Registration for book presentation

The Russian Cultural Centre – Brussels has just put up online the registration page for my book presentation on the 22nd April, 7pm Brussels time

Memoirs of a Russianist, volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s

The book presentation is open to the public subject to advance registration.

The Cultural Centre website operates in 3 languages – English, French and Russian. For the link below, I have selected the English page, which is what will appear on your screen after you click on it.

I will be delivering my talk in English and there will be simultaneous translation into French and Russian from which viewers may choose.  The whole event will take one hour, split evently between my talk and the Q&A.

see you then

Time for von der Leyen to go, time for the EU to reclaim common sense

Going back to the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen a couple of years ago, it was hard to understand the enthusiastic support from French President Emmanuel Macron that spelled her successful candidacy.  What, we wondered, could he see in her to justify such backing other than the odd fact that she had grown up in Brussels and was a fluent French speaker. Now we know better from her and his words and deeds: they are both unscrupulous political chameleons at the tactical level while pursuing purely ideological objectives at the strategic level, divorced from national interests, divorced from common sense, divorced from the people they purport to serve.

The ideology in common that they pursue is federalism and ever greater union as the guiding principles for the EU. Fanning the fire of Cold War enmity towards the big neighbor to the East is one way of holding power and bringing all EU elites into line with Diktats from Brussels.

 It was in the same time frame as von der Leyen’s election that Macron pooled his Republique en marche party’s Members of the European Parliament with the liberal democrat – pro federalist bloc ALDE that was long headed by Guy Verhofstandt.  That also seemed a bit peculiar when the successor bloc in the European Parliament named Renew Europe was formed. Verhofstadt’s MEPs had been among the loudest and most obnoxious Russia-bashers in the Parliament, sponsors of a “European Magnitsky Act”, buddies of Bill Browder, who was a leading force behind adoption of the original Magnitsky Act by the US Congress, buddies of Boris Nemtsov and any/all opponents to Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Macron was talking outreach to Putin and accommodation with Russia in the common “European House” and spouting détente clichés going back to the DeGaulle period.

However, more recently, Macron has sidestepped his positions on Russia dating from 2019 as if they never existed and has become a full-blown Cold Warrior.  In the past week, he spoke out publicly against the “new warfare” supposedly being waged against the West by Russia and China in the form of their “vaccine diplomacy”, meaning the promotion of their respective Covid-19 vaccines to both developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and even to Member States of the European Union.

Macron’s ideological positions as Cold Warrior now match up perfectly with those of former German Defense Minister, today’s President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. Among the many tell-tale signs of who she is and what she is about, I point to her re-programming the EU’s senior diplomat Josep Borrel after his missteps in the Kremlin in early February when he spoke flatteringly of the Sputnik V vaccine, as something that would soon be welcomed in the EU.

Though her public utterances are vague, von der Leyen’s feet are pointed unmistakably:  no way in hell will she see the Russian vaccine approved. Every trick in the book is being deployed to delay, read stymie it.

In this context, and keeping in mind the pending gross violation of the overarching rule of all EU etiquette “Go along and get along” we must give our full attention to what the The Financial Times reported an hour ago about Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. He is said to be in negotiation with Russia to buy 1 million doses of the Sputnik-V vaccine following a direct telephone discussion with…Vladimir Putin.

This is, says the FT, in line with Kurz’s fierce criticism of the way the European Commission has mismanaged the entire procurement and distribution of Covid vaccines from the get-go. And this mismanagement goes back to the desk of one person:  Ursula von der Leyen.  Such a reading of the situation is, by the way, widely shared in neighboring Bavaria and more generally throughout Germany. 

If anything brings down the CDU-dominated coalition government in Germany in their September elections it will be the way Chancellor Merkel agreed to von der Leyen’s scheme for Brussels to take charge of the Covid vaccine program.  Now Kurz, by his latest actions, will be actively feeding that German discontent.

Returning to my opening remarks about the Cold War ideology being spouted by Macron and implemented by von der Leyen, it is well worth listening to Sebastian Kurz’s thoughts as quoted in the Financial Times online edition a few minutes ago:

“When it comes to the vaccine, there must be no geopolitical blinkers. The only thing that should count is whether the vaccine is effective and safe, not where it comes from.

“If Austria gets 1 m additional doses of vaccine, an earlier return to normality would be possible and we can save many lives as well as jobs.”

