Teaser: Excerpt from forthcoming Memoirs of a Russianist

In the past several months, I have posted on these pages diary excerpts from my career doing business with Russia in the 1970s which will appear in Part III of my soon to be published book of Memoirs.  I offer here a further “teaser” to convey the style and substance of the narrative.

* * * *

At several key junctures in my career, I made changes of direction which left colleagues, mentors, sponsors furious.  I abruptly abandoned long developed plans and went off with scarcely an apology.  Nor do I apologize now, because I see no alternative to the boldness and risk-taking that these moves signified.  For the most part, the ships I abandoned sank before my eyes not long after.

One such turning point came in 1976 when I left an academic career that was stagnating on the launching pad and, to my mind, was running into insuperable problems of a market for entry level university instructors that had gone sour.  A second such turning point came in the spring of 1977, when, after ten months working in a small marketing consultancy, I walked out, and together with the number two officer set up a new company to compete directly with my employer.

The third such case was in early 1980, when I abandoned an appointment as Project Manager within Chase World Information Corporation, a subsidiary of the Chase Manhattan Bank, which had been more than a year in negotiation and had introduced me to its chairman, David Rockefeller, when I was being vetted.  And a fourth turning point came in 1987, when I opted out of ITT Europe, where I had been on the payroll since April 1980 and once again went off to start my own company, partly with the ambition of picking up a subsidiary or two that were being hived off in the downsizing that followed merger of its telecoms business with the French giant Alcatel.

 Each of these career changes was formative in preparing the two focal periods of doing business in Russia that are the main subject of this book. Moreover, a certain agility in moving from employment to self-employment and back at the drop of a hat turned out to be a critically important skill in the 1990s. When I finally was based in Moscow, the business environment was highly volatile, and managers like myself who were hired from outside major corporations to fill a specific need in the company’s entry in the market were highly expendable. We were compensated accordingly, for which I have no regrets or rancor.

For my part, my abandoning an academic career was not irrevocable when I made it. I did not break off correspondence with a publisher over my proposed book on the Tsarist prisons system. And I told myself that my new direction might run for five years or so.

My sponsors at Harvard may have been resentful of my seeming apostasy. I think the word is apt, because in many ways the fraternity of academics was and surely is today a sort of religious order.

But as I maintained correspondence with some and as I rose in stature within Russian business in the 1990s, then attracting a lot of attention on campus, I was eventually invited back to the Russian Research Center to deliver a talk and share impressions of life inside the monster. Associate RRC Director, professor of economics at Wellesley Marshall Goldman was my main contact person and our paths crossed from time to time. At one reunion, I was introduced to outsiders by Ned Keenan as someone who ‘had gone straight.’

To be sure, at the moment of rupture in June 1976 my immediate peers among the aspiring new Ph.D.’s were envious and at times bitchy. For that reason, I told no one exactly who my new employer would be. One fellow RRC nestling who was sailing off to a junior faculty appointment at Southern Methodist University in Texas, a relative plum of a job at that time of meager pickings, took consolation in the fact that I would be earning in my business job virtually the same as he, around $12,000 per annum. Others said it was too bad I had not landed something in the banks, because that is where the big money was to be made. 

Meanwhile, several friends from the graduate school years at Columbia remained with me for life.  One, a Greek American who had done an excellent dissertation on French police control of public opinion during World War One, also could not get off the launching pad and was advised by his highly regarded faculty mentor, Istvan Deak, to consider leaving teaching because of the hopelessness of job placement. Yani eventually moved sidewise into university administration, where he remained to retirement.  Another Landsman, Echeal Segan, moved across to publishing, where he got a coordinator’s position within the Great Soviet Encyclopedia translation project at Macmillan, from which he passed along some casual translation assignments to me. Echeal eventually moved to proofreading at Manhattan law firms.  In short, many of my former classmates found jobs to pay the rent; few made careers.  We stayed in touch and got together at intervals of several years forever thereafter.

Meanwhile, back in 1974-76 the rejection letters in answer to the dozens and dozens of applications that I made for vacancies in full time teaching positions all over the US and abroad, as far afield as the Australian Outback, wore down my nerves.  With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on our minds, my wife and I asked ourselves whether we really would want to live in some of the awfully remote and presumably provincial locations to which I was applying and getting rejections.  

In the face of these depressing realities, and considering the ‘publish or perish’ ironclad rule, I decided to turn a number of chapters from my dissertation into articles for the professional journals rather than hold out for the book that could take several years to see print given the also troubled state of the university publishers.  Indeed, a string of my articles did appear very quickly and I was quite proud.  I even went beyond the dissertation manuscript proper and prepared a ground-breaking essay on the 1906 reform of Russian censorship based on the cache of official Russian documents of archival nature that were in the Law School stacks; this was later published in shortened form in the Solzhenitsyn-backed émigré journal Kontinent. However, these achievements did nothing to help me secure a position. Nor did they endear me to my sponsors, who waited for the book.

But this is not the whole story. In general, coming back to Harvard as a postgraduate was an entirely different experience from what I had in the College, and not in the positive sense.  The College was the apple of the eye of the University Administration. The graduate faculties in the arts and sciences were, by comparison, poor relations. Instructors were the intellectual proletariat. And the professorate was arrogant and remote.  Social grace was not the strong suit at the RRC. Its director, Adam Ulam was a bear of a man both physically and by temperament.  Other faculty was not particularly more outgoing.

Finally we put on our glasses, read the handwriting on the wall and decided to clear out.

The result of my redirecting my attention from university postings to the business world was stunning.  I had spent the greater part of three years pursuing illusory opportunities at universities.  In two months I found myself a job in boutique consultancy assisting blue chip U.S. companies to do major industrial projects in the USSR. My wife and I quickly moved down to New York City to an apartment that I rented on the Upper West Side just ahead of the first birthday of our daughter in August 1976.

How do I explain my newfound good fortune?  First, by the ongoing American business interest in entering the Soviet market for which I had very relevant skills. And second, by the opportunism that guided the business decisions of the lady entrepreneur who hired me, as often is the case in small enterprises tightly controlled by the founder.

If I may expand on the first point, it bears mentioning that one of the key elements of Richard Nixon’s policy of détente with the USSR was for American business to develop broad relations with their Russian counterparts. The White House led the way.  To be sure, 1976 was already a bit late in the game.  Stories of deception and losses by the pioneering American companies had already graced the pages of the national business journals.  And the passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the trade bill by Congress in 1974 created a strong obstacle to improved commercial relations with the USSR insofar as this discriminatory legislation made normal commerce dependent on levels of Jewish emigration, a premise which the Soviets rejected publicly even as they compromised over it on the quiet.  Nonetheless, there are always late comers to a party, and even as political relations steadily worsened as the decade wore on there were companies keen to make news and please their shareholders by succeeding in the big emerging market that the Soviet Union represented.

As to the second point, I owed the employment offer to personal chemistry between myself and the charming, strong-willed lady, Bettina Parker, who ran the shop. Here is one of the exceptions to my rule of Harvard having been an obstacle on my way in business.  It was precisely my outstanding academic credentials which motivated her decision to take me on board, not because it spelled competence but because it had snob appeal for the captains of industry among whom she circulated. That and my willingness (read desperation) to accept a pay package that was at the level of clerical help, so as to get a foot in the door and, hopefully, justify a substantial pay rise six months down the road.

 Parker Associates was a “boutique consultancy” in a qualified sense.  Apart from Bettina herself, staff was limited to a handful of helpers.  First among them was the “Vice President” Norma Foerderer who held the fort in the New York office, allowing Bettina to pursue her globe-trotting in the USSR, later also in China, and always in Chicago and U.S. Midwest more generally where many of her core clients had their headquarters. Norma oversaw the accounts and coordinated relations with the Soviet consulate and embassy over visa matters. She also coordinated translations, the printing of brochures and other work related to the presentations that clients made in Moscow.

Then there was the manager of Parker’s accredited office in central Moscow, Tanya Semenenko. The office itself was a rarity at the time and attested to Bettina’s extraordinary success in cultivating high officials of the USSR State Committee for Science and Technology, which at the time, in the 1970s, vied with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the many industrial ministries for developing and controlling relationships with potential cooperation partners from among the world’s biggest corporations.

As you will note, Parker’s operation was run and populated by women. I was in practice the first male to be recruited.  Meanwhile, the entire clientele and in particular the corporate backers who made of this tiny consultancy something of great commercial potential – were all male.  Bettina’s physical presence and European charm opened all doors. She was a Dutch national who came to the United States for a business education and stayed.

An article in the London Sunday Times dated 9 February 1975 entitled “One woman’s way through red tape” set out very well what I saw up close sixteen months later:

“If you had glimpsed Bettina Parker snuggling into the collar of her mink coat at Heathrow on Wednesday afternoon, you could have been forgiven for guessing that film star Liv Ullman was trying to pass incognito. Nothing in her appearance, from lilac suede dress to diamond and sapphire rings, would have led you to think she was well-known in the corridors of the Soviet Ministry for Foreign Trade, especially as she is an American. But at 42 Mrs Parker is the doyenne of a specialised bank of people who smooth the way for western businessmen keen to wrest lucrative or prestigious contracts from the Communist governments….

Bettina Parker’s value to her clients lies in preventing strangulation by red tape and she is very unusual in having the approval of the system.”

Parker Associates was “associated” with America’s largest Public Relations and Advertising firm at the time, Burson Marsteller, which invested a substantial amount in her company equity and brought to her its manufacturing clients who wanted hands-on, customized assistance entering the Soviet market.

Though Bettina Parker’s short list of clients on retainer included a couple of manufacturing companies turning out steel products, most were in the food processing industry or agribusiness and had their corporate headquarters in the Chicago area, which is where my first business trip was made just three days after joining the company and starting going through the case files.

Why food processing?  The choice of concentration was surely dictated by considerations of opportunities on both the U.S. and Soviet sides of the equation. As I later learned when I began reading closely Izvestiya and other Soviet media, including specialized journals, increasing the variety and improving the quality of food products available to Soviet consumers was a priority of the latest Five Year Plan. Special attention was drawn to this issue by the catastrophic harvests of the early 1970s which had given rise to a bilateral agreement with the United States regulating long term grain purchases. Insofar as grain was partly directed to animal husbandry, shortages also impacted beef production in the USSR.

The shortfalls had to be made up by importing meat, at still higher cost to hard currency reserves. These factors combined to put in the foreground of attention two ministries that previously were left in the shadows, along with Light Industry and consumer goods generally:  the Food Ministry and the Ministry of Meat and Dairy. Meanwhile, in this period of the mid-1970s on, attention to food production finally put a spotlight on the vast losses the USSR was experiencing in bringing the harvest from the fields to the groceries and urban markets. Conservative estimates in the print media suggested this was in excess of 25%. It was due partly to lack of packaging materials, partly to lack of suitable refrigerated transport, and more generally to lack of vertically integrated supply chains. Incentives were not the issue: at each stage of production and processing they were ample, but none was aligned with what came out at the end – produce on store shelves.

