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Rethinking the Russian Revolution

“We have imagined how things would have been at that time if there was an internet and people were using social media,” said Mikhail Zygar, the creator of the biggest-ever interactive historical website. It’s called “1917: Free History”, and it’s a quietly subversive attempt to make Russians think about how they ended up where they are now.

Zygar is one of Russian’s best journalists. He was the editor-in-chief of Dozhd (Rain), the only independent TV news channel in the country, until he resigned – or more likely was force to resign – last year. But he’s back with an extraordinary project: to relive the events leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as if the people involved, from statesmen to private citizens, had been posting daily on social media.

More than one hundred journalists, historians and web professionals worked for a year, trawling through letters, diaries and archives to come up with authentic material written by people who were living the history one day at a time.

The characters include all the big figures from the Tsar and Rasputin to Lenin and Trotsky, but also artists, writers, soldiers, workers and housewives. And they were all following current events closely, because it was the middle of the First World War.

There are 1,500 characters, each posting Facebook-style updates on their activities and impressions, their hopes and fears, all drawn from what they actually wrote at the time. You can “like” specific characters and follow them on a regular basis. You can even ask them questions and send them messages. (Tsar Nicolas II has already received several warnings that he and his family will be killed by the Bolsheviks.)

“1917: Free History” has no obvious political stance. It offers no conclusions, and the comments of the various characters come without any interpretation. The public justification for this massive undertaking is simply that next year is the centenary of the Bolshevik (Communist) Revolution, the biggest turning point in modern Russian history. And yet…

And yet Mikhail Zygar is a very political man, a liberal who has consistently resisted the lies and manipulations of the Putin regime. So what is he really up to? What would Zygar like people to conclude after their fifteen-month journey through Russia’s hundred-year-ago history?

All he will say is that “Everything that happened to us in the 20th century and is happening now is a consequence of the events of 1917.” That includes not only of the crimes and tragedies of the Soviet era but also what “is happening now.” And now is not a good time in Russia either.

Russians are not enthusiastic readers of history, but any intelligent Russian who follows “1917” through to the end will know that while the first (democratic) revolution in March 1917 was probably inevitable, given the Tsar’s gross mismanagement of the Russian war effort, the second revolution was not inevitable at all. It was a fluke, a “Black Swan”, a highly improbable event that happened anyway.

The October Revolution that brought the Communists to power was not really a revolution. It was a coup d’etat, led by a small goup of ruthless Bolsheviks with the support of some troops in the capital.

When the election that had already been scheduled took place two weeks later, the Bolsheviks won only 175 out of 715 seats in the parliament – but that didn’t matter by then, because the Bolsheviks immediately dissolved the parliament and ruled by decree. And the point of bringing up this old history is not to prove that the Communists were bad; it is to show that they were not inevitable.

Most Russians are fatalistic about their history. They believe that it’s all their own fault, because they are the kind of people they are. If you believe that, then you believe that seventy years of Communist dictatorship were inevitable, that the civil war, the famines and the great purges were inevitable, that tyranny, corruption and poverty are inevitable – and that Putin or somebody like him is inevitable now.

But none of that is true. Change just one little detail in the run-up to the October Revolution – for example, what if the Germans had not shipped Lenin to Russia in the hope that he would seize power and take Russia out of the war? – and the improbable Communist seizure of power becomes impossible.

Once you have realised that the Communist coup was just bad luck and not Russia’s inevitable fate, all the subsequent bad history ceases to be inevitable too. The country just turned down the wrong road in 1917, but another turn could put it on the right road.

Is that the message Zygar is trying to get across? I suspect it is, although he is far too intelligent to believe it will have any immediate effect. It’s just a drop in the bucket – but it’s a pretty big drop, and eventually the bucket may overflow.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paras. 5 and 11. (“There…Bolsheviks”; and “When…inevitable”)

After Aleppo: A Kind of Peace?

Eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of what was once Syria’s biggest city, is falling. Once the resistance there collapses, things may move very fast in Syria, and the biggest question will be: do the outside powers that have intervened in the war accept Bashar al-Assad’s victory, or do they keep the war going?

Even one year ago, it seemed completely unrealistic to talk about an Assad victory. The Syrian government’s army was decimated, demoralised and on the verge of collapse: every time the rebels attacked, it retreated.

There was even a serious possibility that Islamic State and the Nusra Front, the extreme Islamist groups that dominated the rebel forces, would sweep to victory in all of Syria. But then, just fourteen months ago, the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad’s army from defeat.

It did more than that. It enabled the Syrian army, with help on the ground from Shia militias recruited from Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq and mostly trained and commanded by Iranian officers, to go onto the offensive. Assad’s forces took back the historic city of Palmyra. They eliminated the last rebel-held foothold in the city of Homs. And last summer they began to cut eastern Aleppo’s remaining links with the outside world.

