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

[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 newly published article on the lessons of World War II in “The National Interest”

The article referenced in the heading appeared a couple of days ago in a leading American think tank publication which traces its ancestry back to the Richard Nixon pro-détente circles of the nation’s capital. Indeed, the personality at its apex, Dmitry Simes, was Nixon’s Sherpa for dealings with the Soviet Union during his final years.

This article is being promoted by Russian diplomacy as the country’s official word on the significance of World War II for the present generation of Russians and of people everywhere during this year of celebration of the 75th anniversary of the war’s end.  In this connection, I was invited to offer my comments to the Russian online journal Sputnik, which came out with an article of commentary today:

https://sputniknews.com/analysis/202006191079667491-putin-is-showing-restraint-why-russian-president-could-have-written-wwii-article-in-harsher-tone/

My analysis, which is generously cited by Sputnik, was set out in full in the following:

In his article, Vladimir Putin has adopted a statesmanlike rather than argumentative tone. He has avoided naming directly the points in the historical revisionism being practiced in the West with respect to causes of World War II. This revisionism first developed in its present malignant form in the Baltic States and Poland going back twenty-five years when they loudly denounced Soviet responsibility in the start of the war arising from the deal with Hitler at their expense known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In these countries it served the purposes of nation-building.   The revisionism has in recent years been given further amplification in the United State where fits of Russophobia have suited the cause of   NATO expansion and propped up American hegemony on the Old Continent. In the United States, it is not so much blame for the start of World War II as the air brushing of the Soviet Union out of the fight against Hitler so that the liberation of Europe appears to have been purely the result of the heroic Allied landings in Normandy and the drive across France and the Low Countries towards Berlin.

Vladimir Putin has chosen to focus more attention on the Munich Betrayal, which shows up Western complicity in the Nazis overrunning Europe, starting from the Sudetenland.  This is understandable, because the notion of Appeasement as symbolized by Chamberlain’s return to the UK from his shameful deal with Hitler claiming ‘peace in our time’, is precisely how most of the Western populations view the run-up to WWII.    And then there is the one finger he points at Poland reminding everyone that the Poles were actively conspiring with Berlin to dismember Czechoslovakia. He makes a veiled hint that the aristocracy in certain Western countries were quite happy to deal with Hitler and did not heed the warnings of Moscow and its bid to create a united resistance to German aggression from the mid-1930s when it may have till been possible to stop the Germans in their tracks.

In fact, the hand of Mr Putin is much stronger than he has cared to set out in this article.  He is showing great restraint, and I would argue perhaps too much restraint given the fierce level of Information Wars against Russia that have been going on in the past decade.

It bears mention that Appeasement was a Western policy that proceeded almost from the signing of the Versailles Treaty. This argument was made very persuasively by Henry Kissinger in his master work “Diplomacy” in 1994. It was appeasement in allowing the Germans not to pay the crushing reparations that the Treaty required, by allowing them gradually to recreate their army and reoccupy their lands militarily in violation of the Treaty way before Mr. Chamberlain came on the scene. Munich was merely the culmination of a long process wherein the different interests of France and England in particular during the interwar years as regards their defense against Germany.  And let us dot the ‘I’s which Mr Putin has left blank: it was specifically the pro-fascist sympathies of English royalty and aristocracy that prevented collective action.  There was a strong streak in European political classes hoping to see the Hitlerites send their forces to the East and destroy Bolshevism.

Of course, had President Putin gone into these specifics, there would be bellowing from London, from Washington against the Kremlin.  Instead, he has spoken obliquely.  It is hard to say what effect his mild words will have.

©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 four: Eyewitness account of Leonid Brezhnev’s 73rd birthday party in the Kremlin, 6 December 1978

 In my previous archival installments I mentioned that I am now preparing a book of memoirs dedicated to my experiences as an expatriate senior manager in Moscow during the 1990s when the foreign community there numbered some 100,000 families. To my knowledge there has been no narrative published on our Russia ‘from the ground up’ whereas books have been written by those who occupied the halls of power in Washington, in particular Strobe Talbott’s “Russia Hand” looking down on us all from the Olympian heights. The small gems I presented in this space so far were intended as teasers for that forthcoming book.

