Tag Archives: Russia

Cody Boutilier: “Jim meets Yusuf” (Excerpt from ‘Scarlet Field’)

(The following is an except from the novel-in-progress Scarlet Field):

Jim had arrived in Sochi’s Lazarevskoye Microdistrict the previous night. The train ride from Moscow took a day and a half. The proprietors of his guesthouse were a family of three generations (four counting the baby girl), and the matriarch’s daughter readily obliged to drive the mysterious young American back to the city center. Jim wanted to swim in the sea; he wanted to find hot mineral springs like the ones he’d bathed in outside of Kislovodsk a year before; and most of all he wanted to meet people. He strode into a doorless shawarma shack and asked for a beer, resting on a stool.

What do you recommend eating?” he asked the cook, a wiry Central Asian about his age, after taking a swig of Baltika 9. The cafe’s walls were a garish sea-blue stucco. The heavy aroma of grease-soaked meat hung precariously in the open summer air of the shack. The hit of the summer, Natali’s “O bozhe, kakoi muzhchina,” wafted from a speaker in the ceiling corner, the singer squealing, “oh God, what a man, I want a son by you.” Jim chortled. He turned around on the stool and contemplated the boardwalk. Families with small children, a dying breed in Russia, strolled by in their beachwear. Blacks appeared to be common here – mostly young African men, presumably students, and pretty half-Slavic girls, presumably locals.

Taking the chef’s advice, Jim ordered a lamb sandwich. Most of the people in Lazarevskoye, Jim had noticed, were Russians and Armenians. The cook seemed out of place.

“Where are you from?” Jim asked.

“Andijan. You?”

“USA. California. Where is Andijan?”

Oho! Amerikanets!” He shoved a greasy shawarma plate onto the counter. Jim started with the pickled vegetable garnishes. “Andijan is in Uzbekistan – Ferghana Valley. You know Babur, the conqueror of India? He came from Andijan.”

Jim nodded enthusiastically. “Quite a history! What’s your name? I’m Jim.”

“I’m Yusuf,” said the Uzbek. His Russian was accented but intelligible, much like Jim’s.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: Response to Henry Srebrnik

Henry Srebrnik might just take the cake for this week’s most Putin-friendly account of the downing of civilian flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine. Outside Russia, that is—mainstream Russian news outlets have claimed the attack was a failed assassination attempt on Putin’s life, or alternatively a US conspiracy to make Russia look bad (the conspiracy must be working). Video, audio and physical evidence have implicated pro-Russian rebels, but Srebrnik, in his narration, was unable to admit this without a quadruple qualification (“presumably”, “so-called” and two sets of scare quotes).

This was, to his credit, a harsher treatment of Putin than the rest of his piece, where he alerted us to “truly alarming” rhetoric from the West. Apparently the Washington Post was so bold as to call Russia a rogue state, and the Daily Telegraph said that Putin was a pariah. Actually, the Post’s op-ed was on the verge of forgiving the Russians for supplying incompetent rebels with advanced anti-aircraft missiles. The rogue state comment was saved until after recounting that the Russian defense ministry actually tried to implicate a Ukrainian warplane in shooting down flight MH17, in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. No one brought it up but you but yes, Professor Srebrnik, this behavior is a little North Korea-ish.

Now, any good Westerner will admit the media’s foreign policy bias toward the Ukrainians. Geopolitics aside, I admit my own sympathy to those who would rather have a European standard of living than a Russian one, despite acknowledging the brutality of the conflict. And as Srebrnik charges, the newspapers certainly led the rallying cry for the home team during the Iraq War and the bombing of Serbia.

But if we’re identifying double standards as he suggests, then saying “I don’t recall any American newspapers calling the U.S. a rogue state” is a little rich, at least while Russian newspapers are making false accusations about American involvement in their own blunders to avoid incriminating Putin.

If we really insist on drawing a moral equivalence between Putinist Russia and the West, then let’s do it right and test Russia against the liberal democratic Western standard. I’ll even offer a challenge (but not really). I’ll go to Russia and denounce Putin and the Russian media, and Henry can continue to denounce the West here at home. Whoever stays out of jail longest loses.

The Hustings

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Henry Srebrnik: Is it really necessary to explain why Putin isn’t Hitler?

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday asked for the revocation of a parliamentary authorization that gave him the power to invade Russia’s neighbor.

Ever since the crisis in Ukraine began, with the overthrow of the legally elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, war drums have been beating in the West. They have defined as “aggression” Putin’s attempts to make certain Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine don’t get trampled by the nationalist Ukrainians in the west – the heirs of those who fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in World War II.