Insofar as the United States was at the time the world leader in food production at a scale comparable to the USSR, it was entirely logical that U.S. industry was a first choice for seeking partners now that the Soviet government was prepared to invest substantially in the sector.  At issue was both equipment and management knowhow. Moreover, the United States was the global innovator in food production. Consumers there had less concern with quality, more concern with quantity and with reduced prices than was true in Europe where demand was less elastic. For these reasons, the U.S. pursued new technologies, particularly in extension of meat products through substitution by soy proteins, a subject that Soviet researchers and production managers followed with great interest.

On the U.S side, Parker saw an opportunity to bring the conservative mid-Western agribusinesses to Moscow, given that by their nature, apart from grain traders, they were laggards in following Nixon’s urging to go out and do business with the Communists in the interests of state-to-state normalization of relations as well as good, old-fashioned profit.

I note here that the above explanation of the business model of Parker Associates is what I came to entirely on my own. At no point did anyone give me an overarching view of what we were doing and why. All that I was told related to Bettina’s personal rapport with the chairmen and CEOs of our client companies on the one hand, and her rapport with the leading personalities in the State Committee for Science and Technology on the Soviet Side, for whom her extravagant manner hit a chord in the Russia psyche.

To a certain extent, the whole scheme of turnkey industrial projects now seems quaint, a relic from the past when the Communist bloc was closed to Western investment. There could be no operating subsidiaries back then. There could not even be representative offices or agencies in the proper sense. All dealings with the capitalist world were at arm’s length.  And yet, I have no doubt that in parts of the world today elements of what I describe here still are practiced.

If I may resume my narrative, to my good fortune, very early in my employment with Parker Associates, I participated, however modestly, in a Soviet turnkey industrial plant project that did go through to completion in December 1976 and brought substantial rewards to several of the players, including my employer, in terms of success fee. The project in question was the plant to produce the powdered infant formula Similac, which was a market leader in the U.S. and globally. The owner of the brand and the technology was and is Abbott Labs with its Ross Laboratories subsidiary in Columbus, Ohio. For the Soviet side, the commercial negotiations were led by the Foreign Trade Organization (FTO) Tekhnopromimport on behalf of the Meat and Dairy Ministry as end user.

Assisting the Abbott Labs project was my very first assignment at Parker which began just days after I came to work. On 5 August, I flew out to their production facility at the Ross Laboratories subsidiary in Columbus, Ohio, where I was acquainted with the whole manufacturing cycle and spoke with the engineers who had drawn up the papers that underlay the technical part of the offer. Then the next day I flew to Chicago, where I spent some time with the head of their legal team going over the principles of the contract and was taken in to see the boss.

In Part III of my book of memoirs, I reproduce my diary entry from this meeting with Abbott Chairman and CEO Edward J. Ledder. Several noteworthy points emerge from this account. First, it is clear that I was being “hired” to serve as the key Russian-English interpreter in their scheduled negotiations a month later, in September. They wanted a full translation of everything said at the table, not the selective translation they believed they had been getting from Parker’s Russian office manager. And after the meeting, they awaited my thoughts on what was going on. This is to say that from the very beginning my role was on a sliding scale in the direction of genuine collegiality and consultancy. Secondly, I point out that I was taken to the CEO directly in what was intended to be a real vetting, not some mere protocol formality.

As it further developed with other clients of Parker and then later with all of my own consulting clients, I was always working with top corporate officers because they were the ones who had taken possession of the Soviet projects, from which big things were expected.

Succeeding at this level assumed a high degree of self-assurance and poise. In this regard, my experience as ‘a master of the universe’ in my undergraduate years at Harvard College served me well, far better than my time among the academic proletariat as a postgraduate fellow.

* * * *

A word is in order on the milieu in which I operated during my Parker apprenticeship, as well as during the follow-on years when I was captain of my ship. First among these was that the Soviet Union was in the 1970s an intimidating place, where we foreigners were under constant surveillance. I understood this right from my very first visit to Parker’s offices in Moscow.  None of our staff were what they appeared to be.  The two drivers attached to the office, Yuri and Volodya, seemed at first acquaintance like pets. They jumped at Tanya’s instructions. They did shopping for the kitchen and spent relatively little time behind the wheel. The whole arrangement bore a resemblance to the archaic Russian nobleman’s establishment with a steward (Tanya), the two coachmen, and a cook (Vera) at the ready.

However, as I detected one evening, one of our drivers stood guard outside our building; and he slinked away after I spotted him.  For her part, Vera acted the simpleton, but that was pure deception. Her questions about the States were too well focused, her literary tastes too well defined for her to be a cook pure and simple. On the whole, I felt I could live with them by throwing out tidbits of information along the way for them to report onwards, by taking their orders for jeans, and by not letting on I knew they knew too much.

The same dance of tarantulas went on with respect to my ‘regular’ drivers hired from the Service Bureau of the Hotel Intourist, where I was installed during most of my trips for Parker. Proof positive of my suspicions came after I left Parker and returned to Moscow several months later as the head of my own business delegation. As my client and I passed in front of the Intourist, one of these former drivers got out of his car and greeted us, proposing to take us on a free of charge excursion around the city, all the better to overhear our conversations and, surely, have material to file.

Agents provocateurs and spies are one thing. The potential for physical violence was also never far off as I was reminded on one of my early trips to Moscow for Parker when I got to know several members of a Finnish youth group who were staying in the same Intourist Hotel as I. One of their group had his front teeth knocked out by an unknown Russian assailant in the hotel elevator. His attempts to file a complaint with the police were not accepted.  What exactly had prompted this I had no idea, but that it was a sinister warning to stay alert and to keep one’s nose clean was certain.

It was years later when I read Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 suspense novel Gorky Park that I found the sinister atmosphere in Moscow of the second half of the 1970s perfectly captured.  Moreover, by skillful casting in the movie, one of the villains, the American businessman (here a fur trader), John Osborne, was played by Lee Marvin, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the most featured American businessman in the days of détente, Pepsico’s chairman Donald Kendall.  This match never left my mind, although in real life I was an active participant in Kendall’s various undertakings to rally business on behalf of normal relations with Russia and had occasion to see him up close, as noted in a diary extract of Part Three.

Nonetheless, I emphasize that until the very end of détente in 1978, whatever notion we had of possible threats to our personal welfare while on Soviet soil, the authorities did not touch a hair on the head of American and other foreign businessmen. That changed with the arrest of F. Jay Crawford, one of International Harvester’s service technicians in Moscow in June 1978 on charges of currency speculation. He was thrown into the infamous Lefortovo Prison where he was held incommunicado for two weeks. Following representations from the business community and from American diplomacy, Crawford was released and expelled from the country. But this stark change in direction in relations sent a shiver down the spine of all of us engaged in Soviet trade.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment six

Tête-à- tête with a senior Russian diplomat, Oleg K., in the Hotel National, Moscow for a tour d’horizon, politics, business and personal lives.  24 February 1977

4.00 pm return to the hotel and prepare for meeting with Oleg K., first secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a good friend of Bettina’s. Note – Oleg accompanied [Meat and Dairy] Minister Antonov ‘s delegation on the trip to Swift and Beatrice last summer. Oleg shows up at my room a bit ahead of schedule at 6.15.  Very properly dressed, discreet, Ivy League cut. Soft-spoken. Asks at once about Bettina. Seems very pleased to get the book I have with me. We chat a bit. Obviously he has heard something about me before – his first question concerns my academic background  – what was my specialty? Economics? What degree do I hold?  I explain and then he asks if I went through a dissertation defense and whether it’s like a defense here. Next back to Bettina – what about her new Chinese venture, sale of beer? I reply in the affirmative and then we move on to our comparative tastes in beer. He likes Coors, dislikes beer in cans. Asks how long I’ve been with Bettina, then how long I intend to stay in this field. I say 5 years, and that Bettina herself suggested such a term.

We then leave for the National – I have reserved a table provisionally and we will start at the bar. Both of us take Scotch and once ensconced engage in far ranging discussion. First, he asks whether I do not feel uncomfortable in a new field for which I was not professionally prepared. I reply that I have spent too much time in a field where I had the analytic framework but insufficient raw material so that I would like to gather live data for a while. In the long run, he has pointed out a potential problem but I do intend to study economics on my own and so to become prepared. I explain how historical research was a bear-like existence, how my published articles resulted in only one crank note from a professor emeritus, and how it is good to be part of something vital. Also, that I feel I can make a strong contribution to my work by bringing an analytical eye and an open mind; this is important since the companies we deal with are overloaded with sincere and conscientious engineers who are incompetent salesmen in the international arena.

Next we turn to US politics and Carter, whom Oleg types as a student of Rickover, captive of the Jewish lobby and of the Trilateral Commission which preceded his candidacy. Oleg is very well informed on Washington doings and obviously enjoys the opportunity to discuss his ideas in English, to which we have now switched. A determinist, Oleg looks to economic factions and interests to explain the moment. Says Carter’s embracing dissidents and letter to Sakharov are really causing consternation here and indicate that the upcoming Belgrade meeting the US will take very hard line. Does not blame Brzezinski or Schulman personally, sees their conduct as following from the official position.

I say it’s a pity linkage theory shelved, but you must understand that some things Kissinger did had to summon a reaction. I relate to Oleg the whole talk Sonnenfeldt gave us at Harvard: the notion of accommodation now that Russia is emerging as an imperial power on the world scale, leaving its geopolitical interests and moving into Africa, South America, etc; the idea that at each time in history when such a new imperial power emerges there are tensions as it seeks membership in the imperial club; notion that in the interests of world peace we in US should make room for the Russians and admit them to the club as equals. Oleg listens with obvious interest. He has spoken to Sonnenfeldt on his own, and what I am saying appears new to him, but he does not deny its veracity. Instead, he takes issue with the concept which I introduced as not very flattering in address to the USSR and not very appealing to a patriotic US audience.

Oleg calmly denies that an imperial club exists, still less that Russia would seek membership. He says that talk of the USSR posing a military threat to the US is absurd, since their economy is one third of ours and in modern times what counts is economics and technical might. I respond – yes, so we thought till recently. But it has been the realization that the technological balance has changed, combined with the Soviet preponderance in numbers that has reopened the whole question of our relative security. I say that the whole recent debate on military strength has been predicated on the growing realization that old reasons for smugness are disappearing and that at a certain point numerical advantage becomes qualitative advantage. I say that, of course, this is only an opinion based on what is in the press, not on inside or privy information – that I have not contributed to Foreign Affairs. With calm, reassuring words, Oleg responds: ‘you will.’

