Vladimir Putin’s Legacy

In his appearance at the Russian Cultural Center in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, the 86-year-old bard from St Petersburg Alexander Gorodnitsky objected to being introduced by the event organizer as “legendary.” Not appropriate, said he: I am still alive!

However, operating in a parallel domain, today’s political commentators do not wait for politicians and statesmen to shuffle off this mortal coil before starting the debate on their legacy. One does not even have to leave office for the starting shot to be fired.

Thus, lame duck Chancellor Angela Merkel is being subjected daily to this kind of critical analysis.  From my perspective, there is not much to argue over:  her policy of corrosive austerity in the face of one of the EU’s most severe economic and political tests following the crash of 2008 has yielded a legacy of several hundred billion euros in infrastructure underfunding in her own country alone, with Germany now possessing some of the worst highways and worst telecoms infrastructure in the EU.

In its latest print edition, Foreign Affairs magazine devoted space to evaluating the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama.  They need not have bothered:  what little Obama may have added to the evolution of policy has been utterly shredded during the two years in office of his successor, Donald Trump.

As one of the most prominent and talked about statesmen on the European  and global stage in the past two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been the subject of speculation over his legacy, though almost always the discussion is framed in strictly ideological terms:  over the alleged gutting of Russian democracy which he received from the hands of the country’s founder, Boris Yeltsin, and its replacement by an authoritarian mode of governance that draws upon nationalism, upon populism, in a word on the worst instincts of his electorate.

It is not my intention to get into an ideological spat with the vast majority of pundits and area specialists who stand behind the generalizations I just set out.  I believe they are dead wrong on two counts. First, the Russia of Boris Yeltsin was democratic only in the eyes of his American and European backers, who found the chaotic and desperately weak Russia of Yeltsin’s watch congenial to their plans of definitively sidelining Russia and allocating it to a minor place in European politics.  In reality, Boris Yeltsin was not only the President who used military force against his Parliament in 1993 before rewriting the Constitution to give the executive power vast authority, he was also the President re-elected to office in 1996 with the help of oligarchs’ money obtained in exchange for the sell-off of the national jewels of hydrocarbons and other raw materials production for a song and with the help of massive electoral fraud. Moreover, after his re-election he ruled largely by decree and with utter scorn for the oppositional Duma.

The second fundamental error is the prevailing blindness to the positive achievements in governance during the Putin years, which have in many dimensions seen the flowering of civil society, the growing professionalism of the legislature, the dedication of monuments to the victims of the Stalin years and other signs holding the promise of a slow but steady evolution in a democratic polity that respects human rights, has one of the lowest rates of incarceration in general among major countries, with virtually no political prisoners to speak of.

But, let us put that dispute over Putin’s possible political legacy as democrat or demagogue aside and look at the legacy that is almost beyond challenge by his detractors: the vast and multifarious investments in the nation’s infrastructures contributing to the efficiency of the economy and to the enrichment of Russia’s cultural and spiritual life, infrastructures that will outlast Vladimir Putin’s time in office by many decades.

This is all the more relevant as a discussion point today, 23 December, when the railway bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting mainland Russia with the Crimea was officially opened to traffic. This railway bridge runs parallel to a four lane highway bridge that was commissioned in May 2018.  Construction on both began in 2016 and they have been completed within or ahead of the planned timelines.  At 19 kilometers, they are the longest bridges in Russia and, arguably, in Europe. They represent a magnificent engineering feat given the physical challenges of the site. They were designed and built entirely by Russian teams.

The four lanes of the roadway have carried as many as 35,000 vehicles a day since entering service.  The new railroad bridge is expected to carry around 14 million passengers in 2020 and also will carry around 13 million tons of freight. Regular passenger service between St Petersburg and Sevastopol, and Moscow and Sevastopol was opened today and will be intensified in coming weeks as more trains are put on line.

Remarkable as today’s event was, it was just one in a series of major engineering projects of national importance completed under the direction of the Kremlin during this past year. In the past six weeks alone there were two other projects brought on line that are well worthy of mention.

On 2 December, we witnessed the commissioning of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline which runs several thousand kilometers from the gas fields of Yakutia in Siberia to Blagoveshchensk in the Amur Oblast, where it crosses over and connects with the Chinese gas grid. Implementation of this project began in 2014 following conclusion of a gas contract between Moscow and Beijing foreseeing sales of $400 billion in natural gas during a 30 year period.  When it is operating at full capacity in 2025, the pipeline will carry 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China per annum.   Construction of this pipeline was a formidable task given the adverse climatic conditions and vast unpopulated territories though which it passes.  En route, the pipeline will also serve what will be one of Russia’s largest natural gas processing complexes now under construction, breaking the raw material into high value fractions for sale domestically and for export. An extension of the pipeline will take it to the Russian Pacific coast at Vladivostok for possible processing as LNG. And in the Russian regions though which it passes, it will bring ‘gasification’ to serve residential and industrial needs.

Together with the pipelines in the West of Russia, the Nord Stream-1 and Turk Stream, which itself is about to start up in January 2020, the Power of Siberia pipeline gives the Kremlin the option of directing its exports in the future East and/or West according to most favorable commercial and political conditions. This flexibility is further enhanced by the parallel development of LNG capabilities by the private gas producer Novatek and its various partners in Europe and China based on fields in the Yamal peninsula of the Russian North.  Though Yamal is not directly controlled by the Kremlin in the way that Gazprom projects are, its development is facilitated by legislation governing export rights and conditions. Construction of a second LNG installation on Yamal is now pending. The feasibility of commercialization for deliveries heading east to Asian markets is supported by the world’s largest and most modern fleet of conventional and nuclear ice breakers, the most massive and powerful of which is presently entering sea trials. These ships are entirely designed and constructed in Russia’s state-owned naval yards.

And if we go back just a bit further to 27 November, the big news was the opening of the ultra-modern high speed toll road connecting Moscow and St Petersburg, the M-11. This road is one of the most significant Public Private Partnership ventures to be launched in the country. Partnership with the French-based international concern VINCI Concessions has ensured that best practices have been applied to safety, durability, driver comfort and the other leading parameters. To put the significance of this new road to motorists in terms that car enthusiasts of North America can appreciate, the new road makes it possible to travel a distance comparable to the Northeast Corridor of Boston – Washington, D.C. in approximately 5 and a half hours!

The M-11 runs parallel to the old national highway M-10, with numerous interchanges allowing drivers to economize as they may wish to do by switching to the free highway where and when conditions are good or to make use of the many established gas stations, restaurants and rest areas along the old road.  The provision of such amenities on the new road  is the responsibility of the four regions (oblasts) through which it passes and will understandably take some time to fill in

The opening of this super highway has been criticized by some detractors of the Putin government for covering up the woeful state of the nation’s roads in general, especially at the local level.  Indeed, until recently there was a lot of grousing among the broad population, and it was largely justified.  I recall seeing a slogan pasted on the back window of one car out in the countryside: “I pay my taxes. Where are the roads?” That rhymes nicely in Russian: “Я плачу налоги. Где дороги?”  And most Russians have been quick to recall the witty description of travel in Russia by the novelist Gogol in the first third of the 19th century:  “Russia has no roads. It has only directions.”