To add to the insult, people like Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles have glibly compared Putin to – wait for it – Adolf Hitler! I guess even a lesser tyrant like Mussolini or Syria’s Assad won’t do. CNN for weeks ran almost daily “breaking news” alarmist clips warning of Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border – as if there was something illegal about a country moving its forces around within its own territory.

In fact, it’s the outgunned “rebels” in the east, not the Ukrainian army, that have been suffering most of the casualties, and have begged Putin to intervene. Unlike Hitler, he hasn’t sent forces across the border, though there has been enough provocation for him to invoke an international norm like R2P (“responsibility to protect”) to do so. Instead, he keeps calling for negotiations between the Russians in Ukraine and the new president, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko – who was elected with virtually no ethnic Russian support.

If only Hitler had been more like Putin! World War II might never have occurred.

The Hustings

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Cody Boutilier: WWI and the Willy-Nicky telegrams: A historian responds

Dave Wetzel, my favorite historian and an expert on modern Europe whom I cited in a recent piece on Russia’s role in World War One, has responded with a self-correction. Recent reading has modified his views on the fateful days of 29 July – 1 August 1914. Referring to a telegram from Kaiser Wilhelm II assuring his cousin Tsar Nikolai II that Germany meant Russia no harm, Wetzel writes,

I had long thought this more significant than it was.  Writes Christopher Clark, in his terrific book, The Sleepwalkers: “The Willy-Nicky telegrams, as they came to be known, have exerted an endless fascination because, reading them, one seems to be eavesdropping on a private conversation between two emperors from a now vanished Europe, and partly because they convey a sense of a world in which the destinies of nations still rested in the hands of extremely powerful individuals. In fact, both impressions are misleading….At both ends of the conversation the content was was carefully vetted by foreign office personnel.

[But] the telegram of 29 July was exceptional. It arrived at a very special moment when, for once, everything hung on the decision of the tsar because…his permission was required for an order of generalization.” (513)

According to Wetzel, Clark portrays the tsar as a far more decisive and independent individual than the dithering dunce we imagine him to have been. Wetzel’s lecture stated that Foreign Minister Sazonof prevailed upon the tsar to order general mobilization. Wetzel has since revised his evaluation, and concludes that Sazonof’s views only reinforced the tsar’s established opinion that “all attempts to satisfy Germany had failed.”

Thanks to Professor Wetzel for the generous feedback!

The Hustings

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Cody Boutilier: The death of the nation-state?

This month has seen the virtual collapse of two major international borders. With the encouragement of the Mexican and Central American governments and the acquiescence of Washington, thousands of unaccompanied children have been trafficked north of the Rio Grande. The security and humanitarian implications are staggering.

The al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS controls wide swaths of Iraq and Syria, where it seeks to reestablish the Sunni caliphate that last existed in 1924. With possession of Iraq’s northern oil fields and Mosul’s $400 million worth of cash reserves, ISIS has become the most powerful terrorist group in the world. Both developments portend poorly for the future of the nation-state.

The American governing and monied classes are hostile to the very notion of a meaningful, enforced border, without which democracy and national sovereignty are amorphous and unintelligible. This is not a North American obsession – the European Union and its antecedents have been committed to abolishing the nation-state in Europe for six decades. The populist upsurge in European politics is hopeful, but the entrenched bureaucratic leviathan in Brussels will desperately cling to power for as long as it can.

The concept of the nation-state has always been alien to the Islamic world. The continued existence of Israel is a standing, shameful monument to the abject failure of secular Arab nationalism. The supranational Islamism of ISIS and other Islamist groups increasingly seems a feasible organizing principle of statecraft in the Middle East.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu are committed to a neo-Ottoman foreign policy. Much of the focus in the Syrian civil war is on Iran’s support of Assad, but Turkish support of the Sunni rebels is no less imperialist in intent.

A century ago, the Great War eliminated the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and transformed the German and Russian empires, leaving a trail of unprecedented nation-states in Central Europe and the Middle East. This was the first wave of de-colonization that ended with the fragmentation of the Soviet Union. 

As Putin seeks to revive Russian hegemony in the form of his Eurasian Customs Union, the criminals of Brussels continue to flout the will of the majority of Europeans, Iran and Turkey exploit the Sunni-Shia rift in the Middle East for their respective imperial projects, and the governments of Mexico and the United States conspire to remove their common border, the future of the nation-state, which World War One was fought to guarantee, seems perilous as never before.

The Hustings

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