Turning again to my career, Oleg supposes that by age 40 I’ll be back in academia, asks if I won’t be rusty. I say it is doubtful I will have missed much during my absence and that in any case, I will not be returning to the pre-Revolutionary period, rather to what I am learning now. We finish our drinks and go over to the restaurant where our table has been reserved. Seeing my calling card on the table, Oleg says he sees the Parker name carries weight here. The dinner is relaxed, over two bottles of Tsinandali, and we discuss both politics and personal fortunes. Oleg has visited most Soviet embassies abroad, is very well traveled and urbane.

He says that earlier his dream was to go to the virgin forests with a rifle in hand and live the wild life; that now, however, he has become urbanized, though he is very happy to talk of his experiences in the Far East, Vladivostok region in the postwar period. Father apparently was stationed there in the garrison. Looks about 37-39, a bachelor. Says he has a taste for English girls. I comment that this is understandable, since they, like Russian girls are very strong. He agrees, saying that when you leave an English girl there are no storms and crises – you part as equals. Seems proud to be talking from experience.

I ask permission to be a bit indiscreet and inquire of their thoughts on Ford, wasn’t he really a dolt. Oleg reports that they did respect him here – that the main thing was his willingness to learn; that what one wants from a chief is decency and Ford was decent. Earlier I had suggested that Carter’s fuss over Soviet dissidents was a smoke screen to cloud his pardon of Vietnam resisters, a very unpopular move on the right; however, Oleg declined to see it as a purely domestic matter.

On the way over to the National, I mentioned my Russian marriage. Now he asks quietly ‘was it difficult?’  I say it was not and the subject is closed. Oleg returns several times to the Jewish lobby – says he’s spoken to Vanek and they have found common language – same was true of Javits. I say this shows all the more that there is a political clout behind the public stands taken and that Russians cannot ignore these chords which find deep response in the USA. Earlier while at the bar Oleg reminded me that Russians never stood for pogroms, that these were special circumstances. I agree, while he is staring directly at me.

I ask why Russians take Harriman so seriously. Oleg also wonders about this, hints that Harriman was never such a good friend. I respond that having seen documents at Columbia I know Harriman was in ’43-44 one of those most responsible for worsening of tensions, that his word was heeded all the more because he had not been associated earlier with the anti-Russian Riga school of diplomats.

We discuss the Kennan Institute, about which Oleg has evidently heard.  He is interested to learn that Princeton is behind this and that its objective has been to bring scholars, business and government together. I tell about recent conferences of journalists stationed in the USSR since WWII and he wants to know of the aim was strictly historical – I answer in the affirmative. I tell him what it was like to graduate from Harvard in 1967, the age of Kennedy and Harvard ties. He is interested.

Oleg talks at length about virgin forests and hunting. I turn the discussion to problems of trade, explain how major US companies are fully aware of the difficulties of doing business here, especially the fact that no one will put up money for the engineering that goes into a proposal – and I ask Oleg what he would say to them if he were in my place to encourage them to come here. He says the following: that one deal leads to another and that there will be much business for them to do here. He says the USSR doesn’t seek credits – knows full well that they have to be repaid sometime. The chief key to foreign trade is political – the nature of our state relations. I say that in American academic circles there is the feeling that Russia has not shown good faith in détente because it has not committed resources to export-oriented industries. Oleg responds that it has shown good faith by taking the time and effort to deal directly with US parent companies whereas they could just as easily deal only with the European subsidiaries as has in the past. Then I respond that this favor not evident when we are negotiating at the Foreign Trade Ministry and must show that it is cheaper to buy US than to buy European.

I mention concern of US companies for up-front money before undertaking project design – how they have been burned, spending up to 500,000 on such proposals only to receive noncommittal thanks from a ministry leading to nothing. I ask about the Bendix deal – resale of product to the West. Oleg suggests this is definitely an indication of things to come, that such an export potential is a very important consideration.

Oleg speaks very highly of Bettina – respects her role in the Similac deal, putting together so many disparate pairs to bring it off. As to Similac itself, he expresses surprise that the Soviets bought it, doubting it was really needed. I say that from my experience it is necessary. Moreover, the related product which, peculiarly was not sold here – Isomil and Pedialyte – would be still more valuable because they overcome a very difficult problem of the child who cannot accept milk based formulae.  Oleg states proudly that Russian products still are unspoiled, unadulterated.

I respond by saying that when I last came over I passed through Geneva in the Christmas season. I was bringing Beatrice and their rather commonplace US sausage products and here in Geneva I saw so much very superior, mouth-watering products.  But those products are expensive and you cannot feed a nation of 250 million persons on sausage that costs $10/lb. Oleg agrees – says, yes, must produce much average product and only a limited amount of luxury items.  He himself was amazed to find when touring Safonov’s plant that very high quality beef pieces went into sausage. I say, yes, and there is overall a failure to categorize beef and utilize it more rationally. We discuss chicken and I remark that its cost ratio to beef should be 1:4 whereas here it is 2:1.  Oleg replies that here the price is kept artificially high to subsidize beef production. We part at 11.15 pm – take a short stroll up Gorky. He seems genuinely pleased with the meeting and opportunity to talk politics.

PS – Who is who

Bettina….Parker, chief executive of the New York based consultancy Parker Associates, my employer from August 1976 to June 1977

Averell Harriman – Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Stalin during WWII,  later governor of New York State, still an iconic figure in US-Soviet relations in the late 1970s

Marshall Shulman – US diplomat, scholar, founding director of the Harriman Institute of Russian studies at Columbia University

Helmut Sonnenfeldt – foreign policy expert, staff member of the National Security Council, served under Henry Kissinger with whom his is closely associated as strategist

Charles Vanik – member of the House of Representatives, co-sponsor with Henry Jackson of an amendment to the 1974 trade bill which made Soviet release of Jews wishing to emigrate a condition for normal commercial relations

Jacob Javits – US Senator from New York State

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Belgium: Time to Get Serious About the New Spike in Covid19 Infections

Sadly, the Kingdom of Belgium was called out by the world press in April – May of this year for having one of the highest mortality rates of all countries battling the Covid19 pandemic. The death toll here subsequently tapered down with the progression of the lockdown that was belatedly instituted, so that by mid-July there were only 3 deaths reported each day nationwide. The total loss of life directly attributable to the infection now stands at about 9500 in a population of 11.5 million. 

To comprehend what this loss means, let us compare it with the situation in the United States, which we all know is the country that has mismanaged the pandemic in every way, starting from confusing and unhelpful messages from the Chief Executive, failures at the local level in a great many states to follow federal guidelines for lifting lockdown, and general disregard for the experience of the rest of the world in combatting this disease, not to mention the experience of New York City and the Northeast, where COVID19 first settled in and created havoc with the medical infrastructure, as well as regional death rates perhaps four times higher than in Belgium. Though the world may be aghast at American failures, the death toll there will have to reach 270,000 to match the per capita mortality of Belgium to date.  The latest figures from the States are at the level of 165,000. 

Regrettably, in the past week Belgium has again been featured on Euronews coverage of the pandemic, as the country has been among the few in the EU to see a very disturbing spike in infections.  At first this was attributed to localized communities. It was noted that half of all new Covid19 infections here have been in the province of Antwerp, where fingers were pointed at the Muslim water-pipe store fronts and at the Hassidic community, known to flout rules on gatherings for weddings and the like.

Here in French-speaking Brussels some of us took malicious pleasure in seeing Antwerp at the center of the pandemic storm. It was a demonstration that the city’s mayor, Bart DeWever, has taken his eye off the ball and ignored warning signs in his back yard while busy negotiating with the Socialists to possibly form a new coalition government at the federal level. We smirked when a curfew was imposed in Antwerp and other curtailment of freedoms was imposed.

However, most recent developments signal that the infections are moving out of control despite the best efforts of tracing and testing nationwide.  French-speaking Wallonia has just been moved from Green to Orange status, meaning extreme caution must be exercised and prospective visitors are put on notice because the daily infection rate per 100,000 has moved adversely to a new plateau well above 20.  And there is talk of the situation in the  Brussels-Capital Region likely to deteriorate as well, because many of the factors behind community transmission in Antwerp are found in the city center of Brussels, namely active socializing of young people in the bars, cafes and similar venues that were the last to reopen after de-confinement.

These developments have arisen with blinding speed.  I think of the medical status quo when I left Brussels for a nine-day vacation in Italy on 20 July compared to what is being reported daily now.  New cases then were roughly 85 per day nationwide, today they are 490; hospital beds occupied by Covid patients then numbers about 125, now they are 250; patients in Intensive Care Units then were then less than 30, today they are the double. The only statistic that has not changed significantly is daily reported deaths, still under three per day. But that is a lagging statistic and surely will rise in the month ahead.

All of this adverse change was easily foreseeable and we were told by the Acting Prime Minister that appropriate steps would be taken if and when the statistics of infection turned against us.  Indeed, some measures have been put in place, most particularly as regards wearing face masks, which now are required not only in public transport and all shops and enclosed public areas but also in designated shopping streets. Moreover, the “social bubbles” of persons with whom a given household may associate have been cut back sharply.  And mandatory reporting has been instituted for all those returning from travel abroad to facilitate tracing in case they or anyone in their near surroundings on planes, boats or other transport proves to be infected.

However, no steps have yet been taken to address the most obvious platform for transmission of the infection: bars and cafes. It is not hard to guess why:  because shutting down these enterprises is a direct attack on identifiable business interests. 

This is not to say that such a measure is not discussable here any more than it is a taboo elsewhere in Europe. In fact, this measure is already being selectively applied in the United Kingdom where some government spokesmen pose the policy choices without any sugar coating: either you close the pubs or you close the schools.

Living as I do in downtown Brussels, just a five minute walk from active shopping streets where bars and cafes abound, I see firsthand how they constitute a cesspool of infection. Tables may now be out on the sidewalks and they may be spaced somewhat apart, but the young clientele sits shoulder to shoulder at one table and turns to socialize with friends at other tables, making utter nonsense of social distancing. The owners and staff of these establishments are also almost uniformly young people who are not about to step forward as enforcers of regulations. 

I have omitted mention of restaurants because both owners-operators and clientele tend to be older, more risk averse, and the capital invested in the establishments is far greater than in the bars and cafes.

There can be no doubt that given the exponential growth of infection we are now seeing in Belgium, the order will eventually go out to shut down these Horeca platforms.  One may only hope that this is done NOW and not after the situation becomes irremediable except by total lockdown as happened in the spring wave of the pandemic.  Some part of the business community must be made to suffer right now lest the economic damage of total confinement be repeated. This is all the more relevant as the opening of schools is less than a month away.

Having made this point, I insist that much more could be done to avert medical disaster.  It is inexcusable that Belgium has done nothing to prepare dedicated hospitals for admission of Covid patients, so as to avert the chaos that prevailed in the first wave when patients were shared out to more than one hundred normal hospitals, many of which had no relevant experience with epidemiology, operation of multiple ICUs and use of ventilators.

