t make any difference anyways.  I would suggest just playing it straight.  Representing American interests and views, and avoiding ham-handed attempts to play politics in Russia.  Such games are likely to backfire with a nation hypersensitive about status and characterized by a symbiotic relationship between the rulers and the ruled.  

One more comment about Rancour-Laferriere.  His concluding lines are quite intriguing:

In his book on Dostoevsky Berdiaev says: “There is a hunger for self-desruction in the Russian soul, there is a danger of intoxication with ruin.”  I confess that I have sometimes found it exhilarating to observe this danger–from afar.

For me, masochism is part of the very attractiveness and beauty of Russian culture.  Where would Tatiana Larina or Dmitrii Karamazov or Anna Karenina be without their masochism?  To “cure” them of their masochism would be to detract them from their aesthetic appeal.  

It has often struck me that Russia is essentially a Romantic culture, and that it appeals primarily to non-Russians of a Romantic persuasion.  The sufferer has always attracted the Romantic, and since Russia is the archetype of the suffering nation, what could be more, well, romantic?  But if you are not a Romantic–and I am definitely not–you are more likely to be repelled than attracted.

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  1. Well that explains it. I am the apotheosis of the Romantic.

    Of course, Romanticism is old and dated now. For today it is the nihilism of transparency that reigns, and its power is most advanced in the West (though Russia is rapidly catching up).

    Quoting that old fool Baudrillard:

    Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than in its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyze it. When God died, there was still Nietzsche to say so – the great nihilist before the Eternal and the cadaver of the Eternal. But before the simulated transparency of all things, before the simulacrum of the materialist or idealist realization of the world in hyperreality (God is not dead, he has become hyper-real), there is no longer a theoretical or critical God to recognize his own.

    The universe, and all of us, have entered live into simulation, into the malefic, not even malefic, indifferent, sphere of deterrence: in a bizarre fashion, nihilism has been entirely realized no longer through destruction, but through simulation and deterrence…

    Romanticism is its first great manifestation: it, along with the Enlightenment’s Revolution, corresponds to the destruction of the order of appearances. Surrealism, dada, the absurd, and political nihilism are the second great manifestation, which corresponds to the destruction of the order of meaning.

    The first is still an aesthetic form of nihilism (dandyism), the second, a political, historical, and metaphysical form (terrorism).

    These two forms no longer concern us except in part, or not at all. The nihilism of transparency is no longer either aesthetic or political, no longer borrows from either the extermination of appearances, nor from extinguishing the embers of meaning, nor from the last nuances of an apocalypse. There is no longer an apocalypse (only aleatory terrorism still tries to reflect it, but it is certainly no longer political, and it only has one mode of manifestation left that is at the same time a mode of disappearance: the media – now the media are not a stage where something is played, they are a strip, a track, a perforated map of which we are no longer even spectators: receivers). The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference. I will leave it to be considered whether there can be a romanticism, an aesthetic of the neutral therein. I don’t think so – all that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 5, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

  2. S/O–read carefully. I said quite clearly “appeals primarily to NON-Russians of a Romantic persuasion.” That would exclude you on the basis of parentage, not to mention self-identification. Don’t worry. I never pegged you as a Romantic, let alone the apotheosis thereof. Nihilist? That merits some consideration.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 6, 2009 @ 9:17 am

  3. No, no. I love Romanticism. (This wasn’t irony).

    Just take a look at the music I like.

    I don’t know if I’m Russian or not, it is a major issue / question.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 6, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

  4. Does anyone else see the irony in SWP talking about “delusions” of an American obsession with Russia, then going on to list a number of articles and books written by Americans about Russia (while probably writing up a draft for his hundredth or so Russia themed article)..?

    That made me smile (:

    Comment by Bob From Canada — July 6, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

  5. Bob. You are beyond belief. The fact that there a few Americans who pay attention to Russia, and indeed, are even a few that are obsessed with it (if you want to put me in that category, go ahead), does not belie the accuracy of my statement for 99.9 percent of Americans. Indeed, my fascination with Russia is a source of reactions running the gamut from astonishment to bewilderment from most of my peers, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, etc., and that group is hardly representative of the US at large as those who are in it are more likely to be of an age, educational background, and worldview to take an interest in such things.

    For crissakes, there are 300 million Americans, and the examples you mention are without a doubt the exception that proves the rule. Familiar with the concept?

    And that’s probably you’re 100th Russia themed comment. So what’s your problem?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 6, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  6. What the 99.9% of the masses actively care about is irrelevant, because they’re not the politicians, the intellectuals and the writers who shape world views. 99.9% of Americans don’t care about any country other than their own. However in that .1 percentile who do, that is, the aformentioned politicians, intellectuals and authors, Russia undoubtedly gets a lot more attention than most other countries, eg. daily news headlines, the large library of “Evil Putin and the west” style books (many of which I’m sure you’ve read) and of course the uncountable number of pro/anti-Russia themed blogs like this very one, hence why such a comment is so ironic coming from you.