However, during my work in parallel transcribing into MS Word files my extensive archive of diaries, business and personal correspondence going back into the mid-1970s, I have reached the conclusion that the scope of the book should be expanded to embrace two focal periods in my business career that merit simultaneous examination because of the very similarities and the contrasts in the Russia I visited so intensively in the earlier period and lived in during the later period. Indeed even the words ‘traveled to’ and ‘lived in’ have very qualified meaning when you consider that my visits to the USSR in the 1970s from my New York base were monthly and my residing in Moscow in the 1990s was punctuated by monthly trips back to corporate headquarters in London with time off at my family base in Brussels. Moreover, eternal Russia and….eternal America come up in both periods in ways that demand such comparison.  For business and intergovernmental relations, each period began with hoopla, great expectations, and each ended in recriminations and aggressive U.S. measures to isolate Russia and treat it as a pariah.  But I leave the big picture for the writing of the book.  Here and now I wish to present one more ‘teaser’ drawn from my time in the USSR in the 1970s.

To understand what I was doing in the midst of the august company at the event,I must explain first that I had an inverted business career. I started out and made my way into high business circles as a consultant, reaching the very top of American executive circles as witnessed by the account I present here below at age 33. I eventually moved on, with some assistance from then President Carter and his security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who closed down my business area by imposing crippling trade sanctions on the USSR following their invasion of Afghanistan.  In my reconfigured career, I took employment with the world’s largest conglomerate at the time, with an office based in Brussels and took business responsibility for the safer pastures of Poland and Yugoslavia.  Several jobs later, I found myself the head of representation of major German, Canadian and finally UK corporations in Moscow.  A top boss locally, and an upper middle level manager corporate-wide.  This is precisely the opposite of normal business careers where consultancy marks the end of a long career not the start.

As a young man in his early 30s I was the co-founder and sole professional in a marketing company selling consultancy services at the Board level to major US corporations in food processing and consumer goods having the ambition to achieve big sales in the USSR by way of industrial projects. In this capacity I joined the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council and established close working relations with the major force for foreign investment, turnkey factory construction and technology transfer at the time, the State Committee for Science and Technology, which was headed by Prime Minister Kosygin’s son-in-law, Dzherman Gvishiani.  In a sense, this period was as close as I ever came to being a ‘Kremlin stooge’ as our anti-Russian claque of academics and media generalists would call it today.  In fact, if I was a ‘useful tool’ of the Kremlin by bringing into negotiation for technology transfer companies that otherwise would never have set foot in Russia, all of my interlocutors on the Soviet side were to the same degree ‘dupes of Washington’.  Our careers on both sides were hostage to good and improving US-Soviet political and commercial relations.  There was nothing sentimental or self-deceptive about this either way.

The Moscow event described below took place in the context of the annual meeting of the Trade Council, which was held in alternate years in Russia and in the USA.  Out of the 267 U.S. companies then members of the Council, perhaps half came to Moscow with one or more members, including a large number of CEOs of the most important American businesses. The US government was represented by Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal and Secretary of Commerce Juanita Krebs. A number of iconic American statesmen and businessmen, including Averell Harriman, Armand Hammer and David Rockefeller were in attendance.

All participants were aware of the likelihood that Communist Party Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev would hold a reception in the Kremlin for a limited number of Council members on Wednesday evening, December 6th, which, as many understood, was Brezhnev’s birthday. Various companies were enlisted to help mark the event with gifts related to their businesses.  One of my corporate clients obliged by sending in airfreight 1,000 pounds of their dog food as a gift for the Chairman’s kennel.  That went without mention from the dais, though other dog-related presents are noted in my diary entry below.

In any case, the printed invitations to the event were distributed just a couple of hours in advance and only two busloads of us received them.  My inclusion may be explained on the technicality that I was a ‘corporate president’ which was a prerequisite, but more generally attested to the appreciation of the powers that be for the companies I was bringing to the negotiating table.