It is also inexcusable that Belgium, like all other EU Member States is sitting on its hands with regard to acquiring medicines proven effective against Covid19,  both those that reduce sharply replication of the virus at the start of the infection, thereby reducing time in hospital, and those administered in severe cases to prevent fatal complications.  So far there has only been talk of negotiating a deal with Gilead, the American manufacturer of Remdesivir, although the U.S. government has already bought up much of the company’s production capacity, leaving in question when and at what price Belgium and other EU States will get allocations.  There has not been a word about approaching the Russian Federation for supplies of its Avifavir, which is claimed to be still better at stopping the virus in its tracks than the Gilead drug. 

Avifavir, like Remdesivir, is a repurposed antiviral drug that has been on sale for more than a decade. It was not “invented” in Moscow, but in fact came from Japan, so that the notion of Russians cooking up some wonder drug in a few months is little more than slander from our Russia-bashers in the West. 

The same question may be raised as regards the vaccine which the Russians are registering in the coming days and will be mass producing in mid-Autumn, with doses initially to be made available to medical professionals and first responders; mass inoculations are scheduled for early winter.

Note that the Russians, like their counterparts in the West and in China, have several competing vaccines undergoing testing at various stages.  Also note that the Russians have concluded a deal with AstroZeneca to procure its vaccine when it receives regulatory approval and goes into mass production. They are not relying solely on their own good luck with their distinctive vaccine technology.  Why do we not do the same and reciprocate by taking options on the Russian solution?

If our health professionals in Belgium were truly interested in saving lives and not playing along with Cold War mentality blackout on Russian science, they would be negotiating right now for allocations of the Russian medicines and vaccine.  This is a question for the Prime Minister.  Who will put it to her?

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Large Anti-Putin Demonstrations in the Russian Far East

Today’s New York Times and Financial Times feature substantial articles on the latest political developments in the Russian Far East bearing piquant titles:

NYT  – “Protests Rock Russian Far East With Calls for Putin to Resign” by Andrew Higgins

FT – “Russian governor’s arrest sparks anti-Putin protests. Khabarovsk leader Sergei Furgal is latest detention in post-referendum crackdown” by Max Seddon

Both journalists are Moscow-based, working at a distance of 6,000 km from the scene of the action, which means that everything they have reported is second-hand, gleaned from their usual anti-Kremlin contacts in the capital, from reading Facebook accounts, from the comments of Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, and, one assumes, from stringers in the Far East.  However, they do their fact-gathering job well-enough to have two or three pages of text, and I will take their facts as accurate for our purposes.

The intended contribution of this essay is to offer an interpretation of what is going on that goes farther and deeper than what these two opinion-shaping newspapers give us: the notion that Putin’s popularity is sagging or that he is using his “new powers” from the referendum on constitutional amendments to settle scores with a troublesome local politician. These factors are undeniably present, but there are other drivers of the arrest and of the protests that merit an airing. Because these factors do not mesh with the belief of mainstream media that Russia has no opposition parties or movements other than those we recognize as such, they are being ignored, even as they are, potentially, very important markers of the general direction of Russian politics today.

I do not offer a definitive interpretation here, since the information is still too sketchy, but I will raise questions that hopefully other commentators will also address in coming days, since the blow-up in the Far East is no small matter. As many as 35,000 protesters may have turned out in Khabarovsk to protest Furgal’s arrest. They called for Putin’s resignation and carried signs “Down with Moscow!”

The figure at the center of the scandal, Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal was arrested in the past week and taken to Moscow where he is being charged with murders and criminal business activity in his past.  Given the statute of limitations in Russia, the single murder on which the prosecution will likely rest their case must be brought now while it is still actionable.

At the start of his Sunday evening broadcast, Rossiya 1 anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov, who also heads the news services of all state broadcasting, gave the Furgal arrest extensive coverage, starting with an interview with the tearful mother of the alleged victim murdered in 2005. The program sought to demonstrate that this is an open and shut case, with the prosecution having the goods in hand to bring conviction.

Even the Financial Times reporter appears to acknowledge the likelihood that Furgal is implicated in murders, saying they were a widespread practice in business circles from the chaotic 1990s on. He says Furgal’s prosecution now, just before the statute of limitations shuts down, is revenge for being too popular, for beating the United Russia candidate and for failing to bring out the vote in favor of the constitutional amendments at the national referendum last month.  With 62% approval amidst 44% turnout, in Khabarovsk only 25% of the electorate voted Putin’s choice, in contrast to the approval of just over 50% of eligible voters that was achieved nationwide.

One additional fact tossed out at the very end of the FT account bears mention. Seddon remind us that Furgal belonged to the party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR, for whom he had been a deputy in the State Duma for more than a decade and he caps this with an otherwise unexplained account of Zhirinovsky’s response to the arrest of his protégé:

“Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR’s leader, threatened to withdraw all its MPs in protest at Mr Furgal’s arrest and said that security services were ‘acting like under Stalin.’”

The FT does not bother to identify the LDPR, but The New York Times does it quite precisely: they are the party of “the nationalist rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky,” going on to say that the party is “scorned by Russian liberals as a collection of crackpots and crooks.”

But let bygones be bygones. Though the protesters may be crackpots, the journalist Higgins tells us that the protests themselves have won the endorsement of the one man who stands in for a legitimate opposition in Western eyes:  “Aleksei A. Navalny, a Moscow-based anti-corruption campaigner and Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, cheered Saturday’s protests in the Far East, hailing the street demonstration in Khabarovsk as the ‘biggest in the city’s history.’”

* * * *

In my analysis of the voting results from July 1st, “Putin’s Referendum: Where are the Numbers?” I remarked on how the Far East had given dismal results for the Kremlin.

“In…particularly the remote Far Eastern regions, where loyalty to Moscow has at times been questionable in past elections, we see particularly low turnout:  Magadan (44%), Khabarovsk (44%). Almost the same comes up in Siberia: Novosibirsk (Russia’s third largest city, 47%), Tomsk (44%).”

This leads to the question:  which party has profited at the expense of United Russia and why?

The first part of this question is relatively easy:  Zhirinovsky’s party LDPR has profited, not the Liberal-minded, European friendly folks that our mainstream would like to see as an opposition that will eventually unseat Putin and bring Russia back to heel.  But ‘why’ is more problematic.

As a first attempt at answering this, I point to the map.  Europe as a moral and political compass is still more remote to your average Khabarovsk resident than Moscow, whereas China is right under his nose.  These LDPR supporters are nationalists, and it would be reasonable to assume that they are less than delighted by the Kremlin’s tilt to Beijing these past few years.  If Moscow liberals may sound off over this because philosophically they prefer a Russia solidly aligned with the West, not in alliance with autocratic, Communist China, the broad population and its political class in Khabarovsk have more concrete reasons to dislike the ever closer ties with the China that they see daily just across the Amur.

It is not just the Yellow Peril issue of 1.3 billion Chinese keen to settle the vast empty expanses of resource rich Eastern Siberia and the Maritime Province.  It is the Chinese who connive to illegally harvest pelts, cut down forests and poach fishing resources within Russian territory and the economic zone offshore. Russian federal authorities have been notoriously slow to crack down on these abuses which directly impact the wellbeing of local woodsmen and fishermen. As regards the fishermen, there is also local anger at the poaching by North Koreans, which even is picked up occasionally on Moscow’s investigative reporting.

The curious thing is that one of the key drivers of the Kremlin’s policy tilt to China has been to develop large scale, modern and highly remunerative employment for the Far Eastern population through massive energy infrastructure projects that serve firstly, the Chinese market, and as a byproduct, serve the population of the Russian Far East, as is the case, for example of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, that will finally bring natural gas to the Russian cities of the region and also provide feedstock for a massive chemical industry under construction there.

The protests over Furgal indicate that the benefits of the Kremlin’s investments in the Far East have not yet trickled down to the population and alienation remains high.

But there is more to this story that has direct relevance to the nationwide political balance in Russia.

I believe that the crackdown on Furgal is one more move by United Russia to establish a stranglehold on Russian politics ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections.  The leadership of United Russia was surely behind the changeover of the constitutional amendments from a redistribution of power between the three branches of government, the clear intent of Vladimir Putin when he announced the initiative on 15 January 2020, into a ratification of Putin’s eligibility to stand for election again in 2024 and 2030, which is what the 1 July referendum was all about in the end.  Surely the leadership of United Russia was also behind the removal of the leaders of the opposition parties in the Duma from nearly all television and media appearances for approximately three months this spring, till just before the referendum.

Now, the arrest of Furgal is an open attack on Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party.  The crimes that may have been on record for Furgal did not surface so long as the party leader could ensure protection.  Now that protection has been removed, Zhirinovsky has threatened to pull his party members out of the Duma in protest. For Russia today, that is very dramatic and newsworthy.  It may also reflect the deep disappointment of Zhirinovsky that the sharing of power with the other Duma parties that was promised explicitly in Putin’s 15 January speech, has been ripped up by the President’s entourage to protect their own monopoly on power.

The attack on the LDPR is all the more stunning given that Zhirinovsky had been more royalist than the king in the run-up to the referendum, suggesting that it was unnecessary to hold the ballot given that the reform had already passed both houses of the legislature.  Here he was in stark contrast to the leader of the Communists, Gennady Zyuganov, who alone among the Duma politicians had denounced the constitutional amendments precisely because of the allowance they made for Putin to remain in power forever.

For all of the above reasons, the coming trial of Furgal and resulting political fall-out deserves our full attention in the days and weeks ahead.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

The End of History

When Francis Fukuyama used this title for his 1992 book on the road  forward to a post-ideological, non-confrontational world he did so metaphorically, with reference backward to the dialectical philosophies of the mid to late 19th century.  However, here the title is meant to be understood literally.  Reading the daily news about the destruction of monuments to past heroes in the United States, in the U.K., in Belgium one may conclude that history as a social science has no future. Every effort is being made to erase the public memory.

In the United States, the rewriting of the past to deny the honors given to slave-owning aristocrats and to bring to public attention neglected heroes from among blacks and other minority groups, as well as from among the demographic majority, namely women, has been going on for more than a decade.  For the most part it proceeded quietly and at the hands of well-educated and well-meaning social activists.  I recall how in 2017 when I participated in a college reunion at Harvard, the College president explained to us why the name of a slave-owner benefactor was removed from a building and where plaques had been installed to commemorate the slaves who had inhabited one of the campus buildings back in the early 19th century. There was a feeling of serving justice and performing morally uplifting deeds in the audience.

However, in the wake of mass nationwide ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations to protest the May 25th killing in police custody  of the 46-year old black man George Floyd,  attacks on monuments have taken on a whole new scale in America.