    And I didn’t say I had a problem. Just making a point of how you’ll find any old excuse to mock and take shots at the Russian administration and the country as a whole, even when you’re blatantly contradicting yourself. I’m sure it doesn’t bother you though, as long as you get to call them delusional as many times as you can.

    Comment by Bob From Canada — July 6, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

  7. Bob, get real, Russia is so over with the vast majority of Americans. If they are focused on anywhere overseas it’s China, Iran, NK, anywhere but Russia. It’s a poorly managed moribund demographically declining state that isn’t bothering the US as much as the Europeans with their gas monopoly and their near neighbors. They are too broke to be much more than paper tigers which the Chinese will feast on in time.

    Professor, it is amazing to watch Obama not get it that the Putin-Medvedev duopoly can’t be triangulated. Putin and little Putin the Lessor, a siloviki clan PR ploy, are one in the same. You bet the Kremlin is laughing.

    Comment by penny — July 6, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  8. RE problem . . . I was making a joke at my expense that I had some kind of obsession problem re Russia . . . and suggesting you might have the same problem.

    You’re full of it if you think I am contradicting myself on this particular issue. Re politicians. Thanks for proving my point. In every US election 1948-1988, the USSR was the major foreign policy issue. Indeed, it was by far the most important foreign policy issue election in, election out. Now, it is an afterthought of an afterthought. Even during the Russo-Georgian War only a small number of politicians said anything about it at all. McCain had to dragoon Obama into saying anything more than perfunctory about it. Russia is a tertiary consideration, and apropos my post, Russia perceives itself as the primo rival to the US. It believes that US politicians AND citizens wake up and go to sleep scheming at how to debase Russia, and steal its marbles . . . I mean oil. Wrong. Are Americans ignorant or apathetic about Russia? They don’t know, and they don’t care.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 6, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  9. SWP: So by your logic, North Korea and Iran are now the most “important” countries to America because they’re the major foreign policy issues at the moment. Hilarious logic, you never cease to amuse.

    In case you didn’t know, hostile threats get priority. Russia does not threaten America with nukes anymore, therefor they are not a foreign policy top priority. That is a completely separate issue from what we’re discussing right now, although I don’t expect you to understand the difference at this point.

    “Are Americans ignorant or apathetic about Russia? They don’t know, and they don’t care.”

    As I already explained, Americans are ignorant and apathetic about every country in the world besides their own. They don’t know, they don’t care. The best way to teach an American geography is by starting a war. The best way to make an American care about X country is by telling them they’re going to be bombed by X country. But as I already explained, it doesn’t matter because the average American is not the one influencing global politics or world views.

    Comment by Bob From Canada — July 6, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

  10. Right on, Professor, we don’t import Russian oil or gas. If we need base metals we look to Canada. Russia has no economic clout over Americans. They haven’t got anything we need. Other than a as commodity pit for developing and developed neighbors Russia is a backwater by every metric.

    Bob’s arrogance alone disqualifies him from having any opinion worth considering.

    Oh, and, Bob from Canada, tell us please how much interest your average Canadian has in Russia? Not much either.

    Usually how it works in the world, Bob, is that the countries that you trade with the most or the countries presenting the most threat to your welfare are “the major foreign policy issues at the moment”. Russia is neither. Russia is a pathetic talentless burned out drama queen feeling humiliated and like yourself rudely demanding we not ignore them.

    Comment by penny — July 6, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  11. we don’t import Russian oil or gas.

    Oh really?

    As for your foreign policy argument, you’ve gone beyond stupidity. You just repeated exactly what I said and tried to repackage it as a counter to my argument. Did you flunk out of grade school or something? I’m just going to ignore your posts from now on.

    Comment by Bob From Canada — July 7, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  12. Well, ok, then let me re-phrase myself, we don’t import Russian oil in any significant amount that would be reflected in a foreign policy of needing Russia economically. Bob, lets look at the US total oil imports by country:

    April 2009 US monthly imports in thousand barrels: All countries = 359,196, OPEC = 142,630 and Russia = 23,361.

    So do the math, Bob, Russian oil imports to the US are not that significant and are probably wiped out in this recession. We’ve got a surplus of oil now. And of course since ’75 Russian imports were increasing, they were from every source. Unlike the EU we use no Russian natural gas. Somehow I lost the point of your argument other than Americans are ignorant geographically and the Professor will “find any old excuse to mock and take shots at the Russian administration….”

    You show up periodically in an angry rude lather never presenting one factual claim supporting your blather. Want to give us some timely verifiable numbers on how well Putin’s doing running the Russian economy with his KGB background? If you can’t, you are ignorable.

    Comment by penny — July 7, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

  13. That’s a false way of looking at things. It doesn’t matter how much oil the US imports from particular countries because the oil market is free. If one country stops selling to the US, the US will quickly find another. However, if Russia were to cut most of its oil exports (which I would do if I were its leader and had the power), then oil would quickly soar to c.400$ and cause a far more severe economic crunch than is the case now.

