much is being said about the state of the RUSSIAN government under VLADIMIR PUTIN's regime, especially in the wake of his recent invasion of neighboring UKRAINE and the senseless barbarism that has unfolded within public view. and rightfully so.
but what about the RUSSIAN people? what are their lives like under his regime? the recent book BETWEEN TWO FIRES: TRUTH, AMBITION AND COMPROMISE IN PUTIN'S RUSSIA (CROWN, 2020) by MOSCOW correspondent for THE NEW YORKER, JOSHUA YAFFA, delves deep into this question and exposes a compromised CIVIL SOCIETY whose participants are rendered complicit by their involvement with an ever more authoritarian state apparatus. specifically YAFFA reports on the coercive political squeeze rendered on RUSSIAN television producers, orthodox priests, humanitarian workers, CRIMEAN zookeepers, artists and historians under PUTIN's reign. within all these aspects of RUSSIAN life, their is a FAUSTIAN BARGAIN that pits ACCESS and INFLUNCE against OSTRACIZATION ostracized and EXILE. seemingly the most corrosive aspect of this state of affairs is how this bunker mentality fixes itself in the wider population, in which CYNICISM and a certain brand of NIHILISM takes root whereby you question the motives of all successful people, both domestic and foreign. when you have a population that has lost its sense of national cohesion, you have a weakened political construct that is easier to be controlled by an authoritarian like PUTIN.
which gets at the subtext i inferred through this book. to me this community corroding mentality and its related strategic breakdown of national identity seems eerily MAGA-esque. just reading about in detail about these various compromised aspects of RUSSIAN CIVIL SOCIETY and the corrupting influence of PUTIN's regime made me consider a future DYSTOPIA where DONALD TRUMP and his acolytes have dominated all manner of national discourse. where one is in a constant internal discussion of how to satiate an ever-shifting party line that has no rhyme or reason. where subservience and loyalty to the state is the only currency that matters.
i feel like i have lived this before in theocratic regimes in MYANMAR and KUWAIT as well as outright military dictatorships like VENEZUELA and NIGERIA. but these corrosive systems have known, discernible boundaries with philosophical underpinnings (all of which i disagree with). in RUSSIA and TRUMP NATION, its a lot more vague and mercurial in nature with the potential to morph the identity and moral compass of its population. to my ears this sounds like elderly ALBANIANS i met during my time as a PEACE CORPS volunteer, who wished for the return of an ENVER HOXHA-like regime to return and provide a sense of NATIONALISTIC pride and IDENTITY that a weakened CAPITALIST economy in a post-COMMUNIST world order couldnt provide.
i hear desperation.
and it is that sense of desperation that rings more true today given current events in EASTERN EUROPE. BETWEEN TWO FIRES is a deeply compelling book that i am not remotely doing justice and is well worth investigation for anyone compelled to consider the extent to which genuinely authoritarian governments corrode their populations sense of PURPOSE and IDENTITY. i know i will return to this book in the future. highly recommended.
THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM: RUSSIA, EUROPE, AMERICA (TIM DUGGAN BOOKS, 2018) by YALE HISTORY PROFESSOR and celebrated writer of ON TYRANNY (review linked HERE), TIMOTHY SNYDER is without doubt one of the most consequential and depressing books I have ever read. at its core it deals with the philosophical underpinnings that have guided the development and exportation of the concept of UNREALITY as a weapon by the RUSSIAN government on their geopolitical foes the EUROPEAN UNION and the UNITED STATES.
the two main concepts SNYDER utilizes to explain this scenario are the politics of both INEVITABILITY and ETERNITY.
essentially the post-WWII period has seen the UNITED STATES believe implicitly that market capitalism leads to institutions that secure democracy. this belief was beyond reproach and essentially gospel to which resulted in the assumption that such was inevitable. provide new markets and the corresponding political infrastructure will organically appear given time, it was inevitable. the politics of inevitability basically follow a narrative that a nation tells itself about how it got to where it is, that "the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done" according to SNYDER.
VLADIMIR PUTIN and basically all totalitarian dictators deal with the politics of eternity, where "eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past." in this situation there is no history. icons and events of the past are merely collapsed into the present at the behest of the leader. the body politic is infallible and pure, all problems are the result of foreign influence.
this is book is basically the history of how PUTIN took his particular brand of RUSSIAN politics of eternity based on the writings of IVAN ILYIN and imposed them first on his people before testing it on the UKRAINE and later WESTERN EUROPE and the UNITED STATES.
for me the most captivating takeaway of this book is just the brazen disregard for factuality in the lies RUSSIAN propagated worldwide during their invasion of UKRAINE. its dizzying to keep up with them which is essentially the point. the success of the RUSSIAN media echo chamber to define the situation to such an extent that foreign journalists from both the left (THE NATION, THE GUARDIAN) and the extreme right (FRENCH NATIONAL FRONT) bought in is truly devastating. the truth is that the UKRAINE was a democratically-elected sovereign nation that was seeking entry into the EUROPEAN UNION as a way of modernizing its infrastructure and ridding its body politic of corruption, but RUSSIA was able to convince governments and though-leaders worldwide that this was a regional civil war.
