VLADIMIR PUTIN: THE EARLY YEARS

In my last two posts I responded to an article in Foreign Affairs (hereafter, FA) by Joseph Biden, Jr. and Michael Carpenter on why and how we should stand up to the Kremlin. I will continue my response this week, but it will be a different kind of response. It is a difficult article to rebut, but not for the usual reasons. The usual reasons have to do with debating someone who has command of the facts, presents the hard evience and his or her interpretation of that evidence cogently, and gives further support with appeals to others whose knowledge of the area has been demonstrated. None of those things apply to the article in FA. I try to read as much as I can on both sides of the disagreements over Russia. Obviously some are more convincing and present more insights than others. This article, however, is without question the worst I’ve ever read on the issues concerning Russian/American relationships. To respond to the errors, inaccuracies, distortions and fabrications would mean responding to most every paragraph. Thus, while I still intend to address later specific claims made about the so-called invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and the alleged murders of Putin’s enemies, I decided to go about things in a different way for now.

One of the main—if not the main – underlying accepted dogmas of the anti-Russia brigade is the demonization of Vladimir Putin. Even among my acquaintances and friends who grant that I may have some valid points when I indicate positive things about Russia, they usually feel compelled to voice their disapproval of Putin. When I ask why they think this way of him I almost always get vague responses about him murdering opponents, attacking other countries, longing for a return to Communism, and a few other assorted but unsupported “facts.” I then press for details in order to discuss. The responses are usually sighs or eye-rolls of amazement that I could even hint that Putin is not guilty of a litany of international sins. It’s an accepted part of their confession of faith. It’s in their creed. One doesn’t need to know details to know what a dangerous person he is to freedom and democracy. The unstated conclusion is you cannot be a patriotic American (or a responsible scholar) and say good things about Putin.

I find Putin very interesting. My American friends usually interpret that to mean I like Putin. I don’t know enough to make such a statement. I like his foreign policy, and I believe it is quite misunderstood by most in the West. I study it as closely as possible. But, as an American, there are other details of his leadership and domestic policies with which I am not familiar. Putin’s opponent in the upcoming election from the Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin, indicated Putin doesn’t care about the common people in Russia, and many of his advisers would be in prison in any other country. I don’t know enough about his cronies to know if they are “dirty” or not. I know there are still poor people struggling in Russia, but I am not familiar enough with domestic policy to know if that is Putin’s fault.

American accusations against Putin are often either vague allusions to motives or name calling. They allude to his KGB past and the associated stereotypes. They allude to secret bank accounts or plans to restore Communism to Eastern Europe. In other words, Putin longs for the good old days of mystery and intrigue like in his KGB days. On the CBS news program Face the Nation in December of 2016 John McCain said, “Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murderer and a killer and a KGB agent.” In April of that year Hillary Clinton referred to him as Hitler, although clarifying the next day that his going into Crimea and maybe Eastern Ukraine was the same thing as the Nazis did in the late 1930s. You sense that Putin is like the leopard who will not and cannot change his spots. When I suggest something otherwise, I have been told I don’t understand Putin or Russia by people who have never been here and by others who have not been here since he became president in 2000. So what can we know of the real Vladimir Putin?

I decided to start with a survey of his early life and examine what events or persons shaped Vladimir Putin. Although it is too early for a biography of Putin, many books have been written that have a lot of biographical information about him. Unfortunately many in the West still remain fairly uninformed of many of the significant issues of Putin’s early years. Perhaps a small blog like mine will be read by those who have not read the more substantial works available. In addition to what I have learned from the books on my shelf, I hear other tidbits from folks I am around here in Russia. The news, of course, but also the perspectives from my doctor who chats politics for 40 minutes each week as he works on the bad disc in my neck; and, not least, the reports I get from my Russian father-in-law who is a certifiable “newsaholic.”

Everyone who writes has a “target” audience in mind. My target audience is the Westerner who has heard many bad things—and maybe a few good ones—about Vladimir Putin, but is still open to learning more. If so, maybe the next couple of blogs will be helpful. If not, I again recall the words of G.K. Chesterton, whom I quoted in my last blog. Chesterton once wrote at the beginning of one of his literary arguments, “After this, I began to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me.” I’ll wait and see if my sketch of Putin’s life interests anyone but me.

Vladimir Putin’s father’s name was Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, and his mother’s birth name was Maria Ivanovna Shelomova. Like most men in the Soviet Union of his age, Putin’s father served in the Soviet military fighting the Nazis. The most significant event of his service came in November of 1941. The Nazis had invaded Russia in June of that year in what was called “Operation Barbarossa.” They beseiged Leningrad (aka St. Petersburg) September 8, 1941. The siege would last until January 27, 1944. In November of 1941 Putin was sent with a comrade with orders that looked a lot like a suicide mission. They were to capture any German soldier they met so the Soviets could interrogate him. They did find a German soldier, but they were caught off guard when they happened upon him. He was able to throw a grenade which killed Putin’s comrade and left Putin with severe leg and hip injuries. He lay there for hours believing he would die, but his company found him and returned him to the regiment. A former neighbor happened to see him and literally carried him on his shoulders across the frozen Neva river to a hospital where he began a long process of recuperation. He was left with a severe and at times painful limp for the rest of his life.