First to go were Confederate generals in the Southern states where leaders from the Civil War still are venerated to this day. But then the attacks on bronze and stone statues moved on to other targets which may be said to have represented the shared heritage of the entire nation. Statues of Christopher Columbus, the long honored discoverer of the New World were given the heave-ho amidst accusations that he took back with him to Spain a great number of American Indians who were held as slaves. And, of course, in serving the King of Spain Columbus opened the path that was followed by Conquistadores who annihilated whole civilizations in the Americas.

Then attention turned to the Father of the Nation, George Washington, who, together with another Founder and early President, Thomas Jefferson, was like other men of means in his age, a substantial slave owner. So far attacks on both have been only verbal. But there is talk of changing the name of the nation’s capital, which commemorates the First President.

Two other presidents have now also come under attack from the Revisionists. The face of one, Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt is celebrated in stone at the Mount Rushmore national memorial in South Dakota together with Washington and Jefferson.  The site itself was already steeped in controversy before the latest moves to consign the given presidents to the dustbin of history: the hills are considered sacred by the indigenous tribes. Will these sculptures in stone be hammered to smithereens the same way that the Ancient Egyptians destroyed images relating to the reign of the heretic monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten?

In the case of Roosevelt, whom many revere as the President who took the United States out of its isolation in the Western Hemisphere under the protection of the Monroe Doctrine and made it a global power there is recollection of the imperial acquisitions of his age stemming from the Spanish-American war where he earned the reputation for military daring-do that brought him to the presidency.

Roosevelt’s successor in the White House, Woodrow Wilson is not doing better among the Revisionists leading the assault on American heroes. The former Princeton university professor who led the United States into World War I to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ had been credited with founding the dominant school of international relations in the United States for much of the 20th century and into the present: the so-called “Idealist School” which believes that human rights and democracy promotion must be the basis of all foreign policy, as opposed to the supposedly cynical pursuit of national interest that underlies the Realist School. Well, we are now told that Wilson was an out-and-out racist who supported the Ku Klux Klan.  In a fit of moralist self-flagellation, Princeton University in the past month decided to remove his name from what had been the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.


Readers of my essays over the past couple of years know that I am no admirer of the present incumbent in the White House. However, I share his alarm and disapproval of these various acts of vandalism aimed at wiping away the country’s founders and builders in the name of today’s moral values which none of them embraced, for self-evident reasons.

Trump characterized the perpetrators as coming from the “Radical Left” which is nothing more than a guess.  I would see them more as a combination of forces, none of them good, but not falling on a neat Right-Left axis.  What they have in common is moral outrage and smugness as they proceed with dismantling the Establishment.  There are also features of a power grab through mob violence.

Curiously, in an article published in The New York Times on 7 July, the newspaper’s Moscow bureau chief Andrew Higgins chose to consider the toppling of statues that occurred in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The title of his article –  “In Russia, They Tore Down Lots of Statues, but Little Changed”  – says it all.

However, my dissatisfaction with the ongoing Revisionism or, better yet, Nihilism goes well beyond the question of whether the acts of destruction can achieve some durable change in society.  Picking a fight with past heroes who have been dead for a century or for centuries is a cheap way of showing one’s moral superiority. It is problematic, because the way our values have changed in the past is a sure sign that they will change again in the future and that our descendants will have equal claim to righteous indignation over our moral limitations.

But even that is not the point, which is, that immorality, violation of human rights and murder are all around us today. What is worthy of respect is fighting today’s villainy.  I would much prefer to see the same outrage directed against those who organized, promoted and perpetrated the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq in 2003 and thereafter. Those who should be brought to justice include both the former president of the United States George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney.

Regrettably so far none of our virtuous fighters for Justice in the United States, in the UK, in Belgium have dared to take on our present day villains, and that is the most appropriate condemnation of their false claims to virtue that I can adduce.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Thane Gustafson, “The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe”

Looking over the back cover of the dust jacket on this book, and reading through the six complimentary blurbs by leading specialists in energy and/or Russian matters, you think you know what the book is about.  However, you will likely be mistaken, because the ambitions of the author are clearly to avoid retelling in detail episodes that have been widely covered by others, such as the cut-offs of gas to Europe in 2006 and 2009 amidst Russian-Ukrainian political and economic wrangling, and to provide us with broad background information on the issues in the gas trade between Europe and Russia that we have witnessed over the past twenty years and which, the author clearly believes, have many factors behind them other than the geopolitical considerations that our media daily feed us.

These factors include institutional cultures of the market participants from the business world both in East and West, grass roots political movements like the anti-nuclear parade and Environmentalism that have taken the European establishment, notably in Germany by surprise and the specific educational backgrounds and skillsets of the individuals in government and society who are decision makers in energy matters. Indeed, one of the great virtues of Gustafson as an historian is his filigree work, his tweaking out how men make history to no lesser a degree than economics, technological developments and the other anonymous drivers that are the darlings of contemporary political science.

Gustafson is far better equipped to deliver an expertly written context for Russia’s dealings with its partners in Western Europe because, unlike many if not most Russianists, he is an outstanding linguist, and draws heavily on German and French literature in the field as well as English-language and Russian sources. However, this is not merely an academic masterwork, but a book enlivened by occasional personal asides about his protagonists in West and East with whom Gustafson met during the several decades that he has been a leading global authority in the energy field, gas and oil.

What we get here is a political, economic and intellectual history of Europe and Russia described in parallel.   We learn about not only what directly bears on energy policy such as Environmentalism and the anti-nuclear movement but also about the economic and political theories, one is tempted to say, the neo-liberal ideology that have entirely reshaped the gas market in Western Europe into which Russia sells  over the past twenty-five years.  Indeed, for these reasons the book is heavier on West European history than Russian history.

In his detailed explanation of the role played by the EU’s General Directorate for Competition and the European Court of Justice in setting up the Single Market that was the main achievement of perhaps the  most important President of the European Commission to date, Jacques Delors (1985-95), Gustafson provides insights that surely will be of interest to all students of the European Institutions.  Although I have lived and worked in Brussels off and on since 1980 and have  become fairly involved in the activities of the European Parliament in the past five years, I profited greatly from reading the respective chapters in Gustafson’s book.

As for the narrative devoted to Russia, Gustafson explains where the frame contracts for supply of Russian gas that required so much renegotiation with the EU in the new millennium came from, namely the Groningen model developed by Europe’s first source of cross-border natural gas supply, The Netherlands.  He explains how the industry developed in Europe’s second largest source of imported natural gas, Norway, which had a configuration of state and industry that he compares and contrasts closely with Russia’s.

The last third of the book focuses on the issues we would most expect:  relations between Russia and Ukraine, meaning the legacy of the Soviet era and how it is being gradually erased; the evolution of economic relations between Russia and Germany in the new millennium when, especially after Putin’s landmark speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 challenging the West, political relations headed downhill.

One of the great virtues of this book is the way that Gustafson explains the complexity of politics, material interests and corporate culture within what our less curious and less informed journalists and academic commentators see as open-and-shut cases of monolithic Soviet tradition, like Gazprom or of Putin’s supposed autocratic monopoly of power. The following paragraph from 278 is exemplary in this sense:

“One of the main points of this book has been that the Russian gas industry, despite its geopolitical significance, is a business, and a highly technical and a highly complex one. A state-owned gas company may be an instrument of government policy and even of geopolitical ambitions, but it is also interested in profit and market share as well as its commercial reputation, the implementation of its engineering skills, and the management of such a large and complex system.  Putin is clearly the chief decider in Russian gas policy. But in the everyday conduct of business Gazprom, like any large organization, has the capacity to delay, resist, and reshape the Kremlin’s commands if they run counter to Gazprom’s commercial objectives, business models, and core competences.”

One very important benefit of Gustafson’s setting the frame of his study as broadly as he did is that in the end he can offer a key insight into the question of how Russian supply and the new pipelines like Nord Stream-2 impact on the Continent’s energy security, as we see on page 408:

“As the share of Russian gas in Europe’s gas supply reaches record levels, and as Russia completes a new generation of export pipelines, does Russia not have unprecedented leverage over Europe?

“The revolutionary changes in the European gas market suggest that the answer is no. For all the reasons discussed above – the increasing interconnectedness of the European transportation system, the diversification of import sources thanks to LNG, and the availability of storage – the European gas system is strongly resilient today and will become even more so in the future, despite the decline of Europe’s indigenous sources. Behind this is a simple fact: because of changes in gas technology and market structure in Europe and around the world, the pipeline shipper has less and less leverage compared to the past. This is true not only in Western Europe, but increasingly also in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.”


At the same time, the potential subject matter for this book is still more vast than what Gustafson has addressed here and there are elements still not explored.  In particular, given the importance of the German –Russian relationship as the anchor, literally and figuratively, for The Bridge which is the subject of this book, Gustafson has not explored the German relationship with those new EU members that have been driving the anti-Russian movement within EU Institutions including on issues of gas policy.

To my understanding, the sea change took place not in 2007 but in 2012, still before the whole confrontation over Ukraine but well after the Information Wars began.  It was in 2012 that Germany dropped its definition of Russia as “a strategic partner of Europe” and no longer supported the negotiation of a new EU-Russia Cooperation and Partnership Agreement to replace the long expired agreement dating back to the late 1990s.   In effect, from this time on Merkel’s government turned its back on the Ostpolitik that was forged by former (SPD) Chancellor Willy Brandt and his close adviser Egon Bahr. With one exception, to be sure, gas policy.

I would suggest that the answer is to be found not in the personality of Angela Merkel, as Gustafson seems to suggest, but in divergent interests and mentalities between Germany’s big industrialists, who were committed to big deals with Russia, especially in energy, and even pursued the illusory objective of participating in Russia’s upstream gas industry, and the famous German Mittelstand of medium-sized, family-owned enterprises which is the mainstay of the German economy, of export, and, one may assume, of Merkel’s party, the CDU.

Gustafson does not go into the relationship between Germany and the new Member States of the European Union, like the Czech Republic and Poland, which became from the 1990s the low cost subcontractors, or economic colonies if you will, of the Federal Republic.  German Mittelstand companies surely felt much more comfortable with these East European suppliers, who knew their subordinate place, than was ever possible with Russian industrial partners, who were full cycle producers, not manufacturers of bits and pieces, who had their own pride and, one might say arrogance that was a counterpoint to German Stolz, and very easily makes for uncomfortable relations.

Surely it was this sympathy for the virulently anti-Russian Poles and for their political bedfellows in the EU Institutions, the three Baltic States, which exerted a strong influence on Merkel’s policies towards Russia so that finally she pulled up the carpet of Ostpolitik that she received from the past, except in the highly pragmatic field of gas where Germany was too well served by the Russian supply and had long enjoyed preferential treatment thanks to its participation in the pipelines.

At the same time, Gustafson has also chosen not to get into the question of US pressure on the German positions. There can be no question but that in the summer of 2014, when America was threatening to provide offensive weaponry to Kiev, Merkel did a U-turn and became the main enforcer of Russian sanctions within the EU in order to cool down American passions and prevent an all-out Ukraine-Russia war that would spill over into Central Europe.