The diary entry for 6 December 1978 set out below has been lightly edited to protect the guilty, meaning to avoid violation of client confidentiality. At the end I provide a key to the identity of speakers and fellow participants in the event who may not be widely known today and to whom I had no obligations of secrecy.

 

 Evening Reception at the Kremlin, Грановитая Палата 7.15pm – 10.00pm

 

Anxious anticipation in the whole group – two bus loads, all men with two exceptions.

(curious: whereas Marshall Goldman has an invitation, Harold Berman is not among us – must be fuming)

Wives sent packing to the opera at this executive only event.  Only FMC’s McClellan has made arrangements for his spouse.

On entering through the Верховный Совет main doors, we ascend a glittering marble staircase into a series of rooms, opening onto the enormous ball-room sized St George’s hall, which has exquisite parquet floors, elegant marble walls with gilded regimental histories in-set. We all gather in a reception area part of George’s Hall to the left and down a set of steps.

My dear Chris goes off in a corner – very poor mixer, especially in large crowd where he knows very few people. Doesn’t like all those high-powered egos around. I take him by the arm to meet Minister Lein of the Food Ministry, who is just then exchanging small talk with Kendall through a Ministry of Foreign Trade official acting as interpreter. While Kendall takes a deep breath I interrupt with “Господин Министр!” and introduce Chris and then say how his chairman will be here on Monday. It is a very rushed delivery, because he is anxious to get back to Kendall, but we do invite him to the signing ceremony and say a written invitation will be available next; on this basis we can say to the Food Ministry that Lein has already been personally invited.

Brezhnev enters – broad lion’s head, conspicuously wearing a hearing aid, large yet bloated and frail looking. Next to him his slick interpreter Viktor. He enters with Blumenthal and with Krebs on one arm, takes her up to see the St George Hall. Shakes hands with Rockefeller, Hammer, Harriman. Holds back a moment and Kendall looks alarmed that Brezhnev won’t shake his hand, but Brezhnev moves forward and does. Then Brezhnev moves to the doors which open and beckons us to follow him to dinner.  We pass through a low vaulted entry with heavy gilding into a magnificent high chamber with central columns painted wall surfaces throughout in 18th century Classical iconographic style, Old Church Slavonic script. Obviously much restoration work since it is in splendid condition. Long banquet tables are set rather simply with standard quality Russian porcelain and glass, stainless steel cutlery; it is a 6 glass dinner, however, with water glass, champagne, vodka, two wines and cognac.  Service is quiet and efficient, moving in quickly as we sit down from each toast to lay on the next course. The total number of us, including Soviets and officials at the head table, perhaps 300. The uncertainty surrounding the event itself and over the guest list, which lasted till 5pm today has raised anticipation and the great satisfaction of each attendee at having been selected for these great heights. Floral decoration is simple and restrained: separate modest bouquets of carnations and pink roses. All liquor is served by waiters – no bottles clutter the table, which is really quite formal though plain.

The round of toasts is begun by Brezhnev, who makes a 10 minute speech that goes over many of the same points we have heard repeatedly in the past few days. He remains statesmanlike and accommodating, high minded. Main single argument:  trade should not be turned on and off like a tap since it requires great mutual trust; we don’t have to love one another to respect each other and to establish normal, even good relations; we shall continue to trade with you even if no steps are taken by the US side to end discrimination against us, but such trade will not have a real basis and cannot expand.

Note that Brezhnev’s diction is seriously slurred, really as if he has had a stroke. However, no other obvious physical impairment; does wear a hearing aid prominently though. Very large head and wide frame on which clothes hang a bit loosely. Nonetheless, seems to be in firm control of himself and of the audience.  Blumenthal makes the first return toast and a 10 minute speech. Looking this speech over in written form, all seems quite unremarkable, moderate in tone; however, his delivery is very aggressive, in particular, as he underlines the phrase ‘we have given each other good advice in the past few days; let us now, each of us, try to follow that advice.’ Once again there is tension, sharpness in his voice, slightly smug sound. This type of presentation is reckoning more on the Americans present, to show Carter’s strength, than it is on Soviet hosts. Whereas Blumenthal sounded two years ago like a businessman in government, he now sounds like an Administration spokesman in business guise. It is slightly unpleasant to hear him presumptuously speak for all Americans present and continue to press the hard line on the Russians. Fails to recognize that this is a business gathering, that essentially we are the sellers and that as such we don’t make demands. Blumenthal offers a gift – a painting of a Newfoundland retriever.