Maria Putin had fled to Leningrad when the word of the Nazi invasion came. The long siege was horrible, and many died of starvation and disease. At one point Maria herself was placed outside in the street among those believed to be dead. While in the morgue (which was in the open air) she moaned, and that saved her life. Vladimir and Maria had had one son, Oleg, who had died in infancy. Their second son, Victor, died from diphtheria he got during the seige. Children were kept separately during the seige for their protection, but this meant that no family was present when he died. In June of 1942 he was buried in a mass grave. His parents never knew when or where he was buried. It was only in recent years when someone traced the records through Putin’s father’s name, that the site was discovered, and President Putin was able to visit it. The war took quite a toll on the older Vladimir and his wife. Maria’s mother died on the front lines, and her brother “disappeared” after being convicted of dereliction of duty. Vladimir Spiridonovich had two brothers killed by the Germans.

After the war the couple remained in Leningrad. They lived in a small communal apartment where their third son—and future president—was born. When I was a boy our teachers inspired us with the story of Abraham Lincoln, who was born in log cabin, but eventually went on to be president of the United States. I’ve been in a log cabin much like the one in which it is believed Lincoln was born. I’ve been in communal apartments in St. Petersburg. I would, without hesitation, much prefer the log cabin. The Putins had one room of their own (180 sq ft). They shared a kitchen and bathroom with an elderly couple and also a Jewish couple and their daughter. The bathroom was actually a closet turned into a bathroom. There was no hot water and no bath tub. Young Vladimir formed close relationships with both families apparently. He called the older lady “Baba” (endearing term for “grandmother”) and later in life spoke out strongly against anyone who voiced anti-Jewish feelings in his presence.

Putin’s parents had a strong marriage, which is remarkable considering their significant philosophical differences. Putin’s father was active in the Communist Party, and he became the Party spokesman for the local factory where he worked as an engineer. He was not a high ranking officer obviously, but it did show his dedication to Party affairs. Putin’s mother worked a number of menial jobs. She worked mostly at night so she could spend more time at home with her son during the day. She was a devout Orthodox Christian. When little Vladimir was seven weeks old, she and the older lady in their apartment sneaked off to Transfiguration Cathedral in Leningrad and had him baptized. She was careful never to embarrass her husband or to do anything that would hurt his reputation with the Party. At the same time she remained very strong in her faith during a time when being a devout Christian was certainly not acceptable.

As a young boy Putin was not a good student. He neither applied himself academically, nor exhibited good conduct. His teacher visited the parents more than once concerning his behavior and his lack of academic motivation. She recalls that at one point his father said in sarcastic exasperation, “What should I do? Kill him?” She says that in the home they did not display affection or coddle him, but at the same time it was clear they were quite protective of their only living child. When he became old enough he was not asked to join the Pioneers. Pioneers was a very important organization for children during the Soviet period. Sort of like the Scouts when I was growing up, although a child had to be asked to join. First, one had to have good study habits and do well in school. My wife, who was in the Pioneers, has told me also of the good deeds they would do for the elderly. They would also help clean up the city or do other duties that would teach them to be good students and good citizens. Putin’s behavior and lack of academic discipline meant he was not invited. Putin harbors no hard feelings about not being asked to join: “I was a hooligan, not a Pioneer.”

The change in young Vladimir’s life came neither through the ideals of his father’s Communism nor the Christianity of his mother. Against his mother’s wishes, when he was in the fifth grade he joined the Trud Club. (Trud is a Russian word meaning labor or something difficult.) He took Judo and eventually the Russian martial arts/self-defense sport called Sambo. (The full description was “Самооборона без оружия, ” i. e., “self-defense without a weapon”.) He went on to compete in various places in the Soviet Union and was quite successful in the judo competitions. The discipline he learned in martial arts gave him inspiration and devotion in other areas. Martial arts literally changed his life. In addition to exercise, he also became more devoted to his studies and improving his behavior. After observing the changes in him, the authorities invited him to join the Pioneers, and he eventually became one of the official leaders of that group.

The other inspiration in his life were the “spy”movies of the era. Some believe that the movie, “Щит и Меч” (“Shield and Sword”) had a particularly strong influence on him when he was 16 years old. The film, which lasted over five hours, was based on a very well-known book that had been out for about three years. The main character was a Soviet spy, Major Belov, living in Germany. The plot focused on his various exploits and adventures as a secret agent who was very clever and also fluent in German. As a teenager Putin found it fascinating and inspiring. He decided that one day he would become a spy. He even started studying German at school. He went to the KGB building in Leningrad and asked how he could become a spy. One agent told him he needed to get an education and, if possible, study law. Putin eventually went on to study Law at Leningrad State University.

After receiving his degree in law, Putin was assigned to the Leningrad office of the KGB. His own comments indicate he thought it was a coincidence he got the appointment he wanted. Others think maybe the KGB had been following his progress without him knowing it. Either way, in 1975 he joined the KGB and received his training. He did not become a field agent, however. He was placed in administration, starting out as a junior bureaucrat at the central office in Leningrad. After some time he was put in the counterintelligence area. The function of this section was to keep an eye on Russian KGB agents and make sure they did not “cross over.” Putin still lived with his parents. They were able to get a better (non-communal) apartment. Finally, when he was 25 years old and a member of the KGB, Vladimir Putin got a room of his own for the first time in his parents apartment.