    Russia’s gas influence has little effect on the US, but it does not Europe – which the US considers as a sphere of influence / vital to its security, and hence does its best to resist Russian encroachment.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 7, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

  14. S.O. Russia isn’t OPEC, if they cut their oil production it would maybe make it to page 6 news. How could they possibly shut down oil revenues when they are Putin’s lifeline?

    If Russia turned off their spigot it’s ridiculous to think oil would soar to $440/barrel. If the oil markets are “free” by your logic Russian oil would be replaced from somewhere else too. That’s the beauty of free markets.

    We are in a recessionary oil glut. And, as per the WSJ today the major EU backed NG pipeline got a boost today when Turkey signed on to the Nabucco plan. The EU gets a quarter of their gas from Russia and they are “eager” to end that.

    No offense, but, that you would turn off the oil spigot, one of Russia’s main revenues, in a horrific recession tells me that any succesful career track for you would be in the Fine Arts or just sitting around thinking at the beach or maybe Starbucks.

    Comment by penny — July 7, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

  15. 1. Oil supplies are very tight, even despite the recession, because demand is outstripping supply since the early 2000’s. If Russia cut all its oil exports (let’s suppose), then oil will easily soar multiple times. Markets being free has nothing to do with this if every nation is forced to compete for a much diminished pool of net oil exports.

    2. For Europe to end its “dependency” on Russian gas would take concerted action over many decades.

    3. I’m going to do it over several years rather than at once. Cutting oil production is a form of saving for the future. They are going to do more good in the ground than in a) oligarch pockets or b) foreign bonds which are going to be inflated away. I would also alleviate the consequent welfare problems by instituting more re-distributive policies, destroying the oligarchy, extirpating corruption and encouraging the formation of post-materialist values. (These are my major complaints with the Putvedev administration).

    “any succesful career track for you would be in the Fine Arts or just sitting around thinking at the beach or maybe Starbucks.”

    Bearing my unconventional analytical take on things (at least up until now), I would tend to agree. Hence my hopes to become a useless parasite in an ivory tower. 😉

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 7, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

  16. “if they cut their oil production it would maybe make it to page 6 news.”

    Penny, Russia’s oil exports are ~7 million bbpd. This is huge. The impact on the market would be colossal.

    “How could they possibly shut down oil revenues when they are Putin’s lifeline”

    Because it isn’t. Russia’s oil revenue is carefully taxed away and put into foreign securities so that it dosen’t cause more inflation. I agree with SO that a better way of sterilizing that financial flow would be to leave it in the ground for future generations of Russians.

    “If Russia turned off their spigot it’s ridiculous to think oil would soar to $440/barrel. If the oil markets are “free” by your logic Russian oil would be replaced from somewhere else too. That’s the beauty of free markets.”

    Sorry Penny, there isn’t ~7 million bbpd spare capacity lying around. Even you would definitely notice it’s absence.

    Comment by rkka — July 8, 2009 @ 4:41 am

  17. rkka, I stand corrected about Russia’s global output, what was I thinking, but, to us their imports wouldn’t be missed. If Russia dropped production precipitously Iran regardless of sanctions would be given latitude to sell more and Iraq is only now restoring their production. Why wouldn’t OPEC fill part of the gap at higher prices?

    Are you suggesting that if oil rebounds it would be wise for the Russians who are very thin ice economically now would be better served to keep it in the ground? Inflation is running at 10% in Russia. More inflation? That’s pretty much a wealth destroyer at that level. Future generations of Russians are going to be a lot smaller which will be an economic problem in and of itself. Their economically and demographically diminished outposts in the far east might have Chinese overlords in a few generations.

    Oil and gas are Putin’s political lifeline. He’s got obligations to the masses to finance or risk them turning on him. 32 million Russians are pensioners. They turned on him in the past.

    Comment by penny — July 8, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  18. Iran can’t ramp up oil production quickly enough, nor can Iraq.

    Their reserves are unlimited either, and at least in Iraq’s case a lot of their fields are critically damaged because Saddam’s Iraq could not replace equipment.

    If things were so easy and all that, why didn’t they do it in 2003-2008?

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 8, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

  19. Rkka, concerning Russia’s dependence on oil exports:

    “In the second quarter of 2008, the nonoil external current account deficit sharply increased to almost USD60
    billion, and further to USD62 billion in the third quarter, making Russia’s balance of payments position particularly vulnerable to a sudden drop in oil and gas prices.”


    Comment by Dixi — July 9, 2009 @ 5:43 am

  20. Re: Professor’s Above Post

    On the eve of his visit to Russia, Obama’s comments about Putin were diplomatically inappropriate. Likewise, with some of the remarks by his Russian point man Michael McFaul.

    I suspect this was done (unofficially) to keep down the accusation of being “soft” on Russia.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — July 10, 2009 @ 8:39 am

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