Somehow these concerns are not shared by Macron, not shared by von der Leyen.  There is a good chance that Macron will lose his re-election bid next year for a host of reasons, including his government’s disastrous handling of the Covid crisis at home.  Von der Leyen was never popularly elected, but she can and should be recalled by the MEPs, the sooner, the better. 

©Gilbert Doctorow

More self-imposed destruction of prosperity and of Europe’s role in the world by EU institutions

     The latest spat with China which the EU initiated just days ago by imposing sanctions on a handful of Chinese officials and institutions over the alleged violation of human rights in the PRC’s treatment of its Uighur minority is yet another demonstration of how and why the Old Continent is doomed, above and beyond its flagrant failures in managing the Covid pandemic.

     There can be no doubt that the decision to publicly denounce and shame China has been closely coordinated with the United States so as to align behind the Biden Administration and their ‘get tough’ posture vis-à-vis the Chinese.

     An American delegation headed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with their counterparts from the PRC in Anchorage, Alaska last week at a summit that the Secretary opened with the recitation of a litany of Chinese wrong-doing. In his words, the Chinese are not only violating principles of universal human rights by their treatment of their Uighur minority but putting in jeopardy the ‘rules based international order’ decreed and operated by the USA and its allies.

     The Europeans seem not to have taken notice of how that remarkable summit played out.  In fact, during the more than half hour televised exchange of opening remarks, the Chinese flung back in his face all of his accusations, remarking that the days were long past when imperial powers can dictate to the People’s Republic.  In what was otherwise Cold War vintage soap box oratory from the Americans, the Chinese responded in the other fixed part of such scenarios, namely with “what about-ism,” telling the Americans to go fix their own egregious human rights abuses in treatment of Blacks before they dare to preach to others.

     One might say that for decades we have not heard such boldness and repudiation of American tutelage from the Chinese side.  Had they perked up their ears and paid better attention, the European Institutions might have taken more time to consider their options in dealing with the PRC – options which are, in fact, very, very few. Given the strength of the Chinese economy today and the likelihood it will bypass the GDP of the United States within the coming decade, the EU can ill afford to alienate the Chinese, still less to lose their respect.

     However, the EU’s decision to inflict a verbal lashing on the Chinese over their alleged abuses and to couple that with sanctions that are absolutely insignificant translates into what the Chinese have for decades going back to Mao described as ‘paper tiger’ status.

     Let us remember that major media in Europe routinely give the microphone to loudmouth spokesmen of NGOs who speak of the Chinese “re-education” program for Uighurs in Xinjiang province as “genocide.”  Very emotive language, to be sure.  If those charges have any substance, then the sanctions just imposed by the EU as punishment are ludicrous.  And if it is the substance of the charges that is overblown, then the public denunciations should be quashed at the source.

    In short, the EU has opted for the worst of all possible ways of dealing with both China and with the United States. Biden and Blinken are practitioners of a shop-worn, utterly ineffectual Cold War vintage foreign policy.

     The only net effect of the latest demarche by the EU has been to put in jeopardy the ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment that was seven years in negotiation, was signed off at the end of last year, ahead of the installation of the Biden presidency, and is said to provide substantial benefits to the EU in its trade relations with the PRC.

Meanwhile, the American verbal assault on the PRC led immediately to further close embrace between Moscow and Beijing. Two days ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in the Chinese capital for consultations over mutual self-protection against the Collective West. One of the key topics on their agenda was to further develop their mechanism for global bank transfers outside of the US-dominated SWIFT – this to preclude possible expulsion from SWIFT as the ultimate Western sanction on them both.

     Let us be very clear. The United States has its own specific reasons to be tough on China, namely to enforce a policy of containment aimed at preventing the country from overtaking it economically and militarily in the foreseeable future.  The United States has its own military hegemony in Southeast Asia to defend against China’s rise and pursuit of regional hegemony.  Europe has nothing of the kind to justify making the PRC its adversary. 

     Henry Kissinger said decades ago that the only thing more dangerous than being an enemy of the United States is being its friend.  The EU is unfortunately proving the wisdom of that judgment by its present, American-dictated policy on China.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Joe Biden is senile: Russia delivers its verdict on national television


A few days ago, I mentioned that the same-day response on Russian airwaves to President Biden’s calling Vladimir Putin a “killer” was to consider the mental health of the American president, then to conclude that he was not suffering from dementia. This rough and ready appraisal of Joe Biden was based on his not showing disorientation and his apparently still good memory.