However, with the launch of Vladimir Putin’s “national projects” in May 2018 following his reelection, the government has finally tackled this massive problem with appropriate money and federal guidance.  While the end results of the latest efforts to give Russia local and regional roads worthy of the name are by their nature not so easy to prove and photograph as a super highway like the M11, there are signs of real traction. The problem, it seems, is not insoluble.

The Kommersant newspaper is not known for tossing bouquets to those in power. Cutting sarcasm is its more customary journalistic style.  However, in its 19 November 2019 edition, the newspaper issued a 4 page supplement “Review. The Roads of Russia”, the first page of which carries the dramatic headline “The potholes are fading away into the past” summarizing the achievements of the National Project “Safe and High-quality Roads” in 2019.

I quote from the lead paragraph:
“In Russia a record amount of work is being done and financed within the National Project “Safe and High-quality Roads,” which has as its objective to increase the share of the regional road network meeting standards to 50%, and highways within urban areas to 85% by the end of 2024. This year they succeeded in establishing order at a significant number of sites: residents already can see the changes with the naked eye. A number of problems were revealed which must be solved in the immediate future, among them a shortage of regional managers and experience in precise planning.”

Now I will downshift from this kind of global generalization of the journalists to anecdotal evidence from my own experience.  At about the time the Kommersant article appeared, I made an end of season visit to our dacha in the countryside 80 km south of Petersburg.  The old federal Kiev Highway taking us to within 20 km of our destination was and remains in a good state of repair and it is gradually being replaced by a modern six lane road with median strip and with illumination that now reaches out to perhaps 40 km south of the city.  However, the local roads have been of variable quality, with the stretch from the village of Siversk, designated an “urban” settlement, to our hamlet of Orlino having fallen into lamentable disrepair over the past four years, with more temporary patches than original asphalt.  Over these 12 kilometers, which local buses also must traverse, incurring heavy maintenance costs, it was customary to see drivers regularly cross over into the lane of opposing traffic to avoid the larger and more menacing potholes.

However, on this November 2019 end of season visit, we were stunned to find that the whole road had been resurfaced in what they call “capital repair.” This was proof positive that the National Project is being realized and bringing benefits to where people live. Too early to see if this will be a “legacy” but it is a good start.

On a separate note, when speaking of infrastructure investments during the Putin years, one must consider also the renovated or new airports and train stations, as well as the new sports stadiums across many cities of Russia linked to the hosting of the FIFA World Cup this past year which is said to have cost $12 billion.  Then there are the massive investments in Sochi and the nearby Krasnaya Polyana winter sports complex dating from the Winter Olympics of 2016.  Many critics and naysayers at the time predicted that the 50 billion spent on these infrastructures would be just white elephant non-recoverable outlays. However, today’s reality is that Sochi has become the international year-round resort of the Russian Federation, enjoying very high patronage and offering world class facilities to all visitors.

Finally, without detailing the phenomenon which is to be seen all across Russia, the Putin years have given to the population new or reconstructed world class facilities for theater, symphony, opera, dance and the fine arts.  In St Petersburg alone, the complex of three performance venues of the Mariinsky Theater can be held up as fair competition to New York’s Lincoln Center or London’s Barbican Centre.

All of this is what I consider the most lasting and invaluable legacy that Mr Putin will leave to his nation upon his retirement. Kudos!

Postscript, 29 December 2019:

The build-out of Russia’s cultural infrastructure did not start yesterday.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Valery Gergiev for the Lunch with the FT series dated late June 2000, just before the opening of a 5-week cycle of performances of the Mariinsky (Kirov) at Covent Garden:

… his plans for St Petersburg that are clearly his dearest ambitions. If completed – and it sounds as though they will need several hundred million pounds of investment – they will make the Kirov and its home, the Mariinsky Theatre, the centre of one of the largest cultural projects in Europe. Not only will there be a full restoration of the Mariinsky but also a series of related projects, including a new school for singers and instrumentalists, housing for the precious Kirov archives, new spaces for rehearsals and concerts, and facilities for the growing number of foreign visitors, drawn by the city’s musical life.

“…’I have seen what Lincoln Centre did to regenerate that part of the Upper West Side of New York. We can do this, too, in St Petersburg.’ The idea has already won the backing of the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a St Petersburger who has no doubt noticed Gergiev’s value both as a cultural icon and as a foreign-currency earner.

“’He even telephoned me, in the middle of the war in Chechnya, you know, for a long conversation about the Kirov. Putin knows the city and what it needs.’”
That was completed, of course, A project of similar ambition is now on its way to completion for the Eifman ballet company – school and performing stage – also in Petersburg.  I could name a dozen or more other cities around Russia where opera and dance complexes have been renovated or built from scratch in the past decade.  These tend to be in towns that otherwise are now economically flourishing either from hydrocarbons or from agricultural production. I know the places because among my friends is the chief stage director of the Mariinsky who puts on shows at these new venues.
Then, as I say, there are the new or improved art museums, concert halls and drama theaters.  The artistic results are variable, which is understandable given that so much depends on the talents of the local management teams.  But there are no white elephants.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

[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.]

Launch of “A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs”

I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest collection of essays. The capsule description of the book carried on the pages of internet booksellers is as follows

“The essays in this book deal with major political, social and cultural events primarily in Europe and Russia during the period 2017 – 2019 in which the author was a participant or eyewitness and has personal impressions to share. Several of the essays are drawn from other genres including travel notes, public lectures and reviews of particularly insightful books on key issues of our times like immigration, Liberalism and war with Russia that have not received the broad public exposure they merit.”


However, there is much more to the story that has relevance to its potential readers  set out in the Foreword shown below, starting with the several layers of nuance in the title itself.




The title of this book has been chosen with care and a few introductory words of explanation are owed to the reader.

First, the notion of a “Belgian perspective” on international affairs may on its own seem peculiar.  In what way, one might ask, can little Belgium, with its population of around 12 million have a perspective that is unique and worthy of consideration? In the same vein, what perspective on foreign affairs in general can a lesser Member State of the European Union have when the most powerful Member State, Germany, denies that it has an independent foreign policy and defers to Brussels, specifically to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who,  formally, holds sole responsibility for these matters on behalf of the 500 million plus people from 28 nations? Indeed, in a recent interview relating to the publication of his latest book, the octogenarian former prime minister of Belgium Marc Eyskens pointed out that the rise of the EU Institutions has left national governments with a substantially reduced level of sovereignty and competence comparable to that of a major city rather than of a country.

Meanwhile and in parallel, as the seat of both the NATO headquarters near the Zaventem Airport and of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium marches in lock-step with its US-led allies. Belgium’s mainstream media, both television and print media, traditionally support whatever policy line comes from the EU Institutions and NATO.