Finally, a word about  Environmentalism and The Greens, whom Gustafson describes to a limited extent in this book because they may have a significant if not determining influence on how Europe deals with natural gas as an energy source and bridge to the new Green Revolution of the future.


Gustafson speaks of the co-founder of the German Greens, later German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer, but not of his alter-ego of the movement in Germany, ‘Dany le Rouge’ Cohn-Bendit.  As co-chairman of the Spinelli Group in the European Parliament Cohn-Bendit has also been a leading voice for Federalism, for the creation of a United States of Europe, which in passing, Gustafson seems to favor. This federalism has aligned him with the neo-liberal leader of the ALDE Group in Parliament up to 2019, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. They co-authored a book promoting federalism entitled Debout l’Europe (Stand Up Europe).  And they, together with Fischer have one more cause in common, one which bears directly on Gustafson’s forecasts for the future of the Gas Bridge: ALDE and the German Greens have been the most vociferous Russia-bashers in the European Parliament. If I may allow myself a turn of phrase that Gustafson uses twice in the book: they have never seen a proposed sanction against Russia that they didn’t like. This anti-Russian posturing all has been done in the name of defending human rights, etc. This has set the background noise for confrontation between EU Institutions and Russia over Nord Stream-2, for example.

Given that the Green movement has made great advances in the last European parliamentary elections one year ago, it remains to be seen whether the visceral dislike of Russia of the German Greens will rise with the environmentalist movement that they embody and somehow impact upon Russia’s energy role in Europe.  Anti-gas words may be a convenient cover for anti-Russian thoughts and deeds.

Of course, these cavils bear on where The Bridge may be headed into the 2030s. They have not caused Russia impossible obstacles in its gas trade with Europe to date.  As for the future, time will tell.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Vladimir Putin’s New Cult of Personality

As readers of my analytical essays over the years will surely know, I have been a persistent defender of Vladimir Putin against the calumny, against his characterization as a “thug,” as an authoritarian who is inimical to our values, that has been his lot in Western media ever since his “coming out’ against the U.S. global hegemony in his speech to the Munich Security Conference of 2007.

Readers will also note that I have been a determined critic of the Constitutional Amendments put to the electorate in a Referendum on July 1st because of the single amendment turning back the clock on his time in the presidency to zero so as to enable his running for office again in 2024 and 2030. This I have seen as a violation of his commitment to rule of law and democratic principles of alternation in power through the polling booths. I also have said that Putin himself has been the biggest loser in this whole affair because he has deprived the country and himself of orderly succession when he eventually passes from the scene.

Now I turn your attention to another unpleasant fact that is an inescapable feature of this latest segment of Vladimir Putin’s long stay in power: the rise of a personality cult that is as ugly as any in the country’s past.

Going back to the last presidential elections in March 2018, I remarked that the President’s decision not to participate in televised debates with his opponents was more than offset by his dominating the airwaves in his capacity as  head of state, meaning daily news coverage of his receiving high foreign guests or opening major new infrastructure facilities, and the like. I said then that this was justifiable given that Putin is the most consequential world leader of our times who seems to be on the job 24/24 seven days a week.

What we were seeing now in the run-up to the Referendum vote was something very different:  Putin appeared almost daily on prime time television to deliver addresses to the nation that were arguably of minor importance and served only the purpose of keeping his face before the audience the whole day long, given the repeat broadcasts of moments from any of these addresses on the daily news programs.

The development of a personality cult is best typified by a Sunday evening broadcast that came on line more than a year ago but is being heavily promoted now each week by video spots that begin already on the flagship news shows of Saturday:  “Moscow, the Kremlin, Putin” on state television channel Rossiya. To put it kindly, in breathless faux excitement this delivers the kind of trivia about a VIP that you would expect from People magazine. The fawning, adulatory coverage of Putin’s stepping out of his limousine and going through his paces each day is intensified by the presenter, the young and obviously very ambitious journalist Pavel Zarubin.  That Putin can tolerate having this slime-ball at his side all day does not speak at all well for the President’s present state of mind.

Indeed, one would have to be blind to miss the changes in Putin’s behavior since the start of the year, to miss the evidence that he is less in control of his entourage and the rival factions vying for influence over policy, more a captive of his supporters than ever before.  The result is a pandering sort of populism that appeals to the lowest common denominator in the general population.  When I say this is off-putting to Thinking Russia, I have in mind not the young, brash and me-me-too professional classes of Moscow and Petersburg who all have one foot in the West, but true patriots who have served their country well, are of a certain age and remember all too well what is a “cult of personality.” Moreover,  I speak here not abstractly, but with the faces of my friends and acquaintances in Russia before me with whom I exchange thoughts on current politics from week to week.

This is not to say that Mr. Putin and his government are failing the population. Not at all. There is every sign that Russia is managing the Covid19 crisis very well.  As of present, anyone contracting the virus can receive free of charge from hospitals and clinics two newly manufactured and commercialized made in Russia drugs which treat the disease either very early to curb replication of the virus before it does damage or late, to combat the dangerous and often fatal complications which Covid19 gives rise to.  Here in Western Europe we are virtually lacking any relevant medicines, pending the conclusion of a deal with the American company Gilead to make Remdesevir available, and that drug is, the Russians tell us, much less impactful on the virus than their latest treatments.  As for the vaccine, the Russians say they remain serious contenders to be the first out with millions of doses before the end of the year.  And they continue to build super-modern hospital facilities to deal with Covid and other infectious diseases should there be a second wave ahead. In Western Europe foresight has so far not underwritten funding for such preventive actions.

And so the Putin regime chugs along, doing worthy things for the people.  But that makes the ugly signs of a personality cult none the less regrettable.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Putin’s Referendum: Where are the numbers?

We all know that President Vladimir Putin’s referendum on amendments to the Russian Constitution held on July 1st gave him an overwhelming victory.  That is what the Russia’s Central Electoral Commission officially announced on Friday and it has been picked up by all media in Russia and in the West even well before, just after the voting booths were shut on Wednesday night based on exit poll data.

So far, critics of the Referendum in the West have directed their attention to two issues only.  One of these, advanced by the long-established and authoritative Chatham House think tank in Britain tells us that the Referendum was illegal, illegitimate from the get-go, that it violated the procedures set down in the existing Constitution of 1993 and that it was superfluous since the amendments had already been approved by both chambers of the legislature.

The other critics, meaning the vast majority of our mainstream media, have kicked the tires, saying there was surely ballot stuffing and other hanky-panky which render the Referendum results fraudulent. To be sure, this is speculation unsupported by any facts and merely spreading the malicious anti-Putin gossip of opposition politicians within Russia. Moreover, the likelihood of illegal abuses at the local level such as famously occurred in the 2011 Duma elections was very low given all the technical investments in security at voting booths made in the time since.  These same advances include not merely live broadcast of cameras in the voting stations onto the internet for public access but also widespread use of sophisticated autonomous ballot boxes that read each vote before sending them into plexiglass boxes for storage in case a manual recount is demanded; and that technology incidentally makes it possible to have an instantaneous read-out of the results as soon as the polling station shuts.

However, it is striking that no one has asked: where are the numbers?  Elections are all about numbers and the results published by the Russian authorities this time break entirely with the practices of a couple of decades of national elections in the country.  In past nationwide elections, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta carried on the next day a full breakdown of voting results for each “subject of the Russian Federation,” meaning cities and regions (the Russian equivalent of states).

Now you may ask, why bother with such a breakdown when the given vote on July 1st was essentially a plebiscite.  But the same could be said of Russia’s presidential elections, and yet the region by region numbers were always released. Surely this transparency in the past was intended to validate the credibility of the results and to provide political scientists with a future crop of dissertations and food for thought.


This time the officials have given us only three summary numbers. These are 67.97% participation in the Referendum by eligible voters; 77.92% votes in favor of the amendments; and 21.27% votes against. Doing the arithmetic, this tells us that 52.9% of the eligible voters approved the amendments and Mr. Putin has the support of the absolute majority that he sought. Victory!

In response, I say:  not so fast.  There are fragmentary electoral results for the regions that have been sprinkled in the Russian print and online media and which suggest that voting results differed significantly across all three parameters. These discrepancies raise questions about how the absolute majority was reached.  It is worth mentioning here that even the results by region have kept apart the release of results of voter turnout and results of yes-no on the amendments.  Only when you put these together can you understand whether a majority of eligible voters approved the amendments in any given region.  This does not change the overall conclusion that in every region except one (the Nenets autonomous region in the Far North), the voters who participated in the election approved the amendment by a majority. But it does raise the question of shortfall in the President’s objective of getting an absolute majority of the polity on board for the amendments.

Sixty-eight percent participation may be very high by European and world voting patterns, but it is still far from 100% and one can wonder why 32% stayed at home. Were they ‘no’ voters who were afraid to come out of the closet?  Were they abstainers? This is the meat of political science and we have been put on a diet by the Russian authorities.

First off, from the fragmentary published numbers on voter turnout by region, we see that some of the ‘usual suspects’ have outperformed on delivering the vote. These tend to be places like Dagestan or the Caucasus republics and the Crimea (81% turnout) which are especially beholden to Moscow for their welfare and prosperity. In other regions, particularly the remote Far Eastern regions, where loyalty to Moscow has at times been questionable in past elections, we see particularly low turnout:  Magadan (44%), Khabarovsk (44%). Almost the same comes up in Siberia: Novosibirsk (Russia’s third largest city, 47%), Tomsk (44%). This information came courtesy of the RBK news agency. As for major cities of European Russia, Leningrad Oblast (which abuts the city of St Petersburg) had voter turnout of 78%, ten points above the national average; but then it is the home to many military training bases and specialized schools turning out officers. And by definition military men are easiest to send off to voting booths, even easier than civilian employees of the government.

Turning to the “no” votes, on the day after the election yandex.ru told us that in Magadan they numbered 36% of voters, in Irkutsk – 34.84%, in Kamchatka – 37.16% and in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk – 29.55.

In many of the regions mentioned above it is obvious that the goal of 50% plus of eligible voters supporting the amendments was never achieved.

But what about the capital, Moscow?  Here, information on electoral results has been very peculiarly reported.  The Rossiiskaya Gazeta did tell us that the electronic balloting in Moscow, which was one of only two cities in the country allowed to experiment with such voting, produced 62.33%  of ballots in favor of the amendments, 37.67% against. Meanwhile, in the traditional voting booths the result in Moscow was 65.26% in favor and 30.84% against. Information on voter turnout was not provided but if it corresponded to the national average that would yield a net vote of 44% of eligible voters supporting Mr. Putin’s Referendum.