However, on reflection, it is clear that the Russian elites have concluded that the best way to deal with Biden’s verbal aggression is precisely to cast him as senile. That resonates with middle aged Russians who remember very well their own succession of Communist Party bosses who had one foot in the grave at the same time they had one finger hovering over the Red Button of their nuclear controls.

In his last years, Brezhnev may have been only in his low 70s, but he was suffering from debilities that could not be concealed from the public: wearing a bulky and visible hearing aid, speaking with a slur that was due either to a stroke or some serious dental problem, appearing puffy and walking with difficulty, Brezhnev was carried along by his aides more for their benefit than for his. His immediate successor, KGB boss Yuri Andropov, was seriously ill at the time of his appointment as General Secretary and held office for fourteen months before he was carried out feet first. Then came another member of the Old Guard, Konstantin Chernenko, who was suffering from emphysema and could barely breathe when he was elevated to the top post. He stopped breathing altogether nine months later

This past Soviet experience with overaged and underperforming leaders came to an end with the installation of the vigorous and youthful Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.  It was more than compensated for by the elevation of the still younger and more vigorous Vladimir Putin at the turn of the new millennium.

This recent history was recited last night on the country’s leading weekly news program Vesti Nedeli by presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, who happens also to be the general manager of all Russian state news programming. This, to help the Russian audience understand what is now transpiring at the apex of American political life, where Joe Biden is just an old, debilitated and psychologically abnormal commander in chief.

The preceding days provided Kiselyov with a fine harvest of video images to support this case, most notably of Biden stumbling badly when ascending the stairs to board Air Force One at the start of his trip down to Atlanta for consultations over the murder of eight Asian American women in massage parlors. Then there was the video clip of Biden presenting his Secretary of Defense but failing to remember his name and coming up only with “General”…. And there was Biden calling Kamala Harris the “President,” as if he forgot or was no longer aware of who is who.

All in all, Kiselyov took about 30 minutes on air to reduce Biden to a sniveling and senile “old fart,” as the Russians like to say about such cases.

This, combined with extensive reportage on Americans who have written to the Russian embassy in Washington to apologize for the gross violation of normal interstate civility by their president, with coverage of Turkish President and other world leaders condemning Biden for his grossness, made for an entertaining evening that, exceptionally in this spring of Third Waves, was not sunk by horror stories about the Covid pandemic.

The logic of this treatment of the Biden affair is clear. By responding to an ad hominem attack on their leader with an ad hominem attack on Biden, the initiator of this exchange, presenting him as an old fool, they have taken the sting out of the U.S. president’s remarks. At the same time the anti-Americanism implicit in the report is veiled by saying, in effect to America: “we know what you have in the Oval Office since we have gone through that same patch ourselves.”

And so, Russian elites had a good laugh at America’s expense and are well prepared for a sharp cutback in diplomatic exchange with the USA.

What, we may ask, has the U.S. gotten from Biden’s verbal indiscretions?

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Iran state television’s international service: more even-handed than the BBC?


For those whose first thoughts of Iran are formed by recollection of Ayatollahs, of alleged state support for terrorism and of power plays in the Middle East, allow me to give you a needed jolt.

Last night I had the pleasure of participating in a half-hour feature news program of Press TV, which broadcasts internationally in English and French.  The  subject of our “debate” or more properly speaking “discussion,” was  the U.S. diplomatic moves of the previous couple of days with respect to China (the Blinken delegation to Anchorage) and to Russia (President Biden’s designation of Vladimir Putin as a ‘killer’).

The producers had sagely invited for the interview an expert on China based in Budapest, Hungary and an expert on Russia, myself, based in Brussels.  I leave it to you to judge the quality of Iranian journalism that we see in the program. I will only remark that the choice of my counterpart was quite remarkable given that Iran was the host of our talk:  Mr. Szamuely very plainly is a strong supporter of Donald Trump, who had been fairly vicious in his treatment of Tehran during his four years in office. So be it.

Biden on ‘killer’ Putin

In the USA, all politics is about one country only:  itself.  The Rest of the World is only a stage setting, a tableau against which American politicians posture and mud wrestle with one another.

The latest and perhaps most serious manifestation of this indifference to the fall-out of domestic political rhetoric on the world beyond US borders was President Biden’s response yesterday to a journalist’s question as to whether he considered Vladimir Putin to be a “killer.”  Without a moment’s hesitation, Biden said “yes.” He and the country at large may yet rue that pandering to his Democratic Party base and its Russophobe fantasies.