There have been rare exceptions to this solemn loyalty to the consensus.  In particular, in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Belgium was one of the three “Old Europe” nations, alongside  France and Germany, that joined Russia in openly rejecting US policy.  For this the nation’s Prime Minister at the time, Guy Verhofstadt, paid dearly, being disqualified from appointment to head the EU Commission, for which he was a leading candidate at the time.

But the aforementioned facts constraining the political elites of Belgium are by no means imperative for Belgian society as a whole.  Indeed, as I detail in several essays in this collection,  at both ends of society, the high end in their dinner jackets and at the mass, man-in-the-street level, there is very little sympathy for the official foreign and defense policies and a lot of free-thinking going on.

All of which brings us to the question of who is the Belgian whose perspective is set out in this tome. The simple and direct answer is that I am that Belgian.

Readers of my articles posted in various platforms on the internet have seen me described in the past as an American and long-time resident of Brussels. Both statements were and are correct.  However, in August 2017 I also became a naturalized Belgian. This ‘second birth’ was more than seven years in gestation.  After its successful culmination, I found myself increasingly involved in intra-Belgian, intra-European politics. Consequently, I have written with greater frequency on issues that are specific to the Old Continent. By their nature, these articles have not been picked up and disseminated via the internet platforms based in the United States by which readers know me best. Moreover, in my new guise I have written some of these articles or speeches in French so as to better reach prospective readers around me where I live and practice politics.  These materials are also republished in this volume.

Notwithstanding the new elements, as in my preceding three collections of “nonconformist” essays published between 2013 and 2017, the major part of my writings is focused on present-day Russia and its relations with the United States and Europe.  Russia is my main field of interest and expertise coming both from book learning and from life experience as a frequent visitor to the country over many decades and also as someone who has both lived and worked there for eight years beginning in 1994. That is something very few of our commentators in the West can say before they launch into ill-informed vitriolic attacks on the “Putin regime” and Russians as a people.

Since all of the essays presented here have been published on the internet in one way or another, it is legitimate to ask what is the added value of republishing them as a book.  There are several answers to that question, ranging from the superficial but adequate to an answer that goes to the heart of how I see my social role in writing these pieces.

The superficial but adequate explanation is that everything is transient, nothing more so than the internet, where  digital platforms are here today, gone tomorrow, where even one’s own blog site lasts no longer than the latest annual fees payment.  And while e-books may be no more durable than the publishing company maintaining and distributing the digital files, physical books deposited in libraries will be accessible to the curious public and to researchers as long as the human race continues on its way, which may or may not be eons depending on your degree of pessimism inspired by this and similar works by my fellow “dissidents” on international affairs.

The deeper explanation is that influencing public opinion towards détente, towards self-preservation and away from confrontation with Russia that can easily end in catastrophe presently does not appear to be actionable. This is so for banal but understandable reasons that have to do firstly with the way the United States is governed internally and secondly how the United States rules over “the free world.”

Over the past twenty years or more, repeated polls taken by Pew and other research institutions have shown that the American public does not support foreign military adventures or a world gendarme role for their country.  However, the political establishment pays no heed whatsoever to this clear disposition of the electorate just as the views of the electorate on a great many other issues are ignored by Congress and by the Executive branch. This follows from the financial dimension of getting and staying in power.  By campaign funding and lobbying, a tiny number of exceedingly wealthy individuals and corporations effectively make policy at the federal level, and accommodation with the world is not on their agenda.

Meanwhile, whether as a result of awareness of their powerlessness or for other reasons, the broad American public is apathetic as concerns foreign policy. People just don’t want to disturb their peace of mind by contemplating the aggressive, bullying behavior of their government on the international stage.  “Our boys” are not being killed abroad in significant numbers.  The budgeted military expenses of the USA are being financed by others who buy Washington’s Treasury notes.  There is nothing to force a reckoning with what is being done in the name of America abroad.  Least of all, with respect to Russia, which has taken with surprising equanimity the sanctions and other punishments meted out to them over their alleged bad conduct in Ukraine and Syria, over their alleged meddling in American and European elections. The notion that the West might be crossing their red lines at some point, that the economic and informational war might spill over into kinetic war that escalates quickly – such thoughts could not be further from the minds of people in the States or in Western Europe, including those who take a real interest in public affairs and think they are au courant.

This is not to say that the essays published here and similar writings by my comrades-in-arms have no readers.  On the contrary, our works are republished by portals other than our own. They are referenced on social networks and attract considerable numbers of “hits,” meaning individual readers.  Some of the essays in this book have reached an audience numbering in the tens of thousands.  But so far the dry residue of this relative success remains inconsequential.  No broad-based political movement championing my/our principles of détente has emerged. There are no demonstrations on behalf of peace, while there are American and worldwide demonstrations to fight for renewable energy and for programs to combat climate change, or to fight for gender issues and equality of pay.

So, why write? why publish?

This takes us to the question of self-definition and social role.

We are living through Dark Ages today, notwithstanding all the technical achievements of our science and technology and advanced medicine.  At the moral, social and political levels, these are bleak times when “progressive” values trample upon traditional moral and ethical, not to mention religious values, when freedom of expression and other civil liberties have been gutted for the sake of public security and to serve demagogic purposes.

In this context, these writings are intended to be an eyewitness account of the prevailing moral and political decadence for the edification of those in future generations who will have their own battles to fight to safeguard cultural traditions and freedoms. In assuming this role of a chronicler, I seek to continue the work of those who passed this way half a century ago or more and who left behind their own writings of the day, which gave me spiritual encouragement and purpose when I came across them.

At the same time, I do not abandon the hope that my compatriots in America and now also in Europe will come to their senses and explore these writings and the writings of my fellow dissidents to find an antidote to the propaganda about the recent past and present being dispensed by government, by mainstream media and by all too many scholars in the field.

One straw in the wind was a July 2019 editorial in the hawkish, till now fanatically anti-Russian New York Times calling for a rapprochement with Russia before that country aligns definitively with China and recreates a global threat to American interests.  Or I refer to the publication of an article co-authored by former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn in the September-October edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, another standard bearer of U.S. hegemony, stating in detail the existential risks we incur by having cut lines of communication with Russia and by entering into a new, uncontrolled arms race with that country. As the Chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services from 1987 to 1995, he was a leading figure in arms control negotiations. In the new millennium, Nunn has been one of the generally recognized “wise men” in the American political establishment, alongside Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker.

There is also an impulse for optimism coming from the latest declarations of French President Emanuel Macron, who is striving to assume leadership of the European Union’s policy agenda now that control is slipping from the hands of Germany’s Iron Lady, Angela Merkel in the waning days of her chancellorship. In his speech to French ambassadors following the conclusion of the G7 summit meeting in Biarritz on the weekend of 24-25 August, Macron stated very clearly that Europe must put an end to its policy of marginalizing and ostracizing Russia because the Old Continent needs to work cooperatively with Moscow if it is not to become a powerless bystander to the growing conflict between the United States and China.

Such signs of sobriety and concern for self-preservation suggest that all is not lost in the cause of détente.