In March 1980 he met Lyudmila Shkrebneva, a flight attendant with Aeroflot. They were married in 1983 and moved into a two room apartment. He had not told her that he was in the KGB. They had two daughters together. They were married for 30 years before announcing their divorce. Of course, rumors spread he had had an affair, the main one focusing on an Olympic gymnast. Nothing substantial was ever forthcoming, however, and it remains speculation for those who enjoy such things. What we do know is that Lyudmila could have only friends that were approved. Her husband had to do background checks on potential friends, and he chose her friends for her. While she confided in a couple of them about how much pressure she felt, she could not open up with the whole truth of his KGB status. Further, her friends knew what long hours her husband worked. He usually got home very late and left very early. She endured this schedule for years.

He was promoted to Major and transferred to Dresden, Germany in August 1985. Just like the character Major Belov in the movie, Putin was sent to Germany as a KGB agent. It was not like the movies, however. He was a case officer who never went undercover. Berlin was the real center for KGB work there. The Dresden office was a small office with 6-8 officers. Again, the bulk of the work was administrative and sometimes he had to do work which would normally have been below his rank, like arranging hotel rooms and travel for visiting dignitaries. One colleague joked that the most dangerous weapon used in the Dresden office was the hole puncher used for the reams of useless reports they sent to Moscow. Putin would work in that office for the next four and a half years.

His evaluations by superiors both in Leningrad and in Germany were similar. He was known as a hard and determined worker. He was commended for staying with a task until the job was completed no matter how meticulous the details. Throughout his KGB career his superiors wrote in his records about the admirable fact that Putin was not a “careerist” (almost a slur in Russian) who wanted to outshine his superiors. He accepted his role and did his job without trying to get notoriety. On the negative side, in earlier evaluations, while he was in the Leningrad office, he was evaluated as being “non-communicative” and even withdrawn at times. He was more sociable in Germany, but was never one for small talk or office banter.

It was, of course, during his time there that the USSR was going into a steep decline. Brezhnev had died in 1982. Even before that his last years were marked by his inability to communicate even the simplest points. Many could hear someone whispering the lines he was supposed to say from the side when meeting with reporters. He was surrounded by many from his generation who were still in power. They lacked, however, the zeal they had once had. Gone were the fiery days of Nikita Khruschev banging his shoe or promising the great expansionist days ahead for Communism and the Soviet Union. After Brezhnev died, Yuri Andropov’s ascension to power raised the hopes of some, but he died suddenly fifteen months later. Konstantine Chernenko replaced Andropov, but he died 13 months later. I recall hearing Ronald Reagan’s response to a reporter’s question about why he didn’t meet with the Soviet leaders: “They keep dying on me.”

Putin and his colleagues realized that the end was coming for the USSR, although it does not appear that they thought it would come as quickly as it did. There were things all along that led Putin to express admiration for men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov, who were dissidents. He also thought the USSR should hold elections for for their leaders. According to a colleague in Germany Putin called the Soviet’s participation in the war in Afghanistan “senseless and in fact criminal.” One Russian commentator I read some time ago, whose name I cannot recall, referred to Putin as a семидесятник (“semidesyatnik”). The term means, “person of the 70s,” that is, the generation that came of age in the 1970s. While of course there were exceptions, individuals of that generation were known for reaching young adulthood at the time the USSR was turning into an ineffective regime run by tired, old men. Hence, they were very patriotic in so far as their relationship to their country, but they had no strong ideological commitment to Communism or the Party. Chernobyl, the war in Afghanistan, and the declining standard of living combined to make them distrust, at least to some degree, the value of the Communist system.

At the end of his career in Germany, Putin is known for one final act of valor. On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. The dividing line between the two “Berlins” was no more. Rioting and rabble rousing continued after the wall came down. On December 5 a large crowd of “rebels,” many of whom were armed, flooded the area of the East German secret intelligence compound, and it appeared they were doing a lot of damage. Some were screaming they were torturing people. The KGB office and yard was located in the same compound. Around midnight a fraction of the large crowd broke off and headed toward the KGB office. Putin’s superiors had already left for the evening, and he was in charge. He had been monitoring the situation all evening and expected the rioters would come. He had phoned Moscow several times for counsel or orders. After all attempts failed, he realized Moscow was not going to respond. He was on his own. He later admitted to his own shock that no one in his home country would advise him or even talk to him. He said, “At that moment I had the feeling that the country was no more.” He must have sensed more strongly than ever that it was the twilight not only of the USSR, the country in which he had been raised, it was also the end of the Communism he had been taught from a child, and eventually it was the twilight of his own KGB career as well.