Our Western press did take note of that remark and looked for the Russian response, which was not long in coming.  The first shoe to drop was the decision of the Kremlin to recall its Ambassador in Washington to Moscow for consultations on how to proceed with bilateral relations, which appeared to be headed for the rocks. After all, the “killer” comment was only the unscripted part of an interview during which the President  said that Russia would soon be made to pay a price for alleged interference in the 2020 elections. All of this was duly picked up by our media. 

The second shoe to drop was the direct response by President Putin to the words of Biden. In a meeting with citizens in the Crimea, where he was joining local celebrations of the seventh anniversary of Crimea’s re-joining the Russian Federation, Putin said calmly and directly about the designation as “a killer”: “It takes one to know one.” He went on to magnanimously wish the American president “good health,” adding, “without any sense of irony.”

This is as much as your average reader of The Guardian or other mainstream press would know about the public spat between the White House and the Kremlin that Biden initiated gratuitously. That average Western reader would not be likely to watch domestic Russian state television to see how this whole affair is being played to the Russian public.  I do, and I use this opportunity to share with my readership what I saw there last night and today.

On one of the leading Russian political talk shows last night the subject was precisely the “killer” remark by Biden.  And the panelists were not just some lightweight commentators who chatter night after night on sundry subjects.  The panelist who was given the microphone most generously was none other than Petr Tolstoy, Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma and, since his election in 2020, Deputy Speaker in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg. Tolstoy denounced the Biden statement and discussed with the others how this would negatively impact on any chances for constructive joint work with the US administration in any domain whatsoever.

Today’s Russian news programs remain focused on the language used by Biden and what this means for future relations.  Russian news agencies are quoting other world leaders who have condemned Biden’s remarks as inappropriate as applied to a head of state. The most prominent leader to speak out so far is Turkey’s president Erdogan, who backed up his “colleague” Vladimir.

Biden’s vilification of Putin is just the latest and most damaging in a string of insults that go back to his time as Vice President under Barack Obama. Back then Biden had dared to call Putin “a thug.”  But he was only the Vice President and his boss, Barack, had also been pretty free in his personal attacks on the Russian leader, whom he described familiarly as behaving like a naughty boy at the back of the school room.

My point in closing is that this type of public insult directed against other world leaders is outrageous and demonstrates that Trump was not an aberration in his uncouth behavior towards Angela Merkel or Justin Trudeau, among others. Well-educated members of the US political class can be just as Ugly.  In their false sense of security as “untouchables,” American politicians are tempting fate. A less reserved and decent boss in the Kremlin might take off the gloves.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Russia as the UK’s number one security threat

Once again I am grateful to RT International for inviting me to do a live interview that forced me to put on my thinking cap and get my mind around a key development in international relations that might have not caught my attention were it not for their prompting me.

To be specific, I was invited to comment on Boris Johnson’s presentation to Parliament two days ago

of the 110 page paper entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age.”

That paper covers a lot of ground, but the Russian interest in it focused on one issue only: the designation of Russia as the UK’s chief security threat, while China, the other major power that otherwise has been characterized by the Collective West these past several years as being “revisionist” and “expansionist,” as well as a flagrant violator of our values, alongside Putin’s Russia, is designated in this paper merely as a “competitor.”

By their own report on the British foreign policy paper and by the nature of the questions tossed to me by the presenter, it was obvious that the policy line at RT is to hold Russia blameless and to deny that it is a security threat to the UK; to insist that Russia seeks only good relations with the UK and with the West generally.

I did not oblige, saying instead that I agreed with the British assessment regarding both Russia and China today.

It is a remarkable feature of RT that I was nonetheless allowed to continue uninterrupted my prepared statement on the significance of the “Global Britain” for what must have been a total of six or eight minutes.  This serious openness to unexpected, possibly even unwelcome commentary from experts abroad who are given the microphone would never, ever happen on CNN, Fox News, the BBC or any of the famous defenders of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the West. Never.  Indeed the occasion would not present itself, since interviews of this kind in Western media are almost always pre-recorded and cut to fit the desired position of the hosts or simply suppressed if not deemed suitable.