For those who have not read my earlier works, I repeat here that my essays are often devoted to major events of the day, but are not systematic or comprehensive. I wrote only when I believed that I had a unique perspective, often from my direct participation in the event as actor or firsthand witness. I have not taken up subjects where all of my peers were piled up on the line or were basing themselves on secondary sources.  I consider my own writings to be primary sources in an extended, autobiographical genre.

However, they do not constitute pure autobiography. That is something I am writing in parallel in a book devoted to Russia in the wild 1990s, which I saw at ground level as the country General Manager working from offices in Moscow and St Petersburg  for a succession of major international producers of consumer goods and services.


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©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019



The 8th St Petersburg International Cultural Forum, 14-16 November 2019

Writing about the Forum is quite a challenge. It is hard to get your arms around this gathering of 35,000 registered participants and attendees due to the large number of events running in parallel at some 90 venues in St Petersburg and its surroundings stretching out to 30 km distant. There are multiple thematic dimensions and multiple levels of participation – from expert speakers and panelists, to expert auditors of the round tables and colloquia, to media representatives, to the general public that has procured tickets to its exhibitions, concerts, dance and other performances.

To be sure, the single most important venue is the magnificent General Staff Building of the Hermitage Museum, which has a great many variable configuration spaces for such events and might best be described as a downtown convention center. Nonetheless, it would be impossible for any outside news agency to cover the simultaneous events with their own reporters even within this one building, not to mention the other sites. This is why the journalists’ pool consists largely of film crews who dip in and out of the meeting rooms and exhibitions to capture a few minutes here and there of the best-known  speakers and panelists to air on their news programs.  For the rest, we all depend on the press releases issued several times a day by the organizers of the Forum – who are performing their work to the highest standards, including cogent summaries of the remarks of the most notable speakers.

For these reasons, coverage of the event can be done quite effectively by accredited journalists living anywhere on the globe, not just by visitors to St Petersburg proper.  However, as I will explain below, there are many events for the broad public coming under the Forum umbrella which you have to savor in person. This is especially what I want to share in the brief essay below.

* * * *

The St Petersburg International Forum follows a uniquely Russian formula of mixing different objectives:  putting together leading professionals in the Russian cultural establishment with their interlocutors in the federal government, putting together the cultural establishment of the federal Center with the local establishments in the Regions, and putting together the Russian cultural establishment with its peers internationally to agree on joint projects for years to come.

As in every year, it has a theme from one of the arts – this year highlighting Theater, given that 2019  has been the Year of Theater in Russia.  As in every year, it has a more abstract conceptual motif. This year the motif is “cultural codes,” a very trendy notion underlying the ubiquitous identity politics that we see in country after country. The given notion is expressed graphically in the iconography of the Forum, in the choice of design for the backdrops in the “media passage” where interviews are taken by television camera crews.

The relevance of the overriding motif was driven home by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his speech at the Gala Concert opening the Forum:

“One of the main themes of the Forum is how to preserve the national identity of culture in the global world -which is truly a very complicated task – while being completely open to the world.  Without this balance it is impossible to speak in general about the development of humanity, about the development of art, which unites all of us without regard to religion, to our aesthetic preferences, our political passions and state borders.”

At the same time, the Forum also unashamedly serves the geopolitical objectives of the Russian Federation.  With guest experts from France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain and elsewhere, the Forum is a major exercise in Soft Power.

Unsurprisingly, in this context, the featured “guest country” in 2019 is China, which has brought a very large delegation, even though the number of specifically Chinese performing arts and other entertainments is rather limited. The Chinese presence is felt more in the panelists of discussion sessions and agreement signing sessions.  This Forum was used to roll out news of the establishment of the first satellite museum of The Hermitage in China, in Shanghai, with the opening to take place in 2020.  Other Chinese featured topics were the conclusion of agreements on cooperation between the Chinese and Russian film industries for joint projects and promotion of each other’s films in their home markets. Given that China is today the world’s number two cinema market in terms of box office receipts and the number one market in terms of screens open to the public, this prospective cooperation holds promise for the Russian cinema industry which is now seeking to greatly expand its export activities.

Perhaps the most interesting Chinese offering within the Forum program for the general public is the experimental staging of a work by Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 Mo Yan that I saw on a preview performance for the press. The piece, entitled “To Kill the Emperor,” has a mixed Russian and Chinese group of performers and employs a stage solution that is very new to Russia: a central ramp on which the actors perform, with the audience seated on either side. The attractiveness of the offering was heightened by its being played within the premises of the luxurious Faberge Museum of Viktor Vekselberg. I will not pass judgment on the work’s artistic merit, only affirm that it could fit comfortably within any of the “off-off” theatrical pieces in our West European arts festivals.

Meanwhile, the performance of one Chinese classical music orchestra at the Petersburg Philharmonic Society hall and performances by Chinese soloists in other events were unexceptional in nature.

The secondary guests of the Forum, categorized as “special programs” are Turkey and the Slovenia- based Forum of Slavic Cultures.  It would appear that the most notable contribution of Turkey this year is an exhibition of Ottoman court dress as viewed by contemporary designers going on in the Ethnographic Museum.  Small change in the grand scheme of things. Presumably there was more afoot behind closed doors among the respective administrators of cultural affairs from Russia and Turkey.

As I noted at the outset, the core events of the Forum are precisely discussions before audiences varying from 30 to 200 by and for professionals – administrators and directors of cinema, museums, drama and opera theaters, their patrons and talking partners in the government departments responsible for cultural affairs, economic development and urbanism. Since St Petersburg has its share of students and professors of culture, and many others arrive from elsewhere in the Federation, we may assume that these events are being well attended by a population totaling several thousand auditors.

It is also a safe guess that the rest of the 35,000 on the registration lists are from the general public coming to the Forum to be entertained.  One of the biggest draws surely is the Jazz Across Borders program which opened in the Philharmonic Hall but spreads out from there to little jazz clubs across the city.  The lead performer, the biggest local name is saxophonist Igor Butman who has his own big band and regularly appears at festivals and large concerts across Russia. But the special feature of the Forum is the presence of other big names who are here just to have fun.  In this connection, I note the posters around town advertising the jazz performance with friends planned by concert pianist Denis Matsuev. This is “cross-over” and cultural popularization at its best.

I missed Butman, missed Matsuev, but on Thursday evening I had the pleasure to attend an event in the same spirit which the Russians call a “kapustnik” – meaning a gathering of artists to amuse themselves and their closest fans – staged by the well-known film director Nikita Mikhalkov. Held in the classical auditorium of the Grand Drama Theater on the Fontanka, the show drew a large contingent of sophisticates who had come up from Moscow and also attracted the cream of Petersburg’s drama establishment.

Thursday night was the first of two evenings of staged “fragments” from the prose of Chekhov and Bunin. It was performed by young actors who have passed through the Mikhalkov Academy of Theater and  Cinema which opened two years ago. The three-hour presentation entitled “Metamorphoses” consisted of sketches of love matches in the genre of Chekhov’s well-known story “The Lady with the Dog.” The acting was the very best of the Moscow School, which is head and shoulders above any drama theater in the Northern Capital. The scenography employed the latest technologies of video projection, as one might expect from a leading international film director like Mikhalkov.