 

 

There are several varying accounts of what happened next. Some more fantastic than others. I will stick with the basics, although I am sure if one had been there that night it would not have looked like a calm event on anyone’s recollection. Putin stopped the telephone calls to Moscow and put on his uniform. Some say he carried a side arm, but others say he left his weapon in the office. As the crowd approached Putin calmly walked out and confronted them alone. He addressed their leader in a normal tone. The German would say later he was taken aback at first because he had never heard a Russian speak such fluent German. Putin informed them the building was guarded. His men were armed, and he had already given them the orders that if anyone entered the yard they were to open fire. There was probably more said than that. Putin indicated that whatever they did to him, his men had already received their orders. He clearly gave the impression that “his men” had more firepower than they actually had. At that point he calmly turned and walked back toward the building—not knowing if they would let him live to complete that walk or not. The crowd had gathered to harrass and harm the German security. They decided they did not want to risk their lives taking on the Russians. For all his KGB career Putin had been an administrator who worked on case files, wrote, reviewed and sent reports. At that moment, on that night, however, I think he would have made Major Belov quite proud.

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A RESPONSE TO JOSEPH BIDEN, JR. AND MICHAEL CARPENTER IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS, PART 2

I discussed the background of Russian-American election interference in part 1 of this section of my blog. Apparently wanting to appeal to the casual reader, the authors give the distinct impression that NATO, the EU, and, of course, the United States (although not specifically mentioned) wanted to help along our Eastern European neighbors after they had “seen the light” and wanted democracy. The enlightened guidance of the West would lead them to prosperous times ahead. I tried to show that their “history” is far from how things really were. Now I would like to address some other inaccuracies (that is a euphemism) in the article describing the present state of things in Russia. I will focus now primarily on the economy and demographics. I will address the issues of Georgia, Ukraine, and the mistreatment (or murder) of opponents to the current Kremlin leadership in another blog.

In contrast to the Soviet Union, however, contemporary Russia offers no clear ideological alternative to Western democracy. Russian leaders invoke nationalist, populist, and statist slogans or themes, but the Kremlin propaganda machine shies away from directly challenging the core precepts of Western democracy: competitive elections, accountability for those in power, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the  rule of law. Instead, the Kremlin carefully cultivates a democratic facade, paying lip service to those principles even as it subverts them.  Thus, it grants nominal opposition parties representation in the Russian parliament but thoroughly co-opts and controls them. It allows independent media to operate (although not in broadcast television), but journalists are regularly threatened and sometimes beaten or killed if they report on taboo subjects. It permits civil society groups to exist but brands them as “foreign agents” and crushes them if they demonstrate political independence. It oversees a vast repressive apparatus—recently augmented by the creation of a new National Guard force of around 350,000 members—to deter and respond to dissent. In short, Russia’s leaders have built a Potemkin democracy in which democratic form masks authoritarian content. 

The simple response is that for the authors to offer such a negative assesment of democracy in Russia they ought at least to provide some evidence. Of course, the presupposition is that the only ideal democracy is Western democracy, specifically American democracy. That is, if Russia does not set up its democracy just like America does, then it is not a true democracy. They assume that we should, without actual evidence, accept their simple assertions that Russia is corrupt and, behind the facade, violent and threatening. Surely no such corruption exist in American politics! Let me offer an alternative view based on what I have actually seen and heard here.

I live in Russia. I have spent almost five years of my life here. Last year, even though I could not vote, I went in the local polling station just to see what it was like. It was pretty much like what I would see in Greer, S.C. People having their documents and registration checked, finding the right (private) booths, voting in private, etc. There was no one there harrassing anyone and no one even carrying signs. I came with my in-laws; they voted, and we left. In the weeks prior to that I had watched various candidates appear on TV; I saw the billboards on the streets and the commercials on T.V. with each candidate vying for votes. I don’t know what Biden and Carpenter mean by their accusation that competitive elections here are being subverted since they content themselves with launching a general broadside. It is hard to discuss their evidence when they don’t present any. The impression, at least as I understand them, is that Putin silences all opposition. Western observers have been here many times for Russian elections. Polls are done repeatedly by such reputable organizations as Levada and Gallup. Election results, of course, always vary somewhat from polls, but nothing here as dramatic as the Trump victory—even as Rachel Maddow proclaimed all day on election day there was no way Trump could win. United Russia did a bit better than what most had predicted, but nothing like the drama that went on in the U.S.

Almost two years ago Putin nominated Ella Pamfilova as head of the Russian Electoral Commission. She has a long record of arguing for human rights and is a vocal critic of any abuses. The fact Putin supported her was widely seen as him choosing someone who people here know is not “in Putin’s pocket.” She was quite outspoken about whatever changes and improvements needed to be made. Also, let me give other differences from the American system, of which Biden and Carpenter seem unaware or at least choose not to mention.