And what about Russians living abroad?  As we know the Russian passport-carrying diaspora numbers several million. The only information about their voting that I have seen was provided by the news portal Lenta.ru.  They said that the balloting of Russian at their consulates in New York, in Berlin and in Vienna all produced majorities of No votes. No further information was provided. This is significant, because unlike those living in Russia, these expats were likely uninterested in the social benefits enshrined in the amendments but were moved by the one amendment allowing Putin to stay in power after his present mandate expires in 2024. We may construe their vote to be based on more abstract principles of governance than personal welfare.

And now I direct attention elsewhere, to the 21% of participating voters who voted against the reform nationwide.  Who were they?  None of our media has given a thought to that question.  I will hazard a guess, that they were heeding the advice of the one Opposition party in the Duma that called for a No vote:  the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

The 20% corresponds roughly to the electoral strength of the CPRF over the past decade or so, as the second largest party in the country after United Russia. About two weeks before the elections got under way, Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was asked by a journalist of Russian state television what he would be advising his followers to do.  Without hesitation, Zyuganov said to vote against the amendments. And he went on to say that if the Referendum passed, then Putin would enjoy powers greater than the pharaohs! Given the vast promotional campaign going on in favor of the Referendum, including television spots by tv celebrities, musicians, artists and scientists, this open rejection of the Referendum by Zyuganov was very courageous.  Not that it won him any plaudits from our media for defending democracy.

I close this essay with the observation that Vladimir Putin’s victory in the Referendum is in any case illusory. It attests to his inability over 20 years in power to provide a secure succession when he passes from the scene.

His first presentation of the project to amend the Russian Constitution back on January 15 was based on the notion of rebalancing the share of responsibility and power between the three branches of government, Executive, Judiciary and Legislature. His words were pointed in the direction of a cabinet responsible to the legislature, not to the head of state. By cutting back on presidential powers, he would have made it easier to find a worthy successor to fill shoes smaller than he had worn.  This all was subsequently jettisoned before the reform was presented to the Russian electorate for approval.

Yes, in principle Mr. Putin can now stand for re-election in 2024 and in 2030. However, as the old folk saying has it:  Man proposes and God disposes.  There are no assurances that Mr. Putin will stay in good health and good mental acuity into his seventies and eighties. And if he should leave the scene abruptly, for one reason or another, there is presently after these Constitutional amendments no clear path of succession that would give the country the stability that Mr. Putin places above all in his value system


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Putin’s referendum

President Putin’s grand referendum on several hundred proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution officially takes place on July 1st, although de facto through ‘early voting’ it will have been running for a week when polls open tomorrow.

If you live in the United States or in Western Europe, you would hardly know anything about it, nor is there any reason for you to know, in the estimation of our mainstream media, because the vote is a fraud and the outcome is known in advance as “proven” by copies of the new revised Constitution that went on sale in Moscow a couple of days ago. Moreover, given all the time and attention shown to the new outbreaks of Covid19 in the USA there is hardly a column inch to spare for the Russians, other than to remark on their place as number three worldwide in Covid infections and the shabby state of their medical infrastructure in the hinterland. Putin is denounced, yet again, for putting his own political objectives ahead of public health by holding this election in the midst of the pandemic.

If, however, you live in the Russian Federation or for some reason watch Russian state television broadcasts by satellite as I do, you are not merely aware of the referendum, you are saturated with news coverage about its every facet. This includes details of social distancing, hand sanitizers and the like to ensure hygiene and public safety of those coming to cast their votes. It includes interviews with volunteers who have been going out to visit the old and the infirm who cannot travel to polling stations and collect the ballots at their homes.  It includes ‘human interest story’ interviews with newlyweds who went straight from the civil office registering their marriage to the polling booths to be sure to have their votes counted and to protect the future of their progeny by signing up to the amendments, which enshrine in the Basic Law a huge list of social welfare benefits.  It includes almost daily addresses by President Putin to the nation regarding new allocations of monthly allowances to the parents of babes, of adolescents and to other socially fragile groups of the population in the spirit of the revised Constitution. This is not vote rigging but it is good old fashioned vote buying and it is being carried out shamelessly on state television.

In between these two extremes of non-coverage and over-exposure to the referendum, there is a third media position on the referendum which we may call the position of “alternative” Western media, meaning the relatively few websites that are either subtly or more commonly blatantly pro-Putin.  They are all pro-referendum because of one amendment in particular which we may call the “Tereshkova amendment” after the octogenarian Duma member, first Soviet woman in space, who at the closing of hearings on the amendments in the lower house introduced an additional paragraph resetting to zero President Putin’s time in office and thereby allowing him to run again for President in 2024 and in 2030. Our alternative media see this as an unmixed blessing, assuring Russia of firm (anti-Western) leadership to the end of our days.  This same media is mostly blissfully ignorant of Russian realities, mostly have never set foot in the country. For them, Russia is just a stick with which to beat the American hegemon and its European running dogs.

For those of us who do care about Russia and have some depth of experience of the country, this referendum is a sad page in Russia’s move backwards towards autocracy instead of forwards towards greater parliamentary democracy.  To be sure, some of the promoters of the revisions on Russian television, such as the anchorman on the “News on Saturday” program Sergey Brillyov, speak of more power sharing with parliament coming with the revised Basic Law.  But that is unsupported by the language of the amendments, which is opaque and subject to the interpretation of whoever runs the Executive in future. Meanwhile, as regards relations between the Executive and the Judiciary, there is nothing to discuss: the revised Constitution will give new powers to the Executive to remove judges who are unwilling to bend to the times.

Instead, the real pluses of the amended Constitution, such as they are, may be found in the provisions regarding protection of pensions through indexation, financial assistance to support families and the like. For Russians with a conservative bent, and Russian society, just like East Central European society in general, is deeply conservative in its social and ethical values, there are the definition of marriage solely as the bond between a man and a woman, the reminder that ‘in God they trust’, the vow never to give up an inch of national territory and many other provisions setting in concrete the values of the Putin years.

Having called out the reasons why Russians may vote ‘pro’ in the referendum, I must quickly add that not everyone has been bought off by the goodies so as to overlook the bone in the throat of a perpetual president.  In fact polls last week suggested that 43% of the Russian population opposes the revised Constitution.

So where are the Russian Opposition parties on this?  If you look at our mainstream press there are no Opposition parties in Russia.  There are Opposition personalities, the most prominent of which is the blogger Alexei Navalny. Navalny has wisely decided to hold his fire, to avoid new time in jail and to save his strength and his popularity for the 2021 legislative elections.

However, the Western mainstream press willfully overlooks the Duma parties, which they conveniently describe as sham, tolerated by United Russia to give an appearance of democracy.  Again, reality is very different.  From the beginning of democratic Russia in the early 1990s, the Communist Party has been the largest and most effective counter force first to the Neoliberal centrists of Yeltsin and then to the centrists who gathered around Vladimir Putin to form eventually United Russia.  A couple of weeks ago their leader Gennady Zyuganov spoke to the press and denounced the referendum. He said the revised Constitution would give Putin powers greater than those enjoyed by the Egyptian pharaohs. A colorful turn of phrase, it showed enormous civic courage. Needless to say, Zyuganov has not been given a microphone since.

The other less numerous parties, namely Fair Russia led by Sergei Mironov and the LDPR of firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky have been less honorable. Mironov has simply shut up.  Zhirinovsky was more royalist than the king and declared a few weeks ago that the referendum is not needed because the Duma has already approved the revised Constitution.

It will be very interesting to see what the actual numbers are in this referendum.  Given all the safeguards to protect abuses at the polling stations, it is very unlikely there will be hanky panky.  But calls for a boycott of the vote by the many thinking Russians who reject the perpetual presidency of Putin could dope the outcome.  We shall see shortly.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment five: diary notes from a visit to Soviet Georgia and Moldavia, September 1979

Fond memories of a visit to Soviet Georgia in September 1979 together with a “delegation” from one of Americas’s leading global producers and marketers of tropical fruit and vegetables, organized under the aegis of the USSR Ministry of Agriculture

Following our Georgian hosts’ description of their activities, we present a 90 minute slide and tape show which they reluctantly and none too happily sit through. Then leave for a tour of their farm.

Виноградно-плодоводческий совхоз ВАРКЕТЕЛИ-   3000 hectares, founded in 1957 on arid land – brought under cultivation with irrigation from an earthen dam upriver. Grow main table varieties of grapes – have 500 tons storage capacity of grapes. During labor peaks use student help – 40 days. Pay students 20% below regular sovkhoz wages.  Use sprinklers for irrigation – chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Japanese equipment.

“During the ride I am given information on the ‘subsistence farming’ (подсобное хозяйство) which Brezhnev has been pushing this season: quite apart from land directly around one’s house, this generally means 1000 square meters here, as against the national norm of 2000 square meters. The norm for the subsistence farming in a Kolkhoz, however, is 5000 square meters = 1 acre.

The ‘tour’ of farmland is really no more than 10 minutes look from one hilltop at vineyards and orchards. Even this is sufficient for our boys, however – they take note of the extremely wasteful irrigation system, which is poorly maintained – right before our eyes one sprinkler is malfunctioning, pouring gallons of water per minute into a hole.

At about 5 pm we are taken to the house of a wine-making foreman for a feast – the six of us and an equal number of locals sit around an overladen table – with smoked suckling pigs and chicken, local cheeses and breads, grapes, pears, peaches, sauces – and homemade fresh wine. Here for the next 5 hours we feast in the Georgian tradition. Under etiquette of the feast, Jan is made the toastmaster or Tamada, with obligation to turn the floor over to each for toasting in turn.  Ceremony of Bacchus is a page out of Svetlana Allilueva’s descriptions of life with father. To my surprise, the Soviets go very easy on Cayton, who refuses to drink on grounds of religion (Mormon). Several of the toasts are outstanding. Cayton raises glass for the tillers of the earth, who work for the good of the people. The farm chief toasts our families, because if a man doesn’t love and honor his own family, then he cannot love and respect others.  Dick goes mushy, raises a glass to Russian-American friendship and begins to slobber over WWII days as an aviator – We are joined by our host’s 78 year old father, who also saw action during the World War and this brings Dick into a bawling state,  he weeps as exchanges embraces with the representative of the generation which saved us all! At this stage, the bottoms up procedure has taken its toll. Jan discovers that cannot make his way back to the house unaided on visit to the outhouse.  Selby looks poorly and Dick has begun to get sick. We beat a retreat – packed inside two cars. While Jan and Selby make a quick return, I and Dave have our hands full with Dick, who pukes miserably and requires that we stop a number of times en route. Halfway back to the hotel he has to stop and pulls a prank: climbs over a high fence intending to wretch away from public view. However, it takes two of the Georgians to retrieve him.  Back at the hotel, I have difficulty getting rid of the Sovkhoz chief, who offers insistently to set me up with girls – he sits down at my desk and starts phoning. I distract him by offering to go down to the dollar bar, where, I say, Jan and Gillis are surely hanging out. The fact is that Jan, Selby and Dick and Kotelnikov are all out cold in their respective beds.  With assistance of maids we enter their locked rooms to find them sprawled out like so many wooden planks. Bored and tired, the Georgians leave me in peace. But it is not much peace for me as I spend the next few hours suffering in my room from intoxication – to my credit and perhaps misfortune, I hold this dose down.  Note –a final macho gesture at the feast came when the sovkhoz director saw my long look at the suckling pig head on the table. He proceeded to split the skull, open the cranium and then thin slice with his knife portions of the pate like smoked pig brain, which he then slipped into my mouth, along with Jan’s, Selby’s. To their relief, neither of the latter remembered this episode the next day.