“Krebs delivers a long toast as prologue to her prepared speech: it is to present the hunting dog puppy that she has named ‘Decoy’ together with a collar bearing a silly inscription “I belong to Leonid Brezhnev. If lost please return to the Kremlin.’  Then a long-drawn out and overly cute song and dance about the significance of the name ‘decoy’, to the effect that trade is not our real goal, it is a decoy that will bring us to the real target, which is better relations for world peace. This is belabored still more in her official toast, which is not for the success of the Council though that is important, not for the sake of trade though it is important, not for several other causes, but rather for the benefit and wellbeing of mankind.  A typical liberal; one feels she doesn’t give a damn about this session, and therefore invokes the meaningless cause of mankind. Her tone is irritation, seems to enjoy modulation of her own voice too much. There is something treacherous about Krebs. She sounds insincere. Amazing gaffe: appears to say ‘Hope you enjoy Decoy in the little time left to you’ – obviously meaning free time but that’s not what comes out. Even the interpreter Viktor is puzzled. Verity and Forrestal make short toasts.

The meal service itself is sensible – portions are delicate and well complementary.

In the midst of the evening, it is remarked that December 19th [December 6th Old Style] is Brezhnev’s birthday and so all 300 of us stand with glasses in hand and lustily sing “Happy Birthday to You.”  Incongruous!  A gathering of America’s top executives singing on cue to Mr. B.

My neighbors at the table: to one side, a partner in the New York law firm Lackenbach, Lilling and Siegel, patent and trademark lawyer who is here representing the US Chamber of Commerce; short, peppery man in his mid-50s; throws back his vodka with relish, talks loudly and merrily. Says Wella is among his clients and offers to pass my name along to them for areas outside hair spray, e.g., for dyes and tints.  When Brezhnev finally makes his departure, he jumps up to join the line and shake Brezhnev’s hand; returns to his seat overjoyed. Says, “I went to the White House and they didn’t even give me a cookie, whereas look at this reception.”  How easily we are bought off by flattery and attention.

Nearly opposite me is Gregorian, stout and sturdy Armenian who runs a California trading company. To the right, an Englishman working for the engineers and construction company Badger Inc., compares his experiences here with what he has seen in Peking; super-sophisticated, with snobbish tinge. At the end of the table, four or five seats down and across sits a Brigadier General, Brezhnev’s personal body guard from the days of WWII; genial looking old chap with close-shaven, pinkish cheeks and well pressed tunic; like his boss, he is in mid-70s. Next to him a rotund protocol chief.  Opposite me across the table is a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rep in his late 30s who has just returned from a tour of duty in Canada.

At 10.00 Brezhnev announces that he must leave, because early tomorrow he has to officiate at a diplomatic event. Bids us to stay on with his associates. He makes his way around our side of the room, shaking hands, then leaves. Within minutes, the reception closes and we leave on foot back to the hotel.

The talk around me is about Brezhnev’s tremendous stage presence and continuing mental acuity despite physical frailty. However, one fellow mentions having heard from medical authorities here that Brezhnev has kidney dialysis and regular blood transfusions because of some blood deficiency associated with the bone marrow.

Others curse Krebs, saying ‘that damned woman, just like Margaret Thatcher in England, just doesn’t know when to stop talking.’ Say she should have stayed at home. As continuation one says the real warfare in the coming 25 years will be between men and women, that we will find ourselves in the trenches.  To which another adds that he doesn’t mind so long as he can share a trench.