Now, why had I reached my conclusion about the nature of relative threat to British security posed by Russia and China respectively. Here is my reasoning:

China is at present and for the foreseeable future a regional, not a global power. It is expanding its military and political posture in Southeast Asia and is building its navy first to push back the United States naval presence.  A look at the map shows that China and the UK are at opposite ends of the globe and the UK today has no navy to compare with the US Pacific and Indian Ocean fleets.

As for Russia, although Barack Obama had once remarked that Russia is only a regional power in the same derogatory tone as he suggested that Russia made nothing that the world wants, Vladimir Putin had the presence of mind to ask “and in which region is Russia a regional power.”  Behind the clever retort was the reminder that Russia is the world’s largest land power which bridges two continents.  But let us put that rhetoric aside for the moment. If Russia is indeed just a regional military and political power, its region is Europe, which it shares with Britain.  And within that region, Russia is undisputedly the single greatest military power, far greater in men, equipment and technological prowess than any single European power  taken separately, and arguably, greater than all of them together as represented by NATO.  In this context, it is quite correct to identify Russia as the greatest security threat to the UK.

But, the RT presenter argued, Russia has no aggressive intentions directed against the UK. Russia wants only normal, civilized relations.

My response is that U.S. military thinking ever since 9/11 has been unmistakable:  it is capability and not intent that makes another power a threat to the US. This was built into the “Bush Doctrine” and its elements may be traced still further back to 1992 and the Defense Planning Guidance developed by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz when the USA was still the unchallenged single super-power in the world.  We may assume that this same logic has guided the British determination today that Russia is a major threat to their security. Talk of incursions into UK territorial waters or air space is just a smoke screen for the real determining factors in the risk analysis.

In my little programmatic statement, I pointed out that the timing of the release of this new British foreign policy paper was set to underpin the hoped-for re-confirmation of Britain’s so-called “special relationship” with the United States.  It follows quickly upon the installation of the new Biden Administration and upon the finalization of Britain’s departure the European Union on New Year’s Day, which deprived Britain of its coveted status as America’s Trojan Horse within the EU.  “Global Britain” is an attempt to show to Washington just how useful Britain can be in defending common values and deterring autocratic powers like Russia that threaten us both. 

This new appeal to Washington is underpinned by another key point in the “Global Britain” paper – the decision to raise its nuclear warhead stockpile for its Trident submarine fleet by 40% in coming years.  A great deal of money will be poured into this strategic initiative which surely has the intent to remind the USA of Britain’s nearly exclusive position as a nuclear power supporting the US deterrence globally.  Apart from the less manageable French, no other NATO power can give the US a strategic helping hand.

It is worth noting that the increase in strategic spending will be partially offset by cutbacks in tactical support men and equipment. Britain will be shedding 10,000 troops and mothballing tanks and ships. This is not a stand-alone decision. It means that Britain’s value to NATO for power projection in the European and other theaters will decline proportionally.

The decision to turn its back on the recent decades of leadership in nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear arms reduction has been denounced by British peace-niks.  Their concern misses the point.  It is scarcely credible that the British investment in a warhead stockpile will hasten deployment, not to mention use of nuclear arms.  It is primarily a lever for maintaining the longstanding relationship in global affairs with Washington.

As regards, the characterizations assigned to Russia and China in the “Global Britain” paper, there is also another important guiding consideration.  Following the recent closure of the post-Brexit transition period, Britain is suffering great disruption to trade with its hitherto single greatest commercial partner, the European Union.  It can ill afford to see any worsening of relations with China, which will likely overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy before the close of this decade.  Accordingly, whatever the UK Government may think of human rights violations in China or of the alleged violations to its agreements with the PRC over the status of Hong Kong, Britain cannot afford to paint China as an adversary.

However, Russia is a different case. British commercial interests in Russia are minimal. Russia can easily serve as a punching bag to show up Britain’s tough guy stance to a Washington audience.  In this sense, British and US interests are wholly aligned.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Common sense, always a rare commodity in Belgian political life, has reared its head

After brickbats, the time has come for handing out bouquets…

Readers of my opinion essays in recent months will have noticed that my remarks about Belgium’s handling of the Corona virus pandemic have been largely critical and at times quite severe. 