The staged prose pieces were separated by three-minute segments of “Vesti Russkoi Imperii” – mock news reports dated 1901-1902, delivered in period dress by one of the most widely viewed female anchors from the Vesti-24 news channel.

“Russia imposes sanctions on U.S. steel,” “Russian tycoons set oil prices,” “ Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya opens in Prague to a full house,” “Russia hands out hot porridge to the hungry of Beijing,” “British prices for Russian eggs fall slightly,” “Russian craftsmen fill large orders for matryoshka dolls from Britain,” and a 1902 Coca Cola ad spelling out the virtues of its ingredients – coca leaves, water and sugar. These and other tongue-in-cheek news items are all set off by film footage from the period.  Mikhalkov obviously had a great time putting all this together and the audience broke out into rhythmic applause several times.

Finally, in reviewing the entertainments on offer under the umbrella of the Cultural Forum, I call attention to the blockbuster art exhibition that has just opened in the Manezh and is devoted to two Soviet artists, Samokhvalov from Moscow and Deineke from Leningrad, who were among the most feted practitioners of Socialist Realism during a period lasting from the 1930s to the 1950s.

All in all, there are more than 300 oil paintings, posters, drawings, sculptural etudes on display.  They come from St Petersburg’s own Russian Museum, from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, from the Kursk Art Museum named for Deineka, and from other museums and private collections across Russia. Nominally, the logic of this double-header exhibition is to mark the 120th anniversary from the birth of Deineka. Samokhvalov is there as the counterpoint, basis of comparison.  Both artists were praised by the exhibition curator for their virtuosity and for drawing on the rich traditional color palette and compositions of pre-revolutionary Russia.

To unjaundiced eyes, this attempt to celebrate Socialist Realism is a stunning failure. With few exceptions, the works on display can be charitably described as the work of illustrators, not original artists. At best we can see in them a pale reflection of the truly memorable works of their brilliant contemporary Petrov-Vodkin.

If art critics from the Financial Times and other pedigreed Western media come to this show, you can be sure they will raise the question of why totalitarian art is being showcased now by the “Putin regime.” The facile connection between Kitsch of totalitarianism and today’s Russia will surely be drawn.

However, such reasoning will be wrong-headed. The Cultural Forum is primarily a platform for genuine high quality art by living creative geniuses. Many just happen to be in the constellation of the Establishment formed during the Putin years.  Nikita Mikhalkov, Denis Matsuev, Yuri Bashmet, Valery Gergiev, Sergei Bondarchuk all are here together with many of their star-quality peers. They are in one way or another enthusiastic supporters of Putin and of the vision of the New Russia he and his close advisers are promoting.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019


Donald Trump’s Withdrawal of U.S. Forces from Syria

In the days immediately following Donald Trump’s announcement on 13 October that he had ordered the withdrawal of the contingent of approximately 1,500 U.S. special forces stationed in the Kurdish controlled territory of northeast Syria bordering on Turkey, I understood that this momentous decision deserved close analysis and comment. However, I held back, because the President’s previous attempt to extricate the United States forces from the Syrian conflict dating from December 2018 had yielded only modest results following fierce criticism from the Pentagon including the resignation of his Secretary of Defense, “Mad Dog” Jim Mattis, fierce criticism from Congress on both sides of the aisle and from the mass media.  This time I would wait till the dust settled before issuing any pronouncements, I told myself.

But the fact is that dust does not settle in Syria. There are too many parties intervening in the eight year long civil war there and these parties, with their contradictory interests, kick up storms in the desert that have repeatedly dimmed our vision and militated against drawing final conclusions on winners and losers from the conflict.  Moreover, the same may be said of the political civil war raging in the United States between the centrists of both dominant parties and the Trump Republicans. In this ‘no holds barred’ wrestling and kick-boxing match, the issue of countering Russian and Iranian influence in Syria is one of the several vital interests in play.

Indeed, as has become clear in the last few days, at the insistence of the Pentagon and of its cheerleaders in the political establishment, a group of U.S. troops estimated to number 150 has reportedly been left behind at an oil field near the Euphrates within the Kurdish region. Their mission, according to Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, is to guard the field and prevent its seizure by Islamic State militants.  That, of course, is double-talk. The obvious reason is to ensure that this asset does not return to the control of the legitimate government of Syria in Damascus, and so to enforce the economic stranglehold that the United States and its allies have from the beginning of the conflict sought to impose in order to realize regime change.

Be that as it may, in this essay we will look at the developments in Syria over the past month as they bear on our appraisal of one person, Donald Trump, who, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been at the eye of the storm.

* * * *

This latest political firestorm in the United States over Syria policy began a week earlier than the announcement of any troop withdrawal, on 7 October to be precise, shortly after the contents of a telephone conversation between Presidents Trump and Erdogan became public knowledge. In effect, Trump was accused of giving a “green light” to the impending Turkish invasion of northeast Syria, which, as Erdogan had stated in the preceding several days, was meant to achieve several strategic objectives and would be pursued whatever the U.S. or other powers thought of the matter. Firstly, it was tasked with sealing the Syrian border along the roughly 100 km stretch in the northeast where a de facto autonomous Kurdish region had been established with the help of the Americans.  For the U.S., the Kurdish dominated Syrian Defense Forces were their ‘boots on the ground’ in the fight against the Islamic State. For the Turks, these same forces were viewed as collaborators with PKK Kurdish fighters on the Turkish side of the border, who have been foes of the Ankara regime since the 1980s and are labeled as terrorists.  The second objective was to create a ‘’safe zone’’ under Turkish control extending 30 km inside Syria where two million of the three million plus refugees now living in Turkey might be resettled.

When the Turks lost no time responding to Trump’s “green light” and sent their troops into Syria, Western media was waiting on both sides of the border– to document loss of life among civilians, other evidence of brutality and the flight of more than 100,000 civilians from their homes to leave the war zone.

All of this media attention was in support of political posturing on Capitol Hill in Washington, in the European Parliament and in the capitals of several major Member States.  The “authoritarian” Turkish regime was denounced. Quite extraordinarily, calls went up for an arms embargo on this NATO member and for imposition of sanctions.  The U.S. Congress led the way, and in what might be construed as damage control by the White House, President Trump on his own imposed personal sanctions on Turkish officials deemed to play key roles in the incursion.

Meanwhile, the criticism of Erdogan was not nearly so harsh and openly insulting as that directed against President Donald Trump. He was universally vilified in U.S. and European media for his “betrayal” of the Kurdish allies, for putting in question the value of U.S. security guaranties in general.  Another line of attack was on the supposed capriciousness of policy-making under Trump, his unpredictable nature which undermines national security.

One might wonder whether the media barrage directed against Trump really influences public opinion of the Chief Executive.  I firmly believe that it does, if we speak of the well-educated middle-classes on both continents. The media provide the arguments against Trump which fit very nicely with the predisposition towards Liberal, anti-Trump politics of these folks.