In July government forces took control of the Castello Road, ending the flow of food and supplies for eastern Aleppo’s ten thousand rebel fighters and its claimed civilian population of 250,000 people. (The real total of civilians left in the east of the city, once home to around a million people, is almost certainly a small fraction of that number.)

A rebel counter-offensive in August briefly opened a new corridor into eastern Aleppo, but government troops retook the lost territory and resumed the siege in September.

For almost two months now almost nothing has moved into or out of the besieged half of the city, and both food and ammunition are running short inside. So the resistance is starting to collapse.

The Hanano district fell on Saturday, and Jabal Badro fell on Sunday. The capture of Sakhour on Monday has cut the rebel-held part of Aleppo in two, and the remaining bits north of the cut will quickly be pinched out by the Syrian government’s troops.

The southeastern part of the city may stay in rebel hands a while longer, but military collapses of this sort are infectious. It is now likely that Bashar al-Assad will control all of Aleppo before the end of the year, and possibly much sooner.

At that point he would control all of Syria’s major cities, at least three-quarters of the population that has not fled abroad, and all of the country’s surviving industry. He would be in a position to offer an amnesty to all the rebels except the extreme Islamists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and a lot of the less fanatical Syrian rebels would be tempted to accept it.

For the many foreign powers that are involved in the Syrian civil war, it would then come down to a straight choice: Assad’s cruel but conventional regime or the Islamist crazies.

Even Turkey and Saudi Arabia, however much their leaders may loathe Assad, could not openly put their armies at the service of the Islamists. (They used to send them arms and money, but even that has stopped now.) And for a newly installed President Donald Trump, it would become a lot simpler to “make a deal” with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to finish the job of crushing Islamic State and the Nusra Front together.

Would the Russians and the Americans then hand over all the recaptured territory to Assad’s regime? Many people in Washington would rather hang onto it temporarily in order to blackmail Syria’s ruling Baath Party into replacing Assad with somebody a bit less tainted, but a deal between Putin and Trump would certainly preclude that sort of games-playing.

How could Trump reconcile such a deal with Russia with his declared intention to cancel the agreement the United States signed last March to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions? Iran is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, and if Trump broke that agreement he would be reopening a US military confrontation with Iran.

Since this question may not even have crossed Mr Trump’s mind yet, it would be pointless for us to speculate on which way he might jump three months from now.

It’s equally pointless to wonder what kind of deal the Syrian Kurds will end up with. Turkey will want to ensure that they have no autonomous government of their own and are thoroughly subjugated by Assad’s regime. The United States, on the other hand, owes them a debt of honour for carrying the main burden of fighting Islamic State on the ground – but the Kurds are used to being betrayed.

All we can say with some confidence at the moment is that it looks like Assad has won his six-year war to stay in power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 16. (“In July…September”; and “It’s…betrayed”)

The Biggest “Fuck You” Vote in History

Not many things are certain in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the US presidential election, but FBI Director James Comey can rest assured that his job is safe. His prediction of a new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails eleven days before the election (followed by a retraction only 36 hours before the vote) gave Trump the edge he needed to win in the close-run contests in the “battleground states.”

Another sure bet is that Trump will not waste his time trying to send Hillary Clinton to jail, despite his many promises to “lock her up.” But this brings us rapidly to the nub of the matter: how many of his promises does he really intend to keep? If he keeps them all, we are in for a wild ride in the next four years.

President Barack Obama, addressing his last rally before the election, said: “All that progress (we made) goes down the drain if we don’t win tomorrow.” So down it goes: the promising climate change deal signed in Paris last December, the Affordable Care Act that gave 20 million poorer Americans access to health insurance, the deal that persuaded Iran to stop working on nuclear weapons, and maybe the whole 68-year-old NATO alliance.

Trump often accused of being sketchy on the details of his plans, but he has actually given us quite a lot of details on these issues. He’s not just going to tear up the Paris climate accord, for example. At home, he’s going to dismantle all but a few “little tidbits” of the Environmental Protection Agency and, he says, revive the coal industry.

He’s not just going to restart a confrontation with Iran. He has talked about closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against Islamic State – which, given Russia’s support for the Assad regime, might even give Assad a decisive victory in the Syrian civil war.

Will he really deport 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States? (He back-tracked a bit on that.) Will he build a wall on the Mexican border? (He can’t walk away from that promise.) Will he ban all Muslims from entering the US? (Not in so many words, maybe, but Muslims should not consider taking vacations there.)

Will Trump tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and repudiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a free trade deal linking most Pacific Rim countries except China) and the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (a similar deal between the US and the European Union)? Yes, yes and yes. Destroying the current “globalised” trading arrangements was a key part of his platform.

Will he impose import duties on goods made in America’s trading partners in an attempt to “bring the jobs home”, including 35 percent tariffs on Mexican-made goods and 45 percent on Chinese exports. If he does, he’ll be starting a global trade war, and in the case of China a confrontation that could even turn military.

How could almost half of American voters support all this (47.5 percent)? Well, they didn’t, actually. They weren’t interested in the details.