First, the opposing candidates for president are not just seen around election time. A popular form of news cast here is to have several people of different perspectives discuss the news of the day, rather than one talking head reading from a teleprompter or interviewing one or two people at a time. Frequently I see Zhironovsky, the Liberal Democrat on these programs. Also, I’ve seen Zyuganov, the consistent Communist opponent as well. There are other Russian analysts with various areas of expertise. Then there are foreigners, like the American Michael Bohm, who usually gives the pro-American position on issues. His view is sometimes called the “CIA’s perspective.” Some say Russians “love to hate him,” but I have Russian friends who say they respect him. They told me that they would never hold it against an American for being pro-American. Also, Gilbert Doctorow sometimes appears to give a different “American” perspective than Bohm. In other words, you see Putin’s opponents on TV on a regular basis. Here you hear more in-depth analysis of events from different perspectives. It isn’t like Putin’s opponents show up on a billboard just when there is an election and are then quietly escorted away. The persistent idea that Putin is never criticized here is completely false. It rarely gets shrill, and I have not seen it devolve into personal attacks. Criticism here usually stays on the issues. Apparently some American observers think if there is no name calling, then it really isn’t criticism.

The other “candidates” appear in other venues than the news. This New Years night we were watching the holiday entertainment on Russian TV, and Zhironovsky came out and chatted for a bit. He was funny (rather than a bit wild as he can be), and ended by humorously telling people to vote for him, and he would make sure all their wishes came true in the new year.

Contrast that with the past presidential election in America. Debates turned into ad hominem attacks which often had little to do with the issues. In addition to attacking the personal life of the opponent, both candidates also attacked different media outlets for being unfair. I think it was in the last debate that Donald Trump even suggested that he did not trust the process and would have doubts about the election results. He was roundly condemned in the press and by his opponent for that remark. Yet, after he won, it was his opponent who has still to this day condemned the election because Trump allegedly colluded with the Russians. Her “fans” continue to insist the results were not valid, as does Joe Biden. And now we have been treated to a line of Washington politicians and well known celebrity figures we have learned have been living lives of consistent sexual harassment, abuse and even rape. And Biden and Carpenter condemn Russian democracy for not being like enlightened American democracy? Who in his or her right mind would want to emulate American politics? They say that Russia doesn’t have free and fair elections. That is what many Americans–both Democrats and Republicans–are saying about American elections! 

The Russian economy is utterly  dependent on hydrocarbon exports  [11], so its health is tied to the price of oil and gas; as those prices have plummeted in recent years, the state-owned gas giant Gazprom market capitalization has shrunk, from about $368 billion in 2008 to around $52 billion today.

Since Russia has some of the largest reserves of gas and oil in the world, then obviously its economy is affected by the price of energy. In the past it was true that it was almost solely dependent on those prices. Since the sanctions, however, the Russian economy has diversified. Much of that credit has to go to Putin’s leadership, although I personally think it has been the results of quite a team of sharp planners. The sanctions had the reverse impact from what the West planned. Russia had always been able to import agricultural products easily so the motivation for development was simply not there. Further, the collective farms of the Communist days never worked. I think the same could be said about a number of other kinds of products. The situation has changed, however, and Biden and Carpenter are being either willfully ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Due to government incentives last year Russia had the largest grain production in one hundred years. It exported more grain and wheat than any country in the world. (See this article in Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/422a8252-2443-11e7-8691-d5f7e0cd0a16). Financial Times is not some off beat publication. Are Biden, Carpenter and the “Team” at Foreign Affairs ignorant of what has been reported in numerous financial journals? Russian exports of “sugar beet sugar” also surpassed perennial leader France in exports as well. Agricultural production of dairy and meat, as well as fish, were all up. The sale of military weaponry was up this year for Russia. The sale of agricultural products, however, exceeded the sales of arms.

That doesn’t mean energy supply isn’t still in the economic mix in Russia, of course. They have just completed the Yamal project which will supply gas to China and other countries. The agreement with China is for $300 billion in energy over the next 20 years. Further, they will not be using the traditional petrodollar. They will trade in Yuan/ruble. Russia, not Saudi Arabia, is now China’s largest supplier of energy.

Imports, on the other hand, are down. Many see these as evidence of decline in Russia. They believe the sanctions are having the desired effect. It is not how many see things here, however. Putin wants Russia to be self-sufficient by 2020. He wants imports low. The last I checked, Russia is sixth from the bottom in the list of national imports. At 7.2% of the GDP it is the lowest of all major countries. There has been a “Buy Russian” campaign that has worked well. When I first came here in 2002, and even when I was here in 2005-2008, Russians tended to see the West as the producers of the best in products like clothes and personal commodities. That attitude is changing dramatically. The government convinced producers to focus on quality, and Russia does not need the West like it once did.

In trade BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) is making progress and trade between the countries appears to be very solid. Everyone knows China is a very big player in the global economy, and it is clear that China and Russia are much closer diplomatically and in terms of trade than they were in the old days of the USSR. Clearly Russia is much closer than the U.S. to China in terms of diplomacy and trade.

The Russian people were drawn together by the sanctions in a way the West did not anticipate. The plan was to divide Russia and make them unhappy with what they have. As Barack Obama said in 2014, “Russia doesn’t make anything.” John McCain said Russia was “a gas station masquerading as a country.” (See Forbes magazine response and rebuttal https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2017/07/06/sorry-senator-mccain-russia-no-longer-just-a-gas-station-masquerading-as-a-country/#b87fc5022f09) Clearly they were wrong. The economy (GDP) will probably grow around 2% for 2017. Russia has half the population of the United States, but it is the sixth largest economy in the world now in terms of exports. Its GDP will exceed four trillion for the first time ever.