Although I had wondered why Brezhnev exposed himself to scrutiny of outsiders and their possibly vicious evaluation of his health, it is clear that most have been favorably impressed. Moreover, for him to live in full seclusion would only give rise to still more damaging speculation over the real state of his health.

Note: at the close of the evening, when Brezhnev filed by to shake hands, he reached Marshall Goldman, seated about 8 seats from me across the table. Goldman had a big smile as he pumped Brezhnev’s hand.

Names

Armand Hammer – chairman of Occidental Petroleum, one of the first Western businessmen to have done deals with the new Soviet state after the Revolution

Averell Harriman –  Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Moscow in WWII, former governor of the State of New York, patrician statesman

Donald Kendall – chairman of Pepsico, recently stepped down as co-chair of the Trade Council, active pro-détente campaigner, had at this point a monopoly position on Soviet vodka and hard liquor exports

Viktor Sukhodrev –  Brezhnev’s very savvy long time interpreter who gave sense to the Secretary General’s speeches in his failing years

Marshall Goldman – expert on the Soviet economy, deputy director of Harvard’s Russian Research Center

Harold Berman – law professor at Harvard, leading American scholar on Soviet law at the time

 

©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.]

J’accuse: pinning down responsibility for Belgium’s dismal record of Covid-19 mortality

For a number of weeks in a row as coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths spiraled upwards exponentially, the broad population in Belgium and many other European countries came out at specified times in the evening to collectively celebrate the heroism of their medical cadres on the front lines of the pandemic.  For a while I joined in, but then as it became clear that Belgium has the world’s highest number of deaths per capita in the world, and that the explanations for this given by the authorities are utterly unconvincing, my feelings towards our medical profession changed from admiration to pity for their risking their lives only to produce miserable results. Clearly the foot soldiers had been let down by their generals.

As of today, more than 9,500 patients have died in this country of 11.5 million, half in hospital and half in old age and care homes. To put this in proper perspective, in the United States, where the chaotic response of the federal government under President Trump has been exposed to scathing ridicule both domestically and by observers abroad, today was marked with solemnity as the country crossed the threshold of 100,000 Covid -19 deaths.  If the official Belgian mortality rate per million were to be projected onto the United States, which is 28 times more populous, we should be marking 270,000 deaths there today.  Of course, given the unruly de-confinement now going in many U.S. states with the active encouragement of the White House, the numbers there may reach and exceed that level in the coming weeks. But they also may not.

If we use another yardstick which has been promoted by the Financial Times, namely the total excess deaths in a given country in 2020 during the months of the pandemic compared to the normal mortality in the same country in the same period over the past several years, Belgium once again comes out at the top of the list of shame, just behind the UK and Italy.

Most of the Covid-19 deaths in Belgium could have been spared had the right decisions been taken at the outset. And I do not mean earlier imposition of confinement. I will explain myself below. Many other unnecessary deaths have continued even up to the present day because of critical errors that are not being corrected due to pure incompetence, aided and abetted by a dysfunctional political system of power sharing, placing political ideology above pragmatism, and being penny wise and pound foolish in the spending to combat the epidemic. In this regard, it is relevant to note that the daily death toll in Belgium this past week has persistently exceeded that in neighboring France, a country with 5 times the population.

In this brief essay, I will ask some of the tough questions that our lame print media seem unable or unwilling to do during the thrice weekly press conferences held by officials of the federal health ministry.

As recently as a few days ago I hesitated to come out with accusations since I am not a health professional and can base my doubts only on the inconsistencies I have remarked between how the epidemic has been handled in other countries including South Korea and Russia where deaths per million are vastly lower, and what is being done and said from high offices in Belgium. However, the very sharp criticism reported on 26 May in the middle-of-the-road French language newspaper La Libre Belgique directed against the Sciensano institute at the center of the Government’s Covid 19 management has brought starkly into the open some of the weaknesses we in lay society had observed among ourselves in kitchen talk. A breach in the Government’s defenses of its policies has opened up and it is high time to march through.