As a straw in the wind, I quote here from an email I received a few days after the start of the Turkish incursion from one new acquaintance, a retired European diplomat who could not contain his outrage over the behavior of the incumbent of the White House:

     I am no fan of President Trump. Here are some reasons why not.

  • He is in the business of destroying everything he can lay his hands on while not offering valid alternatives
  • He never consults anybody before taking the rashest decisions: the latest example is the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from North-East Syria last week for which he is blamed by both parties in Congress
  • I abhor his daily tweets attacking people who simply disagree with him. In the same vein, I dislike his disparaging language against any imagined or real opponent when on the stump. Examples abound.
  • Trump is no friend of alliances and allies. He prefers acting alone like a wannabe autocrat and not as the elected leader of one of the most democratic countries in the world.

Of course, all of this rant could have been clipped from The Washington Post at any time during the past few weeks and for many months earlier.

Speaking in his own defense over what he did or did not do with the Turks and with the Kurds just after the Turkish armed incursion, Trump called his actions a “brilliant strategy” that prevented the unthinkable –  armed clashes between two NATO countries on the ground in Syria. He quickly claimed that the United States would punish Turkey severely if it crossed certain red lines in the conduct of its campaign, and he sent his Vice President Pence to Turkey to enter into talks that resulted in a temporary cease-fire.  Following that success, Trump lifted the sanctions he had imposed.

This small amelioration of the situation was followed by something totally outside the control of the Americans and far more consequential: the 22 October meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin in Sochi which lasted six hours, two of which were strictly tête-à-tête, and ended in a detailed agreement on joint Russian-Turkish supervision of the withdrawal of Kurdish armed units from the delimited border area   followed by joint patrols.  This was widely seen in the American and European media as establishing Russia as the power broker in Syria and in the broader Middle East, for better or for worse replacing the United States in that role.

In effect, Trump’s peremptory order for the Americans to clear out just ahead of any Turkish advance resulted in initial abandonment of camps that were immediately overrun by the Syrian army and Russian military police.  Russian television triumphantly carried images of their boys finding caches of Coca Cola and other booty left behind by the Americans in flight.  Other images showed the departed American military convoys being pelted with tomatoes by the Arab villagers.  These videos were replayed on Western channels.

For the American political establishment, the Turks would have to pay a price for precipitating this turn of events in their back yard, which compounds their prior still unpunished offense of completing their purchase of Russian S400 missile defense systems in the face of stern warnings from Washington.  With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress has put up legislation entailing economic and military punishment. It also voted to characterize as genocide the Ottoman repressions against the Armenians more than a century ago, a measure with few practical consequences but seen as a slap in the face to the Turkish regime.

At the same time, there is little to suggest that Republican dissatisfaction with Trump’s behavior in Syria has impacted his overall level of political support in their ranks. In the vote in the House yesterday over procedures for impeachment, not a single Republican Representative defected from the party line backing Trump against the Democrats. That kind of party discipline is “awesome” in American parlance and shows up the daily articles in The Washington Post on one or another Republican’s discomfort with Trump to be nothing more than editorial wishes rather than proper reporting.

* * * *

Notwithstanding my acquaintance’s suggestion that the latest American withdrawal came out of the blue and was symptomatic of Trump’s capriciousness, it was nothing more than a resumption of the pull-out that Trump had called for in December 2018 which in turn was simply the realization of one of his campaign pledges in 2016:  to extricate the United States from the many ongoing wars initiated by his two immediate predecessors.

Given the fierce opposition Trump faced following his December 2018 announcement of plans to leave Syria, it was easy for him and his advisers to foresee the bitter reaction his new withdrawal orders would touch off.  The only possible explanations for his action are two:  stupidity or courage.  I do not for a second hesitate to choose the second explanation, which, strangely we hear very little about even from the antiwar activists who say they approve of this withdrawal.

That leaves me with the other fundamental accusations brought against Trump by my acquaintance and by his detractors in the media:  his dislike for alliances, which he is destroying in various ways and his seeming lack of an alternative vision for the world order.  Dealing with these matters, I think we can dispose very nicely of the notion that Trump is witless.

Until late in the spring of 2017 Henry Kissinger was visibly at Trump’s side on a number of occasions. He then later virtually disappeared from view. However, still in December 2017, I remarked that Henry Kissinger’s “fingerprints” seemed to be all over the national security doctrine that the Trump administration had just released. Readers of my essay on the subject accused me of placing too much emphasis on the choice of words and ignoring the actions of the administration during the preceding eleven months, which in many ways seemed to be a continuation of the Obama policies, particularly as regards Russia.

And yet, the underlying principles of Realism as set out in Kissinger’s master work Diplomacy (1994) are to be seen today in the deeds of Mr. Trump, none more so than in his rejecting any moral obligations to the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria and pursuing strictly American interests in getting out of the Syrian quagmire and letting others, who have greater national interests, pursue it to the end without us.

Though he is no idiot, Trump is also no genius. His verbal abilities are very limited.  And yet, he seems to have understood perfectly well Kissinger’s point that balance of power, as practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a perfectly valid concept for conducting foreign policy today, whatever the likes of Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton and their intellectual guru Joseph Nye, author of “soft power” may have thought.

Indeed, I am willing to give Trump credit for having understood that alliances like NATO should be wound down precisely to allow nations to regroup periodically for the sake of balance of power. He may even have fathomed that the onset of WWI was facilitated by the division of the major powers into two blocs that were hostage to the military technology of their day, a kind of deus ex machina that resembles our own in 2019. All of this could be learned in Kissinger’s book of 1994 if Trump ever opened it, or more likely from the author himself during their several meetings.

Of course, it would be preferable if we did not have to speculate on what exactly Trump has in mind. But that he has something in mind, and that it serves our purposes of cutting back on U.S. armed interventions around the world, remains unquestionable.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Snowden reconsidered

One of the most stimulating and informative features of online publishing is the feedback I occasionally get from readers. That was precisely the case with regard to my review article on Edward Snowden’s book of memoirs Permanent Record as re-published on antiwar.com.   Specifically, one reader sent in the link to an unedited hour-long interview with Snowden taken by MSNBC just after the book came out.

I subsequently watched that interview and have discussed it with others. Both I and the ‘others’ agreed that Snowden came across as eminently unlikable. He was arrogant. His nervous laughter after hearing most questions suggested contempt for his interlocutor, and likely for the audience as well. One ‘other’ with psychologist’s training found him to be narcissistic.

Of course, as I reminded the ‘others,’ very few people who achieve global prominence with such remarkable speed as Snowden did, very few people who are recognized by those in the profession as being “a genius among geniuses,’ are likable. That does not come with the territory.  You look instead at their impact on our lives, which, for Snowden, has been massive and very positive, having raised the debate on mass surveillance and data privacy from zero to its present high place in public consciousness, having influenced lawmakers, device manufacturers, internet service providers in the USA, in Europe to introduce measures protecting the public.