While Russia’s economy may still look small to some in the U.S., it is clearly moving up and the statement it is “utterly dependent on hydrocarbons” is not accurate. Things are not perfect, to be sure. I think wages are still too low, just from my anecdotal knowledge. Also the purchasing power of the ruble is still extremely low. Inflation jumped when the sanctions were first imposed, but probably when the final figures are in, inflation for 2017 will be less than half of what it was in 2013-2014. Things are cheaper overall than in America, I can tell you that from living in both countries. As far as availability, I can buy pretty much any product I need at a reasonable price in the small city where we live. That was not true ten years ago.

Meanwhile, long-term demographic decline is sapping Russian society; the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration has projected a 20 percent decrease in the population by 2050. According to the CIA  World Factbook, life expectancy in Russia ranks 153rd in the world, far below the world’s developed democracies and lower even than developing countries such as Nicaragua and Uzbekistan.

Russia has struggled with low life-expectancy since the collapse of the 90s. Life expectancy fell off tremendously during that decade. The “de-modernization,” poverty, hopelessness, and terribly underfunded healthcare system led to the devastation of the health of many Russians. Of course, that was the decade America was making sure the man responsible for those conditions stayed in office. In other words, we did our best to manipulate Russian politics so a loser would stay in office, and now Biden and Carpenter seem proud of the consequences of our actions.

Further, the birth rate was low throughout the Communist period. Lenin wanted women working in factories, not home raising children. Biden, Carpenter and many others also fail to recognize the dramatic impact WW2 had on the Russian population. Over nineteen MILLION Russians died in that war. By comparison, the United States lost just under 500,000. I have stated before my purpose is not to demean the loss of those brave Americans. But when one is writing an article on the demographics of Russia a number of over 19 million lives lost in just one war should be at least mentioned.

I don’t know what year the ranking of Russia at 153 in life expectancy that they are using came from, but Russis has moved up to 110 now. The government is very conscious this is still a problem, however. Life expectancy is increasing here, as is the birth rate. Russia led all European countries in terms of birth rate last year at 1.8 million. The goal is 2 million. The birth rate has increased by 100,000 births annually in recent years. The government provides maternal capital to the families with a second child, which is very generous. We are taking advantage of that! I was surprised, however, to see polls that indicate that only 6% of parents list the maternal capital as a reason they wanted to have more than one child. They simply like the trend of life in Russia and believe it is a good place to raise children. Russians in general have a very high view of the traditional family. To maintain the population at the current level there needs to be 2 births per woman. Right now it is at 1.8. So there are demographic problems in Russia, but Biden and Carpenter take a “snapshot” (and an outdated one at that) and draw conclusions without looking at the trends over recent years.

I have to admit I hated all these statistics. I’m of the “figures don’t lie, but liars figure” mentality. There are enough statistics involved in studying Russia that anyone can twist them and make whatever point they would like. What bothers me most about the article by Biden and Carpenter is the heartless hubris of it. It paints Russia as evil, and nothing in the article seems to stem from a concern for its people, and, from my perspective as one who lives here, no concern for an accurate description of life here. If all I knew about Russia came from this article (and others like it) I would come away with a completely distorted picture of life here. I realize my tone has been quite strident and angry. I have grown tired of writers and pundits who do not live here telling me what life is like here. I will go further and say that if all I knew of Russia was what I got when I came here early in the first decade of this century (2002, 2003) then I would know little of what Russia is like now. Russia has changed a lot–for the better. Of course, it has more work to be done, but the trend is in the right direction.

I remember a Russian friend visiting me in America back in 2003. We were walking across the campus of the university where I taught and passed the flag pole. He commented on how many flags he saw flying in America—from storefronts to front yards. I told him that since 09/11 there had been a surge in patriotism in our country. He sadly lamented, “I wish so much this were true of my country. No one waves the Russian flag there. We don’t even know the words to our new national anthem.” Things are different now. I see a lot of Russian flags flying here now. They sing of their country with gusto. In America millionaire football players refuse even to stand for the national anthem. I spoke on the phone with an old friend in America this week. He is a financial advisor and had called to chat about my retirement funds. We got to talking about politics. I do not know who he voted for and did not ask. After we chatted a bit he simply sighed and said, “Hal, it has gotten so mean here. People no longer respect each other.”

My favorite author is G.K. Chesterton. This week, after the conversation I just mentioned, I was re-reading “Heretics” for the third time (I think). Chesterton referred to “Jingo” politics in the United Kingdom at that time. “Jingo politics” was an anti-Russian attitude from a line in a song from the supporters of the British belligerent policy toward Russia in their 1878 dispute. The line was, “We don’t want a fight, but by Jingo! if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and the money too!” Chesterton observed, “It is one of the deadly fallacies of Jingo politics that a nation is stronger for despising other nations.” He went on to advise his reader to follow the example of those nations who “sit at the feet of the foreigner and learn everything from him.” As I read the news from America I am deeply saddened and worried at the popularity of our own modern version of “Jingo politics.” I can only hope and pray that others will find what I have found. I have learned much from sitting at the feet of the foreigner.