 

* * * *

La Libre Belgique assigned to the article mentioned above a title sure to attract the attention it merits: “Coronavirus: the Royal Academies castigate the ‘opaque decisions of Sciensano’ which ‘put our country in danger.’”   The Royal Academy of Medicine and the Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts denounce in particular the monopoly of power exercised by the Scientific Institute of Public Health (Sciensano) with respect to management of the health crisis and the way their own advice has not been taken into account. They call for ‘rethinking the strategy for developing the Belgian medical plan.’ They note that the oncoming pandemic provoked panic in the country. Decisions were taken precipitously and without any well thought out plan despite the fact that the viral outbreak had occurred in China already in December. They insist that Belgium must learn from its errors if it is to face up to the likely second wave of viral infections ahead.

The one specific charge the Royal Academies raise is over the flip-flop on public policy with respect to wearing masks. We are told that “They point their finger at the ‘denial of the interest in the population wearing masks to cover up the shortage [of masks] and a lack of foresight, as well as the ‘restrictions on use of diagnostic tests’ for the asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases of persons having been in contact with a contaminated person.’”

The net result of the démarche is the following: “The two Academies ask Sciensano to collaborate with them in order to ensure transparency, independence and coherence of the decisions taken. They emphasize that they are composed of ‘internationally recognized experts in numerous disciplines concerned by the problem at hand.’”

Finally we are told that the two Academies point to the mistrust which the population is showing with regard to the management of the health crisis, saying ‘’It is urgent that we reestablish confidence and credibility between the decision-making authorities and civil society.”

* * * *

For little Belgium, the open conflict among elites that we see in the article I have summarized above is quite remarkable. We read that the public has lost trust in the authorities, and we read that internationally recognized experts have been sidelined.

Neither phenomenon is particularly unusual in this country where the flip side of the advanced democratic solutions for holding the kingdom together, given the rivalries of the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking regions, is power sharing. This power sharing broadly equates to institutionalized corruption and incompetence. Ministers receive their portfolios by back-room deals among the parties forming the governing coalition of the day. The coronavirus is the sharp end that has driven these abuses out into the open for public scrutiny, particularly as regards the reviled minister of public health Maggie de Bock.

The remarks about government lies about the usefulness of masks when there were none for the hospitals let alone for the general public hit at the most talked about and grating abuses of the Minister of Health. Moreover, she had a year earlier overseen the destruction of millions of masks purchased for the feared ‘bird flu’ H5N1 ten years ago, thereby leaving the country totally exposed in case of some new viral epidemic. On these grounds alone, the Belgian doctors’ association had called for her to be stripped of her license to practice medicine. That may not seem more than a tap on the wrist, but the notion of hauling her into court for dereliction of duty was too improbable of success to be contemplated.

In the meantime, two months into the pandemic, Belgium has stocked up on masks and latex gloves. In my own commune of Ixelles, one of the boroughs in central Brussels, we received a knock on the door a couple of weeks ago, from a communal official delivering for me and my wife individually packaged double layer cloth masks. A very nice gesture, if somewhat late. In Brussels, it is now mandatory to wear masks on public transit and in stores.  However, the damage to public trust from the prevarication of the minister was substantial.

What we see in the allegations of the two Academies is that the rot goes much further than one incompetent minister. The Institute advising the ministry, Sciensano, is itself a concoction of political interests rather than a serious center of expertise. It serves two very different administrations: Public Health and Agriculture. Wikipedia tells us that “its core business is scientific research in the fields of public health, animal health and food safety.” The same source spells out the ideology which Sciensanto promotes: “that the areas of human health, animal health and the environment are inherently connected with each other.” Given this ‘green agenda,’ is it any wonder that early on in the pandemic we heard that the high levels of infection and mortality in Belgium might be explained by the high levels of industrial pollution in its cities. I would suggest that this irrelevancy blinded officials to the mortal threat posed by a vicious and uniquely contagious viral infection, full stop.

* * * *

 

There is no question but that lockdown everywhere has been effective in “flattening the curve” and bringing the daily admissions into hospital, and more particularly into Intensive Care Units, down to manageable levels and so avoiding the kind of pandemonium that we all saw to our horror hit Lombardy in early March.