However, there were elements of a different kind in the MSNBC interview which I found deeply troubling and which compel me to revise downward my estimation of Snowden as a fellow traveler in politics by his “dissident” status, and also to revise sharply downward my estimation of his growth from monomaniacal techie-nerd to reflective humanist.

By his own words, Snowden discounts the possibility that he will be pardoned any time soon by the powers that be in Washington. And yet he apparently remains in contact with U.S. intelligence services discussing aspects of what he did and why. And he says he would come back ‘home’ in a moment if invited to take up work to protect the U.S. presidential elections of 2020 from foreign hackers and disseminators of fake news.  He also continues to reach out to governments across Europe and elsewhere in the hope of receiving political asylum and so to leave Russia, which he considers to be a compromising place to live, detrimental to his image in his homeland, whereas Sweden, France or Germany would look good to his sympathizers in the United States. He does not conceal his dislike for Putin’s ‘authoritarian’ regime and poor record on human rights.

This is all quite a load of baggage that his book of memoirs did not cover at all.

First, it is quite astonishing that he refuses to see the obvious: that Russia was and remains the only country on earth with the determination to resist American blackmail and pressures for his extradition, not to mention one of the very few countries with internal security sufficiently strong to protect Snowden from kidnappers or assassins.

In saying that he would gladly return to work for U.S. intel, Snowden shows that what troubled him was only how these services destroyed the open and free internet with its anonymity that he reveled in during the 1990s.  He is willfully ignorant, turns a blind eye to the possibility that the FBI, the domestic buddies of the CIA, and the overarching NSA might be practicing malfeasance, might be violating the U.S. Constitution and depriving the American public of their liberties in other dimensions, outside his purview as technologist. However, that is patently the case.

You have only to go back to the 2016 presidential elections to see that the intelligence agencies were not merely watching closely the ominous rise of Donald Trump, his advocacy of an outstretched hand of friendship to Russia, his disparagement of NATO and the traditional U.S. allies, but were part and party to the Clinton campaign’s efforts to paint Trump at best as subject to blackmail by the Russians due to his alleged sexual escapades in Moscow, and at worst as the willing dupe of Putin in active collusion with the Russians.  The notorious “Steele Report,” potentially damaging as it was, represented just the tip of the iceberg. It was circulated and promoted in Washington, to the press with the help of the intelligence services.

In the days following his election, straight through to the final delivery of the Mueller findings in the late spring of 2019 telling us that charges against Trump were non-actionable, ex-directors of the intel services were leakers to the press, commentators on U.S. television and otherwise directly involved in the Democratic Party led efforts to discredit, to handcuff the president and prevent implementation of his avowed plans to change the direction of foreign policy.  No one in intel has paid any price whatsoever for this foul play, for this intervention in political processes and undermining the proper functioning of democracy. To a man, they remain untouchable.

And now that Mueller failed to deliver a knock-out blow against Trump, we are in the midst of what the President has called a slow-motion coup d’état over his phone call to Ukrainian President Zelensky urging an investigation into the prima facie corruption of Joe Biden and his son in their Ukrainian dealings of 2014 and later. Who are the “whistle blowers” said to be?  Yes, they are both coming from the U.S. intelligence services. I rest my case there.

The Kremlin for the most part holds to itself its views on the inner workings of American politics.  As President Putin has said repeatedly, the Russian government is ready to work together with whomever the American electorate puts in office. However, there are moments when their concern over who is in charge in Washington comes to the surface:  the elected President or the Deep State in the person of what Russians call the siloviki, meaning the ‘power ministries.’

One such moment occurred back in September 2016, when Ashton Carter’s Pentagon bombed the Syrian military outpost of Dair ez-Zor, thereby sabotaging the truce agreed between Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, which had been achieved with Obama’s approval. And now on 6 October 2019, the question of who is in charge has again been raised publicly by the Kremlin.

We read the following extraordinary comments in a news release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemning the FBI interrogation of a Russian parliamentarian upon her arrival in the USA. The Duma member was scheduled to attend a colloquium on improving bilateral relations organized by Fort Ross in California for which the other members of the Russian delegation had been denied U.S. visas:

“either the American authorities, contrary to their statements, do not feel the desire to normalize the dialogue, or are not able to control the actions of their own Intelligence services” [emphasis mine]

These are issues that Edward Snowden shuts out of his thoughts.

In my book review, I spoke of Edward Snowden as an outstanding representative of the engineer’s turn of mind, inquisitive and stopping at nothing to learn how things work.  I meant that to be a compliment.  However, the same turn of mind easily has a damning drawback: contempt for ordinary politicians and statesmen, and the hubristic certainty that technocrats, and in particular technologists, could do a much better job of governance in the interests of all.  In his memoirs, Snowden mentions in passing that his parents both had no regard for politicians; in that one respect the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

For all of the above reasons, I think Edward Snowden still has a long way to go in his self-education and maturation.  But he is still remarkably young and we may hope his intelligence and curiosity will burn through his indifference to everything but what is on his screen.

©Gilbert Doctorow 2019

Who is Edward Snowden? A review of his autobiography, “Permanent Record”

Edward Snowden’s recently published autobiography Permanent Record  became a best-seller instantly, before any critical reviews in major media, thanks to the author’s notoriety.  The reviews followed and they make for curious reading as I look over The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. Though the reviewers take very different positions on Snowden, his villainy or heroism, they seem all to have read him very attentively and offer their readers many choice quotations from the book. Most of the reviews are fairly self-indulgent, none more so than Jonathan Lethem writing in The New York Review, who uses Snowden’s book as springboard for a discursive narrative on his own life experience.

In what follows, I will try to stay close to the book, which I would call a ‘page-turner’ although the first half, or approximately 150 pages, are a yawn. From his earliest childhood up to his first postings abroad, in Geneva and then in Tokyo, Snowden was little more than a techie-nerd, a monomaniac with no exceptional characteristics other than his aptitude and growing skill set in his chosen field of systems engineering in the computer world. His personal growth occurred exponentially in the six years that followed and he emerges at the end of the book fully formed, a powerful defender of freedom of speech, of privacy on the Internet and throughout our world which has become broadly digital during his lifetime.

The outstanding feature of Snowden that we observe already in the dull first half is that he is an autodidact from start to finish.  Both for reasons of ill health and for reasons of condescension to school learning, Snowden dropped out of high school after a little more than one year. His only concession to the formal demands of future employers was his taking and passing a high school equivalency exam. Thereafter his formal training was limited to the specialized courses that would confer on him the highest grade in Microsoft programming certification, the absolute requirement for his future career, the ‘open sesame’ for his gaining access to the entirety of NSA, CIA and other employers’ cyber infrastructure, alongside the top secret clearances he received for reasons of his youth and tabula rasa record when he entered the government employ.

From his earliest years, Snowden put the bare minimum of effort and presence into the public schools, reserving for himself the nights which he spent online playing video games and picking up whatever was available to learn in cyber space.  What exactly there was to learn and how he proceeded through these riches he does not tell us.  And that is the single biggest enigma of this book, of this personality which leads me to ask Who is Edward Snowden?”