In my speaking out, I am breaking with local traditions.  Journalists are no less informed than I am, know full well the failures of governance in this country, talk about them freely over a glass of wine or mug of beer behind closed doors, but almost never write or speak about them in public.  The public, for its part, largely ignores the political establishment in its day to day life, knowing that it is not answerable to the voters and suffers from undemocratic procedures of power sharing, the progressive sounding system that keeps this ethnically, linguistically divided country glued together.  Regrettably in times of crisis like the past year of the pandemic the glaring incompetence, corruption and nepotism in Belgian political life have shifted from mere excessive fiscal costs to excessive loss of life and have been harder for the public to ignore.

Today I am happy to take a different course and to hand out bouquets.

This is the part of the world where French intellectual traditions are still inculcated more than two centuries after French dominion passed from the stage. That tradition holds common sense in low esteem. The old joke holds true and one still comes across reasoning that says:  your solution works in practice, but how good is it in theory?

This past week has seen that reasoning turned on its head, as it rightly should be.  Belgium has stood firm in defending the continued use of the Astra Zeneca vaccine despite the cave-in to what can be charitably called ‘an excess of caution’ by its larger neighbors, Germany and France, as well as Italy and states in the always prudent Scandinavian north, all of whom have temporarily suspended administration of the vaccine while cases of thrombosis and deaths among those vaccinated are being investigated.  

Three cheers for the De Croo government for spurning the EU-wide mentality of ‘go along and get along’ and for pursuing common sense logic, which tells us clearly that risks of severe illness and death from not taking the vaccine vastly outweigh whatever dangers of side effects may have been reported.  Happily the Belgian public also has not panicked, and the no-shows at vaccination centers administering the AZ vaccines yesterday were reportedly negligible.  The daily vaccination rates in Belgium have been steadily climbing of late for all vaccine types taken together

That being said, the question of safety of the Astra Zeneca vaccine is being distorted in a PR war in which the company is an active and possibly a malicious participant.  Not just by the spin it is putting on the very low reported incidence of grave illness and death following vaccinations in the EU, but by possible suppression of information. I am told by friends in Brussels who have relatives in Warsaw that nursing staff in at least one hospital there witnessed many instances of serious side effects from the vaccine but were told by their managers to just shut up about this lest they be fired.  It would be appropriate if this aspect of AZ’s public relations efforts were also investigated.

But, returning to the good deeds of the De Croo government, I call attention to the sensitive, intelligent and, yes, common sense approach it has shown in decreeing lockdown to deal with the second wave of Covid 19 that struck in October 2020 and is still with us.  Schools have been partially opened, nearly all retailers are open, personal care businesses such as hair styling salons are open. Meanwhile, the “bubbles” for socializing are being gradually expanded, and there is the promise of further relaxations at the start of May which will affect sports clubs.  Horeca remains closed, as well it should be.  Cultural institutions are also still on temporary hold, though this may be a case of exaggerated caution. 

All of the measures of confinement presently in place in Belgium were passed over the vociferous objections of defenders of our liberties and over commercial interests of those sectors which remain closed. I say “well done” to the De Croo government for staying the course and resisting the libertarians. The country is holding off the resurgent infection rate coming from the spread of the British variant here as elsewhere on the Continent.  It is on a high plateau, but a plateau nonetheless. Figures of hospitalizations and ICU occupancy have been rising over the past month to a level approximately double where we were in early February.  But the increased infection rate is not increasing geometrically. The medical infrastructure is not under siege. In past days, Belgium has even taken in patients requiring ICU beds from neighboring France, where the health system is being overrun by Covid.  This is all to the good and shows the practical effects of the ongoing partial lockdown here.


I have spoken above about French intellectual traditions here.  Now I revert to my more usual frame of reference as an avowed “Russianist.” I will speak briefly about the Russian mentality and its relevance to what I see around me in Belgium today.

For as long as I remember, the usual response of anyone in authority in Russia to any request whatsoever from the public is “nyet.”  This corresponds to the famously “bearish” predisposition of Russians at all levels. After some discussion and explanation of the personal situation of the applicant, this most often changes to “da.”   Meanwhile, in countries with a Pollyannish predisposition, which I will not name here, the facile initial “yes” at the start of a request process very easily turns to “no” at the conclusion.

It was for me quite remarkable to discover in the past two weeks that the Russian pattern of authorities’ responding to requests for assistance also holds true in Belgium.  I have in mind precisely my experience with the vaccination process here.