It is also beyond dispute that imposition of draconian lockdown rules in democratic societies could come only after the existential threat to society was made plain by the kind of disaster that hit Italy.  During an interview with the BBC, Italian Prime Minister Conte said as much to justify his foot-dragging in the early days of the epidemic: “Had I imposed lockdown then, all the political classes would have said I was crazy.”

In this respect, we have to give credit to the government of Belgium, and to its Acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès for its breaking the political logjam and imposing lockdown in time to avoid the tragedy of Northern Italy. However, it also has to be said that this very rich country did not do what could have changed the game in favor of both saving lives and saving the economy:  it did not reach into its wallet to do what China had done so impressively, namely to urgently construct one or more large scale dedicated hospitals to isolate and treat Covid 19 patients. Removing the flow of patients from the normal hospital infrastructure could have maintained essential services to the public., so important to dialysis patients, oncology patients undergoing chemotherapy, those suffering from cardio-vascular events, and the like. Equally importantly, the concentration of fire power in a very few facilities would have helped to ensure proper training and availability of proper protective equipment for those dealing with the Covid-19 patients.  Instead, Belgium chose the cheap and dirty solution, distributing the daily influx of Covid-19 patients among more than 100 hospitals around the country, most of which were very poorly prepared for the daunting challenges ahead.

The second, very important strategic failure of the Belgian health profession was to advise all those who were reporting Covid-19 symptoms to remain at home as long as possible and merely consult with their ‘family physicians’ (which a great many people do not have) by remote.  The net result of this practice is that Belgian patients came to hospital by ambulance in advanced and often untreatable condition. Yes, they may have been placed on respirators in ICU’s. Indeed, Belgium never fell short of respirators.  We can have no doubt that failure by the health authorities to inform us about the fatality rate of those placed on respirators is simply that the figures are too shocking.

So what do other countries that have been more successful both in patient outcomes and in damage to the economy show us?  First, that those exhibiting or complaining of Covid-19 symptoms should be isolated by the authorities, not by self-quarantine, and that they should be observed closely and given drugs now known to inhibit the reproduction of the virus, among which we find the Gilead substance remdesivir.  This is what is being done with great effect in South Korea.  It is what is being done in Russia, where another virus-inhibitor discovered in China during the Wuhan treatments is now undergoing massive production in Moscow for widespread distribution to treat the virus. Russian authorities claim that the Chinese pills shorten the Covid-19 recovery time and lessen the damage from the infection by a factor of two compared to remdesivir.

As we all know, Western media have focused on the high incidence of Covid-19 infections in Russia, said to be third in the world after the United States and China, and the very low mortality, with death toll less than 4,000 at last count. The first fact results directly from the massive testing going on in Russia, far greater than in any other country now experiencing this plague.

The reasons for the relative benign outcomes in Russia are simple if you make an effort to understand what is being done. First, the Russians have copied directly the Chinese approach to urgent construction of dedicated Covid-19 field and permanent hospitals.  These are state of the art facilities with $60,000 allocated for each bed. Second, the Russians followed the draconian lockdown on the most vulnerable populations, namely those over age 65.  In Russia, seniors are directed, not merely advised to stay at home. No walking the dog, no visits to pharmacies or food stores. As regards the urban population, volunteers bring food and other essentials directly to the apartments of the seniors. This is precisely what the Chinese were doing in Wuhan for the entire population.

Unfortunately, in Belgium as in most of Western Europe and in the USA, China is today viewed only as the source of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, they are paid suppliers of our masks and other protective gear.  But we do not see in them solutions to medical management that are proving very effective in Russia and which have parallel, home developed solutions elsewhere in Asia.

Despite all the talk of globalization, the reality here in Belgium with respect to handling the Covid-19 pandemic has been insular and, quite plainly, ignorant.  Let us hope that now, when the first wave of the pandemic is receding, we will stop rallying around the interim government and start exercising our minds by challenging the authorities on the points above and many further points which I am sure our medical experts in the Academies are aware of.

