Seeing the right Navalny.

Everyone has heard of Alexei Navalny, the leader of Russia’s opposition to Putin’s rule. But what do we really know of him? Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? (Oxford, 2021) provides the first detailed political biography of Navalny.  Most importantly, Ben Noble, Morvan Lallouet, and Jan Matti Dollbaum turn the one-dimensional, cartoon-like image of Navalny in the West into a nuanced portrait, properly situated in the context of modern Russian politics.  The New Books Network interview is here.  

Continue Reading

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, …

Continue Reading

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 …

Continue Reading

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 …

Continue Reading

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 …

Continue Reading

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 …

Continue Reading

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 …

Continue Reading

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 …

Continue Reading

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 …

Continue Reading

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 …

Continue Reading

NBN Interview with Jonathan Schneer: The Lockhart Plot

History in the making can be messy. As a tale told years later by historians, it is usually a clean narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and a mostly logical and foreordained end. Much of that messiness gets lost. Not in Jonathan Schneer’s new book, The Lockhart Plot: Love Betrayal, Assassination and Counter-Revolution in Lenin’s Russia (Oxford UP, 2020). Schneer’s recounts the story of a young British diplomat, Bruce Lockhart, sent to Soviet Russia soon after the October Revolution in 1917. Initially seeking some sort of accommodation with the Bolsheviks, Lockhart ends up plotting to overthrow the regime. The plot–set for …

Continue Reading

NBN Interview with James Pearce: The weaponization of history in Russia.

History matters in Russia. It really matters, so much so that the state has a “historical policy” to help legitimize itself and support its policy agenda. In The Use of History in Putin’s Russia (Vernon Press, 2020), James C. Pearce examines how the past is perceived in contemporary Russia and analyses the ways in which the Russian state uses history to create a broad social consensus and forge a national identity. Listen to the NBN interview here.

Continue Reading

Are the Generals fighting the last war?

In Dealing with the Russians (Polity, 2019), Andrew Monaghan argues that Western policy makers are using an outdated Cold War model of ideology, language and institutions, which is wholly unsuited for understanding, engaging, and countering where necessary Russia in the 21st century. One of England’s leading experts on Russia, Monaghan argues Western policy makers need to let go of the past Cold War rhetoric and come up with modern tools to manage the current stage of the three-century long “Russia and the West” policy conundrum. Listen to the New Books Network interview here.  

Continue Reading

“Go East, Mr. Douglas….”

Bill Douglas needed money. He always needed money. And now, reeling from a very expensive divorce, and with a new wife, he needed even more money. Douglas had come from a modest upbringing, the son of an itinerant preacher who had ended up in the Pacific northwest. He worked his way through a local college—after getting the first year free on a scholarship—and then crossed the country to New York, where he worked his way through law school. Douglas advanced very quickly in the legal profession, but his expenses regularly outstripped his income. He borrowed. He did one-off writing jobs. …

Continue Reading

Crime and culture: a review of Heinzen’s The Art of the Bribe (2016)

Complex societies require rules. No rules, no complex societies. It’s that simple. Or is it? In the case of state-oriented societies, like late Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union, a visible and important subset of those rules concern proper behavior towards and by government officials. The historical concentration of resources and power in the hands of the government created the nearly inevitable risk of people falling short of ideal impartiality or ideological rectitude. Hence the rules, particularly concerning the giving and taking of bribes by government officials. The challenge in Russia has been all the greater because for significant periods …

Continue Reading

A truly original work of history….

Academic history can be, well, on the dry side. Fortunately, it does not have to be, as Tricia Starks, makes clear in her newly-published account, Smoking under the Tsars: A History of Tobacco in Imperial Russia (Cornell, 2018). The topic is naturally interesting (and controversial), but Stark’s account–part of a broader project on the history of Russia through the senses–makes the topic even more engaging.  I understand that a follow up study of smoking culture during the Soviet period is in the works. I look forward to reading that as well.  

Continue Reading