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A RESPONSE TO JOSEPH BIDEN, JR. AND MICHAEL CARPENTER’S ARTICLE IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS MAGAZINE, PART I

The first week in December I received an e-mail from Foreign Affairs magazine with a featured article attached, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin,” by Joseph Biden, Jr., and Michael Carpenter. “The Team” at Foreign Affairs [FA] told me to enjoy it and please share it. I began reading it, but pretty soon it looked a lot like a typical anti-Russian propaganda piece, and I lost interest. Then when I checked my Facebook page I was greeted with a post from a FB friend on my “wall” with this same article attached asking me to please write a blog in response. Since the “friend” was my wife, I decided to at least post back a brief response to a few of the “misleading” points in the article and gave a vague promise to perhaps respond at some point with a blog. A couple of other “friends” joined in with comments assuring me I needed to give a full response. I don’t really enjoy writing political blogs as much as I do the personal ones. For one thing it takes more work to dig up specific references. I often make notes on small cards to myself while reading such things, but I’m not very disciplined about where I keep these. So my “research” is actually searching every nook for where I put my notes. Second, as I have indicated before, my time in the academic world was not in contemporary politics or Russian history. It is my avocation, but my vocation as an academic was in another field. Then I received another e-mail from FA the next week, however, proclaiming how proud they were of this “breakout” piece. Furthermore, if I wanted to read more by their “brilliant writers” I could subscribe now at a reduced rate. I decided to respond to this breakout piece. (To read the article go to https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2017-12-05/how-stand-kremlin?cid=nlc-emc-fa_paywall_free_joebiden_jf2017-20171206)

First, the article sets forth the transition from the Communism of the USSR in a very positive—even glowing—manner. I will give the full quote here:

After the Cold War, Western democracy became the model of choice for postcommunist countries in central and eastern Europe. Guided by the enlightened hands of  NATO  [5]  and the EU, many of those countries boldly embarked on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Remarkably, most succeeded. Post-Soviet Russia also had an opportunity to reinvent itself. Many in Europe and the United States hoped that by integrating Russia into international organizations (such as the Council of Europe, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), they could help Russia become a responsible member of the rules-based international order and develop a domestic constituency for democratic reforms. Many Russians also dreamed of creating a democratic, stable, and prosperous Russia. But that dream is now more distant than at any time since the Cold War ended.

I understand wanting to be positive about the end of the Cold War, but I think if you look at the situation in many of these former Republics you discover the transition was not as rosy as the authors indicate. I will forego examining what this transition looked like “guided by the enlightened hands” of NATO and the EU in the other Republics, however, and focus on Russia.

When Biden and Carpenter claim the “dream” of an enlightened, stable, and prosperous democracy is more distant now than ever in Russia, the authors demonstrate that they are struck with the same willful historical amnesia that many other Neocons and Liberal Interventionists have concerning the first decade after the dissolution of the USSR. The first decade of democracy in Russia was not “enlightened, stable, or prosperous.” Post Soviet Russia’s economy collapsed when democracy was implemented. The economy, according to some, fell by 80%. Readers of my blog know that I read and follow Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at Princeton University and New York University. Cohen lived in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia for many years and was there during this time. He described it as, “The first nation ever to undergo actual de-modernization in peacetime.” Seventy-five percent of the population lived below the poverty line. There have been plenty of analyses done by economists who validate the points Cohen makes in his book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, although economists differ over the exact percentages . (See also, Failed Crusade by the same author.)

My sources are not just economists, however. I have often listened to my wife and Russian family and friends describe to me what life was like then. For them, as bad as the poverty was, it wasn’t the main battle. They simply could not get enough food or clothes. My wife tells of how they had a stash of money in a linen drawer. They would keep an eye out for a supply truck carrying any kind of goods—food, clothing, household wares—to any store in town. When such a truck appeared—day or night—a line quickly formed of people in desperate need of products and food. They were able to scrape up money, but even then there was just nothing on the shelves. For Biden and other wealthy westerners, this is simply a decade we need not mention or remember. For Russians, it can’t be forgotten.

Scholars and analysts—both from Russia and other countries—trace the blame for this economic horror to the first “democratically” elected president, Boris Yeltsin. (From the United States, for example, see the Congressional Research Service 98-725.) Yeltsin was a chronic alcoholic and also had other severe health problems, especially his heart condition. Thus, he was often absent from public view for extended periods of time.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton and the government of the United States really liked Yeltsin. Yeltsin did their bidding, and the Russian Federation was in a subservient position to the United States of America. The fortunes of the overwhelming majority of the Russian people did not matter to them. As one wag put it, Clinton believed a drunk Yeltsin was better for us than a sober anyone else. He did the bidding of the American government. For all Yeltsin’s past bravado in Russia, he “came to heel” for the Americans.