Postscript, Friday, 29 May 2020

I just opened today’s coronavirus news from the Ministry of Health press conference and it all looks very good, in the sense that the level of infection in the general population seems to have gone down dramatically.  The number of tests administered yesterday seems to have risen to over 18,000 from an average of 12,000-13,000 in previous days and of those only 1% proved positive.  Why this spike in testing has occurred is all by itself worthy of explanation, though none was offered.  It may just be that the artificial constraint on testing in Belgium namely the failure of the authorities to agree on whose budget would pay, has been resolved now that private companies are ordering testing for all employees who are coming back to office work in the days ahead. Meanwhile, the level of hospitalizations has just fallen below 1,000,  the number of people in intensive care is below 200 and presumably the number of people on ventilators is reported to be 90.
Behind these good figures are some disturbing figures if you care to add and subtract.
About16,000 people have left hospital alive from the start of the pandemic in Belgium.  Great.   But 4500 have died in hospital.  Add the two and you get about 20,000 – this means that one quarter of all people who entered hospital died.     That same one quarter is the overall number of people who were in Intensive Care Units at any given time, of which half were on ventilators.   To my understanding this means that nearly all the patients who were on ventilators died, and a lot of people just in intensive care also died. Now, I could well be wrong: but it would be appropriate for the authorities to make some clarifications here in the interests of transparency.
Finally, let us look at another set of figures.
Forty-two people died of the virus in Belgium yesterday.  Of that number, half were in old age homes.      In old age homes?  Why weren’t these people moved into hospitals given that there are great numbers of free beds now, free ventilators??   This suggests that the medical authorities and the government decided that these folks in old age homes should simply die.   It is eugenics by another name. And at last report, though medically assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, eugenics is not. Nor does it meet the test of the much vaunted European values.
One reader of this essay wrote to me that I am being severe in my reporting.  However, it is not the task of journalism to be kindly. This country badly needs a public debate of how it has managed the Covid-19 medical crisis. Only in this way will it be possible to identify the mistakes and correct them before the second wave of the pandemic hits.

 

©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.]

All in the family: a new historical novel on Russia during the first half of the 20th century

The Tolstoy tradition of broad canvas novels dealing with epic events presented from the perspective of a given family has not died out, whatever else happens in literature of our day. The recently published Mosaic of My Life in English and its counterpart in Russian, Мозаика моей жизни belongs to precisely this genre.

The back cover sets out a concise argument for the book’s intrigue:

The Mosaic of My Life is the author’s second novel. The original Russian language edition was published in 2019. The novel has been nominated for three national literary awards in Russia which will be adjudicated in the autumn of 2020.

The Mosaic of My Life covers a broad swathe of Russian history from the still ‘normal’ living conditions at the turn of the 20th century through World War I and the 1917 Revolution, the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, to the New Economic Policy and semi-return to a market economy followed by the Great Terror, World War II and the immediate post war years. The story is based on reminiscences of people who lived through this complex historical period and, in their own words, explain their various decisions to stay or emigrate. The narrative takes the reader through several social strata from workers to high bourgeoisie, from inside the director’s box at the Bolshoi Theater to inside solitary confinement cells of political prisoners awaiting interrogation and likely execution.”

The Look Inside function on the amazon.com web page of the English edition allows for browsing, to sample the narrative style.

The novel is a fine demonstration of how and why some of our best histories are written by non-historians.  I know well. The author, Larisa Zalesova, happens to be my wife.

https://www.amazon.com/Mosaic-My-Life-Larisa-Zalesova/dp/1728361001/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=larisa+zalesova&qid=1590330912&sr=8-1

https://www.amazon.com/Mosaic-My-Life-Russian/dp/1728361028/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=larisa+zalesova&qid=1590331553&sr=8-2

The books in print format are also in stock from the Amazon global websites, from Barnes and Noble, as well as all other bookstores everywhere upon order.  An e-book version of the Russian edition can be purchased online from the publisher at www.authorhouse.com  (Bookstore: Лариса Залесова). An English e-book will be released shortly.