NBN Interview with Timothy Frye on his Weak Strongman

Vladimir Putin is not the unconstrained, all-powerful boogeyman he is made out to be in the popular Western media. So says Timothy Frye, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University in his new book, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia (Princeton UP, 2021). Drawing on more than three decades of research, and reams of data from within Russia itself, Frye depicts a “personal autocrat”, but one subject to numerous constraints and trade offs. And the shows of force we have seen in recent years, from his treatment of opposition figures to the planning for the upcoming election, …

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A thoughtful and optimistic rebuttal to my post on Russian political culture.

A friend responded to my post of April 22….. “One thing I was concerned about with your essay is that some readers might walk away with the impression that Russia hasn’t really changed and won’t change.  I’m not even sure that’s what you intended to say.  There are clearly many Russians who would like things to change—and a number who are quite content with how they are.  There is also a certain type of non-Russian client I’ve had before who like to take they view that Russia is fundamentally different and incapable of being more liberal—and then use this as …

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Using the great 19th century realist novels to bridge what divides us….

Two very thoughtful oddfellows–a labor economist and a Russian literature scholar–take on the world’s problems in their newest collaboration, Minds Wide Shut How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us (Princeton University Press, 2021). Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro bring to bear the remarkably powerful tool of great 19th century Realist literature (and other parts of the Western canon) to define and counter the all-or-nothing fundamentalisms that have come to divide us in recent years. They touch upon politics, religion and economics, as well as great literature itself, and advocate bridging the divides with assertion and dialogue rather than the crude dismissal of opponents based upon absolute, unyielding …

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Russia & the West, again…..

Making the same mistake repeatedly and expecting a different outcome is a popular definition of insanity.  Can the condition apply to an entire professional group? In the most recent issue of Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasion History, I highlight how many prominent US thinkers about Russia have maintained a naivete in regard to Russia’s ultimate political development for much of the past 70 years. Even during the height of the Cold War, leading members of the US establishment assumed that Russia would ultimately adopt classical liberalism and join the Western community of nations as a fully paid-up member.  It …

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Nav@1ny is a master of modern media, but does it matter?

February 2, 2021 update: It’s not the crime, but the cover up… That’s what they said about Richard Nixon’s downfall. Other similar episodes abound.  Given events in Russia over the past two weeks, one might assert a new corollary:  It’s not the corruption, but the crackdown.  A new allegation of corruption, even one on an unprecedented scale, was unlikely to move Russia. But the government’s excessive response and its treatment of the man behind the video has led to a popular reaction that the video itself did not. When is a show of government force actually a sign of great …

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Price discovery, Soviet Russia, and artistry

The elevator pitch to a book editor and movie producer that never happened: “the early 1960s Soviet experiment of loosening price controls would make for a great work of historical fiction and a high-end movie drama.”  No one in their right mind, right? And yet, it did. Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty came out in 2010. It is simply the best Western work of historical fiction about the post-war Soviet period. Spufford is not a trained Soviet specialist, but every professional historian of the Soviet Union secretly (and not so secretly) wants to have written that book. I know of what …

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At the intersection of the Random Book Project & lockdown: War & Peace.

#6: Leo Tolstoy, War & Peace, in two volumes. (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1984, originally published in 1865). Marked 3 rubles, 70 kopeeks, but with a Beriozka sticker indicating 5.55.  Exchange rate at the time was $1.26 per 1.00 ruble so the set cost $7.00 How did I get it? Bought it when I spent a semester in Moscow my junior year in 1984. Others went to London or Florence.  For reasons that still elude me, I went to the Soviet Union. Who does that? Why? While the book is timeless, my copy of it is not. The mass produced, acid-paper Soviet …

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Markets are everywhere, even where they are strictly forbidden….

Markets are everywhere, including where they strictly forbidden. This excellent research by Jim Heinzen on the Soviet second economy just came out in Slavic Review. The full article is behind a paywall but should be accessible via universities and libraries.  Link is here. Below is the abstract from the Slavic Review site. Soviet Entrepreneurs in the Late Socialist Shadow Economy: The Case of the Kyrgyz Affair James Heinzen Supported by new archival material, this article delves deeply into one landmark criminal case to explore key aspects of the social, economic, and cultural history of illegal production and markets in the …

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NBN Interview with Vadim Shneyder: Russia’s Capitalist Realism

Vadim Shneyder’s new book, Russia’s Capitalist Realism: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov (Northwestern, 2020) examines how the literary tradition that produced the great works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov responded to the dangers and possibilities posed by Russia’s industrial revolution. During Russia’s first tumultuous transition to capitalism, social problems became issues of literary form for writers trying to make sense of economic change. The new environments created by industry, such as giant factories and mills, demanded some kind of response from writers but defied all existing forms of language. Prepare yourself for an innovative perspective on Anna Karenina, The Idiot and other 19th-century …

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