domestically there was the lie that broadcast on state media that they were fighting fascism, when in fact they were fighting on behalf of a fascist. that UKRAINE wasn't a nation but part of a mythological NOVOROSSIYA, a "NEW RUSSIA. that foreigners were behind the deaths of RUSSIAN children and sought to promote their decadent values on the RUSSIAN populace.
the weaponization of a fictional UNREALITY was later used in AUSTRIA, HUNGARY, FRANCE and ITALY to varying degrees but found its next prime target in the BREXIT referendum. it is still ironic that regions in the UNITED KINGDOM that garnered the most financial assistance from EUROPEAN UNION were the ones that voted to leave it, but that is the power of cyber-warfare and the creation of narratives to people that don't know their own history. its tragic. the weakening of the EUROPEAN UNION is a continuing geopolitical goal of RUSSIA and the UNITED KINGDOM played right into it.
which bring us to TRUMP and the 2016 election. the story from here on out is familiar to anyone that paid attention to the MUELLER REPORT, but again what interested me was how this idea of promoting UNREALITY worked so well. that sense of purity and eternal victimhood played seamlessly into the conservative GOP worldview in the wake of a GLOBALIZED ECONOMY. it almost worked too well relative to other countries. our "exceptionalism" being defined by our own hubris at believing our own hype. and our collective gullibility in a weakened, corporate, un-diversified media culture that has been overturned by FACEBOOK and its lack of editorial principles. essentially in both form and function, our collective experience as AMERICANS has devolved more and more to the level of RUSSIA each of the past three years since TRUMP came to office. white rural TRUMP voters are okay with shorter, worse lives given that a minority somewhere in he country has it worse. its a shame what he has achieved by stoking AMERICA's unchecked legacies regarding inequality and racism.
and speaking of which, this book puts the anti-historical and anti-science histrionics and narrative manipulations of TRUMP into a useful, comprehendible context. i recommend his book whole-heartedly as a must-read for any concerned citizen of western civilization. my hope is that it isn't too late and that we vote the bastard out.
in the proud tradition of THOMAS PAINE's influential late 18th-century think-piece "COMMON SENSE," TIMOTHY SNYDER, a HISTORY professor at YALE and member of the COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS, offers offers twenty insights with historical context from last century into staying vigilant now in the age of TRUMP in his thoughtful call to action ON TYRANNY (TIM DUGGAN BOOKS, 2017).
now being a period where our political and civic guardrails are continually debased, diminished and dismissed by a homegrown FASCIST leader, these lessons provide hope and a game plan of sorts for how to go about as MARIO SAVIO once term it, "put[ting] your body upon the gears" of the machine.
these lessons include (from the book):
my sense of this publication is that yes, as individuals we can be manipulated. yes we can be gaslit and primed through language, symbols and other mass media techniques at the disposal of the state.
but what we can do as individuals is TAKE RESPONSIBILITY and EMPOWER OURSELVES AS INDIVIDUALS by not rely on others (talking heads on TV, far right-wing politicians) to determine what we feel and think when confronted with fascism.
make no mistake, that is what we are living through right now. as SNYDER put it "post-truth is proto-fascism." read books, inform yourself, be critical of your news diet and where it comes from, engage in your community, talk to people, make connections with your neighbors, support print journalism, learn new words and challenge yourself. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. the time of disaffected hipsterism is dead or we all will bear its wrath when others step in and think and make decisions on your behalf.
and for fuck's sake, register to vote. if you don't know how click HERE to a website (vote.gov) that will guide your through the process in your state. let's vote this bastard out.
photo by nacrowe
a few weeks i came across a worn 1967 first draft copy of ROBERT K. MASSIE's historical recounting of the fall of TSARIST RUSSIA, NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA (ATHENEUM, 1967).
this is a must-read for anyone interested in RUSSIA. there was a period years ago where i learned that i was accepted into the peace corps but was waiting to be alerted as to my destination. what a time! knowing you're life was gonna dramatically change but not knowing where to prepare for. at the time i was almost certain i was gonna get UKRAINE only to later learn it was ALBANIA.
during that period i read everything i could about RUSSIAN history. what makes this book compelling is that it takes the point of view of the monarchy as they tried to figure out how to hold the country together as well as save their young son ALEXEI who was suffering from hemophilia. essentially due to a lack of platelets in his blood he would bleed profusely and sometimes lose consciousness. this caused the family to seek out unconventional methods. MASSIE knew about this since his own child had the same affliction, giving his prose an added air of empathy for his subject.
enter RASPUTIN. as a mystic from the eastern URAL mountains this soothsayer made his way into the inner workings of the royal family when he was able to calm the young prince and allay his suffering. its a fascinating story that dives deep into the psychology of both desperation and parasitism. the idea that a royal family with all the means of state and industry could be so easily manipulated by an unscrupulous leech just goes to prove how powerful emotions like hope can be. it trumps reason. MASSIE makes clear that this near-fetishistic idolatrous swooning over the royal family by the RUSSIAN masses was mirrored with the family's regard from RASPUTIN. to them he was RUSSIA. just fascinating.
for obvious reasons this novel is all the more prescient now with our current political climate. highly recommended read. will not disappoint.