They just hated the way the country was changing. Many of them had lost out economically because of the changes, and they were all very angry. As American film-maker and social commentator Michael Moore predicted, Donald Trump has ridden to power on the back of the biggest “Fuck You” vote in history.

It was driven by the same rage that fuelled the Brexit vote in Britain last June, and it was equally heedless of consequences. Pro-Brexit British voters were more obsessed by immigration and Trump voters were more upset about jobs going abroad, but white working-class males provided the core support in both cases and the basic message was the same: “Stop the world. I want to get off.”

Populists like Boris Johnson in England and Donald Trump in the United States are just exploiting those emotions, but they are barking up the wrong tree. The basic change that is leaving so many people feeling marginalised and unhappy is not immigration or globalisation. Those scapegoats are popular mainly because you can imagine doing something to solve the problem: close the doors to immigrants, rip up the free trade deals.

But the real change is automation: computers and robots are eating up most of the jobs. Seven million American factory jobs have disappeared since 1979, but American factory production has doubled in the same time. The United States is still the world’s second largest manufacturer, behind only China.

So the populists can go on baying at the moon for a while, but sooner or later we will have to recognise that this is unstoppable change and start figuring out how to live with it. In particular, we will have to figure out how a large proportion of the people in developed countries can still have self-respect and a decent living standard when there are no jobs for them.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“He’s not…there”)

Sometimes Trump Is Right

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Donald J. Trump’s record is not that good, but he does get it right once in a while. He got it right on Tuesday, when he said that Hillary Clinton would be dangerously agressive in Syria if she wins the presidency.

Trump went too far, of course. He always does. He claimed that Clinton would trigger World War Three with her Syrian policy, which is utter nonsense. Given the current international balance of power, it is almost impossible to get a Russian-American war going. The Russians simply aren’t that stupid.

Even a new Cold War is hard to imagine. The Russians know that they would lose it in only a few years, so they would refuse to play their allotted role in any such scenario. But US-Russian diplomatic relations would get distinctly frosty for a while – and the United States, in the meantime, would be up to its neck in the Syrian civil war and betting on the wrong horse.

What Trump actually said, in an interview conducted in his Florida golf resort between bites of fried egg and sausages, was that the United States should focus on defeating ISIS. “We should not be focusing on Syria. You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”

The Clinton policy in question is her promise (repeated in the third debate) to declare a no-fly zone and “safe zones” on the ground in Syria to protect non-combatants. Those zones, of course, would deny the Syrian government the chance to recover the territory it has lost to the rebels, and deprive the Russian air force of the ability to help it in that task.

But what if the Syrians and the Russians don’t accept that the United States has the right to set up no-fly zones on Syrian territory just because it feels like it? What if they send their planes into those zones and dare the US air force to shoot them down? Then the US has to choose between backing down and being publicly humiliated – or shooting down Russian aircraft and (according to Trump) starting World War Three.

“You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?” Trump explained. If Hillary Clinton set up her no-fly zones and “safe zones”, she would be asking for a war with Russia.

She would indeed be asking for it – but she knows that she probably would not get it. The Russians might shoot down a few American planes in response, and the United Nations would plead with both sides to show restraint. By then both sides would be sufficiently frightened that they would be all too happy to back away from their confrontation.

The Russians would be especially happy to do so, because they know perfectly well that they could not win a war with the United States. Even leaving aside the question of nuclear weapons (which make such a war unthinkable), Russia is simply not a credible rival to the United States any more: it has half the population of the former Soviet Union, and an economy one-tenth the size of the United States.

So Clinton would not really be courting World War Three if she did what she has promised. She would, however, be doing something very reckless and stupid. After Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the United States really does not need to get more deeply entangled in another unwinnable war in the Middle East.

What Trump is advocating is actually the policy that Obama has been following over the whole five years of the Syrian civil war: concentrate on eliminating ISIS, and do not get involved in the rebel military campaign to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime however much you may dislike it. No more moral crusades.

Whereas Clinton, by declaring no-fly zones, would effectively be creating safe areas for the rebels to operate out of. However, the great majority of the active anti-regime fighters belong to ISIS, or to the equally extreme group that used to be called the Nusra Front and is now changing its name every week or so in an attempt to conceal its true origins as a breakaway part of Islamic State and an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

Most of the smaller rebel groups that Washington calls “moderates” are actually less extreme Islamists who are either voluntarily allied with the Nusra Front, or in thrall to it. But the fantasy still lives in Washington that it can bring together enough genuine “moderates” to create a “third force” that defeats both the Assad regime and the extremists of ISIS and the Nusra Front.

This has been the official position of the “Washington consensus” on foreign policy for five years now, and Hillary Clinton is a paid-up member of that delusionary group. If she carries through on her promises, she probably will trigger a crisis with the Russians, and she will certainly involve the United States much more deeply in the Syrian civil war.

It’s almost enough to make you vote for Trump. But not quite.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Trump…horse”)