When it was time for Yeltsin to run for re-election in the summer of 1996, however, the Clinton Administration realized there was a severe problem. Polls across the board showed his approval ratings in the single digits. The best they saw was around 6%. This was not the time for the guiding hands of “enlightened” NATO or the EU. This was time for the heavy hand of American politics to take over. A well-known article in Time magazine (July 15, 1996) entitled, “Rescuing Boris,” describes how President Clinton sent a team of “advisors” to Russia to make sure Boris was re-elected. They were paid $250,000 plus expenses. They were provided a driver, bodyguards and an interpreter on call at all times. While they misrepresented themselves to the Russians in the street, posing as Americans selling American TV antennas, their identity was pretty clearly known to insiders. Cohen has said that he was there during that time and he and most everyone knew that they were there and why they were there. They stayed in the President Hotel in Moscow, which is far above what anyone could expect in Russia at the time. It was equipped with all the security and gadgetry needed. According to them, they had to teach the Russian advisors how to use public opinion research to craft speeches and other presentations. Find out what people “in the street” want and then write Yeltsin’s speeches to promise to address their problems and provide for their wants.

There was also another side to the plan. They had to teach the Russians the art of political misdirection, deceit and confusion. The primary advisor they directed was Tatiana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter who was in her mid-thirties at the time. It took quite a while for them to teach her and others the “dirty tricks” of politics. Tatiana seemed somewhat taken aback that this is how democracy is supposed to work. Eventually she and the others caught on. In addition to getting Yeltsin to craft his speeches to say what the people wanted to hear, they published false dates for opposition rallies and conferences, falsified documents supposedly from the Communist opponent Zyuganov, and most people here believe on election day they used bribery, false documentation of votes and good old ballot box stuffing. In addition to these efforts on the ground in Russia, President Bill Clinton had convinced the International Monetary Fund to grant Russia $10.2 million dollars for an “emergency infusion.” With the influx of the cash, Yeltsin could make it appear that financial problems were over.

Now, some Russians involved with the campaign disagree that it was the American leadership that tipped the election for Yeltsin. They believe the egotistical Americans claimed far more of the credit by a long shot than they deserved. The point here, however, is not who was most responsible for Yeltsin’s 13 point victory that year. What needs to be reiterated is the pride the Americans took in controlling and manipulating the Russian election. As Time concluded, “Democracy triumphed—and along with it came the tools of modern campaigns, including the trickery and slickery Americans know so well.” (See also the LA Times, “Americans Claim Role in Yeltsin Win,” July 09, 1996.) So when Americans of privilege and political contacts like Joseph Biden, Jr. cry foul and whine incessantly about the Russians and their president supposedly tampering with the American election, it rings hollow with many Russians and not a few Americans who remember how far our meddling went. Hypocrisy is alive and well in this piece of which Foreign Affairs is so proud.

I and others, however, are not so willing to grant the presupposition of Biden and Carpenter (not to mention a HOST of others) that the evidence is clear that the Russians tampered with our election anyway. They still offer no concrete evidence of Trump “colluding” with the Russians or that there was any hacking done under the direction of Vladimir Putin. First, we still read in many publications of the “conclusions” of the Intelligence agencies which have been long used by the main stream media, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post. They state this as if it is fact, apparently believing the adage that if you tell a lie long enough, people will accept it as truth—in fact the one telling it may even begin to accept it as truth. The bases for such claims have been severely distorted. It was not 17 intelligence agencies as was reported for many months. James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, reluctantly admitted it was “hand picked analysts” from the FBI, CIA, and the National Security Agency. In other words, it was only three agencies, but it really was not the full power of those agencies. The “investigators” were agents who already believed the Russians did it, and that is why they were picked. Yet even the conclusions of their report are also distorted in the MSM. The analysts do give reasons that it is possible the Russians did it and why they think they did, but they conclude, “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be fact.” The report itself states that they have nothing evidentiary. Further, William Binney, former National Security Agency Technical Director, did further research and gives technical reasons why he concludes with certainty it was not a Russian hack. His main reason is that the download speed was such that it had to be a USB download, not a “hack” from the outside. He actually investigates the specifics of what happened and states clearly from his research the Russians had nothing to do with it. As far as I can tell the bulk of the MSM did not report any of his findings.

Second, Biden’s whining about the Russians tampering with our elections is sheer hypocrisy given the bold claims of the United States in using every trick in the proverbial book to keep an unhealthy, alcoholic President in office in Russia even though everyone involved knew the devastation his leadership had brought and would continue to bring on the Russian people. The plight of the Russian people are of absolutely no concern to the authors, and they should drop the pretense of “enlightened” NATO. Foreign Affairs magazine is supposed to be an academically oriented and responsible publication. Yet they promote this wonderful article as a reason I should subscribe?

I started with the history and background which Biden and Carpenter omit because the history of international relations is important. American analysts trying to reach a certain level of popularity like to start at whatever historical point suits the conclusions they have already determined they will reach. So it is not uncommon to find omissions of the real background to how democracy came to Russia and how much effort and money we put into keeping the Russian people as far from prosperity and stability as possible. Now that I’ve given a brief historical review of what Biden and Carpenter chose to omit (and smooth over with that talk of the guidance of the “enlightened hands” of NATO and EU), in Part 2 of my blog I will point to factual errors made and misleading conclusions drawn by Biden and Carpenter in their description of the conditions in Russia at the present time. As one who lives here, and actually watches and reads what really does go on here, my evaluation is quite different.

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