Overall I cannot especially fault the Georgians – though they set us up for a fall, they were rather considerate when disaster struck.

A city tour of Tbilisi, September 1979

We take an auto tour, which is brief and uninformative. The Old Town is shown to us from afar, atop an outlook across the river. We hear the set narrative: Tbilisi is so friendly a town, 97 nationalities live here in harmony, a testimony to the fact that people who settled here found it hospitable and stayed. Where else on earth can you find in such proximity a working synagogue, Armenian Gregorian Church, Georgian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox churches… Of course, they do not bring us anywhere close to these miracles of harmony. Instead we are shown the sterile new sections of town – the university, medical institute.  Some curiosities:  the driver points to the Набережная имени Сталина and seeing my expression says “I suppose you’re surprised by this?  I’d be surprised if you weren’t.”  It’s so obvious the Stalin cult is a kind of revenge, a way of keeping out the Brezhnev cult.

The driver tells us the story of the Georgian land: “Once upon a time, God was dividing up the Earth among the peoples. At that very time, the Georgians, being Georgians, were out in a forest meadow drinking and carousing. When a stranger appeared at the edge of the wood, the Georgians extended their usual hospitality and invited him to join them and drink a cup to their health.  He agreed and it turned out the stranger was God. God said that he was pleased to be among such a lively people, but asked why he had not seen them when he was dividing up the Earth. They explain that such is their nature and they had been drinking.  God says he had given away all the land except a small parcel which he had saved for himself – now this will be theirs.  The Georgians rejoice and prepare a basket of fruit and wine for God, to see him off on his trip back to Heaven. But God is a bit tipsy and as he ascends, He drops the basket – so that to this day Georgia is the land of fruit and wine.”

* * * * *

Notes on agricultural sector in Moldavia, 1979, as reported by local Agricultural Institute, by farms directors, by taxi drivers and other authoritative sources during the September 1979 visit

With 0.15% of the land mass, Moldavia produces 40% of Soviet canned fruits and vegetables.  Moldavia produces 360,000 tons of meat and 500,000 tons of milk annually.  Moldavia still has industrial sugar beet cultivation. Table and wine grapes is a major industry – for land on slopes.

We visited the largest orchard in the USSR at Tiraspol with 6000 hectares planting in progress, half of which has already been completed. Main varieties from the US: Golden Delicious, Richard, Starker, Jonathan, Wagner. During peak of season they use supplemental labor – detachment of 1000 university students.

The 6,000 hectare farm represents an investment by surrounding Kolkhozes. Thus far have poured 27 million rubles into the venture and 20 million have been recovered in 4 harvests. One half of the production is held for long term storage. Out of 30,000 tons apples now produced, 12,800 tons are stored – they use chilled air methods. Ship out by rail.            23 orchards in Moldavia will have an average of 2500 hectares each for overall tree planting of 50,000 hectares by 1985

In the Tiraspol region we also visited a Vegetable Farm where a pilot project is run by the American equipment manufacturer FMC under a master agreement with the USSR Ministry of Agriculture.  The project is built on a 600 hectare tomato farm. FMC has supplied all field equipment, seeds, sorting equipment.   These are late variety tomatoes going into tomato juice and paste. Contract calls for output of 50 metric tons per hectare.  In fact 36 were achieved last year and this year the figure will be 40.  Reason is that US varieties are susceptible to local fungus.  Another reason – locally poor assortment of herbicides. FMC provided the equipment for new furrow methods. This FMC equipment is very satisfactory, especially the tillers. The cannery has 80 ton per hour capacity.

We watch a combine pass through the fields pulling up tomato plants and spitting out roots and stems. The area in general has 3-crop rotation: peas, tomatoes and milo wheat. There are 2 harvests per season. From FMC’s 600 hectares they look to production of 30,000 tons, out of which 4,000 will be sold fresh and 26,000 will be canned.

Our boys are less than overwhelmed by the success of this integrated farming operation. They note that the 60% survival rate of tomato seedlings is very poor, meaning great waste of fertilizer and water resources on the way.

FMC will do potato farming and processing next. Note – we are told that FMC specialists are paid by contract – $250 and 20 rubles per calendar day per year = $100,000 total. And in a new contract to go into effect soon the figure rises to $350.

FMC has been in Moldavia for a total of 4 years. For the first 2 years they worked with the local Institute in the planning phase; the past 2 years have been in the field. Their personnel is here on a permanent basis.

Looking at fruits – 450 kolkhozes in Moldavia, with 100,000 hectares under cultivation, of which 25,000 are post-1970 specialized agriculture.

Vegetables:  Formerly vegetables were a losing proposition – but not any longer. Collective farms are now producing 800,000 tons annually, out of which 750,000 tons are sold to the state. Mainly tomatoes, cabbage, onion, cucumber, eggplant, potato, watermelon.  State farms grow all the herbs and spices: rhubarb, parsnips, parsley, dill, celery, fennel, cauliflower, lettuce.

Climatic regions:   North, potato   Southeast – vegetables, irrigated   South: onion, early potatoes

Now set 35% return on investment annually in vegetable farming

In all of Moldavia, there are 450 collective farms, each of which does some vegetable farming. However, 67 Sovkhozes are specialized in vegetable production and they produce 70% of what is sold to the State.  Use fertilizers, mechanized harvesting, irrigation.

Spices and herbs – these are grown only on state farms – sovkhozes – because they are processed directly by the state.  Very little lettuce is grown here because ‘there is little demand.’ It’ a matter of what is traditional.  Also no cauliflower.  (All very curious, given that in neighboring Romania these greens, especially leaf lettuce, are very traditional).  As regards the “little demand” explaining failure to grow lettuce, when we then mentioned this to the Ministry in Moscow we were reassured that they would give marching orders to Moldavia.

Fruit production in Moldavia: North – pears and apples.  South- apricots and peaches    Center – plums

The Institute:  plans crops for each region, develop technology, maps, equipment, guide book for administrators. Also provides practical help in planting orchards. Check on proper implementation of their directives. Develop anti-erosion methods.   400 members in the Institute – including specialists on soil, land reclamation, agronomists, economists, geologists, water resource specialists.

[2020 observation:  presently Moldova is reportedly the poorest state in Europe. From the foregoing it should be self-evident that this poverty is entirely the consequence of geopolitical factors outside the control of its population and exists notwithstanding the fertility and productivity of the land in the recent past. Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is cut off from its traditional markets in Russia and from its natural waterway, the Dniester, leading south into the Black Sea 170 km away at the Ukrainian port of Odessa. Its substantial Russian-speaking (largely Byelorussian) population resists tooth and nail the notion of takeover by its neighbors. This unnecessary poverty is likely to continue indefinitely]


Memo to the files: impressions from our visit to the Soviet fruit and vegetable cornucopia:  Georgia and Moldavia, September 1979 under the auspices of the USSR Ministry of Agriculture

One of the most striking impressions is the apparent leveling of once sharp distinctions between what supplies were available in cities and those in the favored countryside areas.  Less than a decade ago it was possible to say that even highly rewarded agricultural regions in the Soviet Union were poorly stocked in consumer goods and were the poor country cousins of even second and third rank cities, let alone the metropolis of Moscow.  Today these distinctions are fess less apparent; other distinctions have taken their place, and these are generated by the degree of successful or unsuccessful integration of a given region into the political hierarchy. For this purpose, comparison of Georgia and Moldavia can be highly illustrative.

The Georgian countryside, which, with the exception of some tropical coastal areas, is mediocre to poor farmland, has been won from mountainous terrain at great cost in labor. It was formerly known to be outstanding within the Russian context. After several years of political repression, little remains of this former affluence. Shops in Georgia have little to boast by comparison with highly prosperous Moldavia.  Political alienation in Georgia seems to have further expression in a revival and stubborn advancement of the Stalin cult.  If this is indeed the source of Stalin adoration elsewhere in the USSR, then Western analysts have been probably far off base in their understanding of the cult’s reappearance. For what is in evidence today in Georgia through restoration of portraits of the former leader and through prominent bigger-than-life gilded statues of him in public buildings, though memorial plaques, and through entreaties to tourists to visit his birthplace in Gory, is little more than an affirmation of the Georgians’ national existence and rejection of rule from Moscow. The Stalin cult is not so much an affront to Western sensibilities as a challenge to the Brezhnev regime.

Comparison between Moldavia and other favored agricultural regions than Georgia is all the more striking when this development is borne in mind. As the political power base of Leonid Brezhnev, the post to which he was assigned Party Leader after World War II, Moldavia to this day enjoys a special position vis-à-vis Brezhnev’s leadership. This is manifest in the model agricultural enterprises which are encouraged in the rea, in the innovative and self-assured behavior of local Party and State officials who make a virtue out of being in step with Moscow’s latest directives.  It is seen in the richness of Kishinev’s stores, in the well-dressed pedestrians, the orderly orchards and vineyards, and the prosperous new peasant houses along small towns.

Speaking with officials both in Georgia and Moldavia, one learns that the mandated increases in agricultural incomes have been realized. Collective farm workers in Moldavia, by way of example, now receive over the course of a year remuneration at the same level as industrial workers in Moscow. As an addition, they may enjoy the fruits of their labors on private plots which, depending on the nature of the farm enterprise, range between one-quarter and one acre of arable irrigated land.

With reference to official figures, it is obvious from even a glance inside stores that consumer goods which are in scarcity in major Russian cities are available without lines in these smaller, particularly Moldavian, towns.

All of this tends to support a hypothesis about the nature of Russia’s difficulties in the consumer sector which seems to me has been overlooked by Soviet analysts in the USA who have not visited and seen first-hand what is happening in that country. This hypothesis is that shortages of consumer goods and of processed foods arise today not because of declining production but because of rising disposable income and more equitable distribution of national wealth among the Soviet population. In a situation of largely fixed-price-production that rises only modestly from year to year and broadened demand, the necessary and logical result is the one which the astute observer will find today: widespread shortages. In this respect, the Soviet Union today appears to be traveling down the same road as Poland 5 years ago. It remains to be seen whether the implications for political stability will be the same in the USSR as they have been for Poland.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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