My problem for resolution arose when I acted on the email invitation I received to register for my Covid-19 vaccination.  I went to the website indicated and took on face value the statement that we all would have the right to choose the vaccine. I then passed directly to the selection of vaccination center, choosing the one closest to my home address.  That took me to the web page of the given center, which informed me that they administer only Astra Zeneca and offering that I choose my date and hour for administration of both jabs, the second one to follow the first by 12 weeks instead of the 4 weeks applied to vaccinations with Pfizer and Moderna due to supply problems with the AZ vaccine.

Then came the unpleasant surprise when the system informed me that there was no way back to selection of vaccination center, that the choice of center once made was irreversible.  I then phoned the federal information center and was assured that a change could be made by my generalist doctor or by my health insurer.

Regrettably, calls to the health insurer revealed they only are involved in the vaccination process to provide the federal authorities with lists of their clients sorted by age and priority for vaccination. About vaccines, they can do nothing.  My generalist doctor gave me a letter instructing me to get vaccinated only with Pfizer or Moderna, but could do nothing to change my vaccination center.

By the way, to avoid any misunderstanding, my primary concern was to shorten the time for complete vaccination in order to make some unavoidable trips outside the European Union.  I was ready to submit to the AZ vaccine as being by far the better alternative to no vaccine.  Moreover, it must be borne in mind that the number one priority population here in Belgium, residents and workers in old age homes had been vaccinated precisely by Pfizer and Moderna vaccines since AZ was not yet in circulation, and the federal authorities had recommended against delaying the time between vaccinations for seniors.

The situation looked chaotic, out of control.  The computer system put in place by federal authorities allowed of no exceptions, was geared only to maximizing the rate of vaccination of the population. If you didn’t like the result you had only one option – not to get vaccinated at all.

In the face of this very big NYET, I summoned the courage to visit one of the vaccination centers which offers the vaccine I preferred and which, by the limited spacing of the two jabs, would ensure completion of the entire process within one month.  I requested to speak to an administrator and was sent to one of the offices, where I was instructed to send an email to their attention describing my situation and nature of my request.

At the start of the following week, having received no email in return and finding that no one picks up the phone at the vaccination center, I again went there in person with a copy of my email in hand.  This time I was put together with a decision-maker who instantly told me to come a couple of days later at a given time. They were waiting for more deliveries of the Moderna vaccine and could make no promises that I would be served, but would do their best.

Indeed, yesterday they did their best and I got both first jab and a confirmed date for jab number two in one month.

To the very kind people at that vaccination center, I say “many thanks” for your show of human warmth and…of common sense by overriding the computerized system and giving me the jab:  one more vaccinated Belgian is one less threat to the ICU occupancy.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Read this book! First reviews for “Memoirs of a Russianist, volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s”

I am delighted to share with readers the first “review” of my latest book which appeared on its web page within days of the book’s release:

Top review from the United States


5.0 out of 5 stars Read this book!

Reviewed in the United States on February 20, 2021

Fascinating firsthand account of work, politics, and life in Russia in the 1990s. You should read it! Very relevant to today.

End of quotation

For those unfamiliar with “Russialist,” this is the pen name of David Johnson, editor-publisher of Johnson’s Russia List (JRL), a daily digest of news and commentary about Russia which has more than 500 subscribers among international affairs experts at universities across the United States and at think tanks in Washington, D.C.

Otherwise, in related developments Professor Thane Gustafson of Georgetown University informs me that he will be “adding this book to the reading for his Georgetown course on Russia.”  Hopefully, some of you holding rank of professor who are regular readers of my website and LinkedIn accounts will do the same.

This book is fated to become a standard reference work from among primary sources on Russia in the late 20th century both because of my diary entries and because of my extensive quotations from print media of the period, both the “underground” weekly newspapers serving the expat community in Moscow and St Petersburg and the international mainstream dailies.

I use this opportunity to announce that on 24 April I will be delivering a presentation talk on this book to the Centre culturel et scientifique de Russie en Belgique. The talk, followed by questions and answers from registered participants, will conducted in three languages – Russian, French and English – with simultaneous translation facility in Zoom. All those wishing to register are invited to contact the Centre culturel or myself via my website

I also point out that while I am concentrating promotional efforts on volume II of the Memoirs for the obvious reason that the period in question, the 1990s, holds greatest interest for the general reader, volume I of the Memoirs, subtitled “From the Ground up,” going back to my childhood, education and professional life to 1993 has its own very specific merits beyond setting out the experiential and mental baggage that the author of volume II brought with him to his expatriate existence in Russia in the 1990s.

The author had a high point in his career in 1978 when he was one of 150 corporate chairmen from the United States seated at a banquet in the Kremlin to honor Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev’s birthday. That was also a time when my personal fate was interlinked with the fates of my Soviet counterparts: we all were creatures of Nixon’s and Brezhnev’s détente policy and were dependent on normal, civilized relations between the two superpowers which came crashing down with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. I firmly believe that volume I sets out insights that have enduring value for today.  

Good reading to all!

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Launch of the Russian edition of Memoirs of a Russianist, volume II

I take pleasure in announcing the release by U.S. publishers Author House of the Russian language edition of my Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s.    In Russian:   Гилберт Докторов, «Воспоминания Русиста, том II:  Россия в бурные 1990е годы»

The link to this book on the website of the publisher is:

This is a paperback format. They will put on sale an e-book version at $4.99 within several weeks.

Before the end of this week, the Russian edition will likely appear on sale as a paperback on all the Amazon websites.

Amazon will not carry the Russian e-book for technical reasons. However, other online retailers will offer the Russian e-book, again within a time line of several weeks from today.

I use this opportunity to explain the peculiarities of this Russian edition, what are its positive and negative sides, and where it fits into my overall-publication plans so that potential readers can see the big picture.

The task of translating into Russian a book which numbered 788 pages in its English language edition is daunting, as anyone familiar with the translation process will surely agree. It would be normal for a professional English-Russian translator to take three or four months for such an assignment and the price would be prohibitive.

Accordingly, I performed the translation myself, relying on machine translation tools available for free on the internet.

For anyone who experimented with machine translation tools in the past, the achievements of this domain over the past couple of years are stunning.  Brand and company names are no longer “translated” but inserted into the text as is.  Figures of speech in one language are often rendered by comparable though not word for word figures of speech in the other language.  Quotations from Shakespeare are already stocked in the computer memory. And the general translation inventory of words and expressions is greater than the inventory in my head, and I am fairly accomplished in this domain.

However, idiotic or meaningless “translations” also appear in the output of the machine translation tool when it misses the context of a given word. The problem is aggravated when translating texts that were written in a kind of shorthand and with extensive use of idiomatic speech, as is common in diaries as opposed to normal expository style. So what is needed is a good editor to catch and remove these failures and to keep the overall text credible. This is what I provided for the book I am now launching as best I could.  In this way, I was able to perform the translation of 788 pages in three weeks at nil cost. Quite remarkable in and of itself.

However, I am not a native Russian speaker and I freely admit that there remain errors of style, grammar and word choice in the finished text as it went to press.  I ask the reader’s indulgence and hope he or she will agree that the drawbacks are largely outweighed by the book’s being made accessible to the Russian speaking world, who surely will find in what I have provided discoveries justifying the effort.

I identify the ‘Russian speaking world’ as one key target audience, because the book provides a window to a world within their world which few would have had during the period under review.  I think in particular of my inclusion of citations from the 1990s English language press in Moscow and Petersburg directed at the expatriate community, titles like “The Exile” which set out views on Russian politics and politicians, and on us, the expats, which Russians today will surely find invaluable to understanding their own past.

The edition now being released in the United States has both paperback and e-book formats. I do not expect there to be much demand for the paperback in the United States and my wager on this edition is directed at the e-book which by nature has a global audience since it can be downloaded instantaneously anywhere on the globe.  I have intentionally set the price at the lowest level for e-books to ensure that cost is no impediment to it being purchased in the regions of Russia and not just in the capitals.

This U.S. publication is not the end of the story.  In fact, a second Russian edition is now being prepared by a traditional publishing house in St Petersburg, Liki Rossii, who will produce a paperback at prices well below those in the U.S. and who have distribution possibilities across Russia. At the same time Liki Rossii cannot produce an e-book.

The edition being prepared in Russia will take the manuscript on which the U.S. edition is based and pass it through professional native editors to yield a final text that, very likely, removes all the stylistic and grammatical errors and sounds more like native Russian. At the same time, the edition being produced in Russia incorporates the narrative chapters from the English edition’s Volume I and a selection of the most interesting diary entries from Volume I. The combined texts are 100 pages longer than what is now being published in the United States as Volume II.  This new book comes with a new title in Russian designed to avoid any confusion between editions: “Diaries of a Russianist: Russia in the Roaring 1990s.” 

I am hopeful that each of these editions will find its readers, who are looking for different things in my cache of memoirs / diaries. 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021