There are two dimensions to his self-education that jump out at any careful reader of this book. First, how did he acquire and properly integrate his fairly broad knowledge of the law, political science, history and languages, which include French, German, Latin and Japanese.  Second, where did he acquire the moral compass that none of his few peers in the field possess, which drove him ultimately to decide the questions before him of “if not me, then who?” and “if not now, then when?” as he took his leap across borders, left behind his comfortable and well-paid existence in Hawaii living with the woman of his dreams, for a path of betrayal of the U.S. intelligence services that could as easily have led to his summary execution or being hooded and shackled by agents of his employers for return to the United States and a pro forma trial behind closed doors.

These questions remain unanswered as you close Snowden’s book. However, there are other insights which provide partial compensation. One is that he embodies the consummate engineer’s personality which revolves around the question: how does it work?  As a young child, during his father’s absence, he disassembled the treasured home computer and then almost, but not quite managed to reassemble it.  It is this intensely enquiring mind that ultimately led him to investigate the capabilities and ambitions of the NSA in mass data collection. This was prompted when he presented a report on such programs in China during his Japanese sojourn. As he reasoned, if the technology was there, it was sure to be deployed if it had not already been, and he was likely looking into a mirror of America’s illegal activities.  From that, he tracked down the elements of the relevant programs, ending in his discovery of how it all operated at the level of targets of surveillance.

The other insight explains where he found the time for his self-education and for his investigations into NSA criminality while holding down a full-time job.  The answer comes from his rare skills, which led him to being virtually unmanageable by his employers.

Following his emergence as the source of the leaks regarding its big data operations on American communication systems, the NSA sought to disparage Snowden by describing him as a low-level contractor. In the pages of this book, Snowden explains that low-level was accurate only with respect to his position on the management ladder, whereas in terms of access to secure data he says he was one of perhaps a dozen people in the world with such freedom, all of which resulted from the requirements of his systems engineering job as a fixer and re-combiner of infrastructures. Moreover, Snowden goes on to explain that a very substantial share, perhaps a majority of the technical computing positions of those employed in the NSA, in the CIA alongside “govvies” are precisely employees of government contractors like Dell or Booz Hamilton Allen, where Snowden was on the payroll in an ever changing career line.  The main reason he gives for this state of affairs is that it was a way for the intelligence services to work outside their congressionally approved budgets and given headcounts. Add to that the unavailability of the needed technical skills within the cohort of traditional recruits to these agencies coming from political science and law backgrounds. This arrangement also made it possible for talented technologists to earn much more than a purely government career would allow them as they moved back and forth between blue and green badges.

However, from my own knowledge of the situation in the intelligence services post 9/11, there was in parallel a massive purge initiated by Vice President Dick Cheney, when the traditional staff trained in Soviet studies was kicked out and new staff with skills in Arabic, Farsi and the other language and area studies of the current threats to American security was brought on fully trained via contractors. In tandem, there was a significant shift in the methodology of the agencies away from secret sources to open access sources.

As regards the new technologists being brought into intelligence work, clearly there was a management issue.  It made much more sense to recruit via third parties which had experience managing technologists than to place them directly under the control of mid and higher level employees who did not have a clue as to what their new reports were supposed to do.

Nonetheless, it is perfectly obvious from Snowden’s book that even technically savvy contractors such as he worked for were unable or unwilling to exercise close management of employees who were serving at computer desks in the NSA or CIA.  Snowden informs us directly that when he arrived at his new job in The Tunnel, in Hawaii, he immediately set up an autopilot program to essentially do his job for him, freeing all his time to pursue his investigation into NSA malfeasance, into downloading and taking away thousands of documents from the data banks of the intelligence services.  This was made all the more possible by his opting for night shift work, when he was virtually alone on the floor and could do whatever he wanted without being interrupted or watched.

His words reminded me at once of a co-worker during my employment with United Parcel Service Deutschland, in the late 1980s, early 1990s.  Like Snowden, my buddy had barely finished high school and made his till then meager career by his wits, namely by his inborn talent in mathematics.  He told me once of his experience working for the Social Security Administration in Washington.  Computers were just becoming a part of the workplace back then but already the issues flagged by Snowden had emerged. Frank would be given a computer-related task by his computer-illiterate boss, who then asked how long it would take to resolve.  Frank would make a face, then say “Boss, this is a toughie. I’ll need three days to work on it.” That time-line would be approved. Then Frank would solve the task in fifteen minutes and take the remainder of the three days to goof off.

The technologists around Snowden seem also to have spent a good part of their time goofing off.  After all, these systems engineers were basically there to fix some emergency if and when it occurred, not to baby-sit the machines minute by minute.  And so they would use their time sharing nude photos of girls they were stalking online. Meanwhile, Snowden had all the time in the world for his self-education and for his chosen research project.

For those of us who are professional followers of Russian affairs, the most frequently occurring publications we find in the biographical – autobiographical genre detail the life of Vladimir Putin. Such books in one way or another present and then try to answer the question Who is Vladimir Putin?  Very commonly they devote considerable attention to what are considered the formative elements of his personality and behavior, his childhood in St Petersburg (then rather poor post-war Leningrad) and his service as a KGB intelligence officer posted abroad in East Germany.

Comparison of these two individuals, Putin and Snowden, has objective merit outside the preoccupations of the Russia expert community.  Both men today have in common residence in Moscow.  They are both among the best known persons in the world, and possibly in their own ways are among the most influential people in the world. They are separated by something between one and two generations in age terms, separated by a chasm in terms of technology:  Putin is virtually tech-ignorant and antipathetic except as the needs of the Russian economy require it. Snowden is the incarnation of the Internet age generation, representing the wave of the present and future.

But what they have in common is precisely their service in the intelligence services.  Both were, in the broad sense of the word, spies. Meanwhile, in the narrow sense of the word, both have demonstrated remarkable talent in assuming different guises, in fitting into hostile environments, and in carrying on with extraordinary sang froid under very stressful situations when confronted by real or potential enemies. And there you have the key to the opening question: why it is difficult to explain who they are and how they came to be who they are today.

It is interesting that, writing from Moscow, from the country which was perhaps the only one in the world with the ability and the determination not to heed threats from Washington over his extradition and instead to grant him temporary and renewable asylum status, Snowden does not once mention Putin by name in his 340 page book, nor does he describe his feelings about Russia and Russians though he has been there now more than six years. This is all the more surprising given that Russia did in fact experience a serious deterioration in relations with the United States when the Obama administration decided to punish the country for its intractability over Snowden.

Instead we read in Snowden statements on his libertarian political views. These are given in relation to the Arab Spring. But, reading between the lines, they are also obliquely anti-Russian, anti-Putin:

“In an authoritarian state, rights derive from the state and are granted to the people. In a free state, rights derive from the people and area granted to the state…It’s this clash, between the authoritarian and the liberal democratic, that I believe to be the major ideological conflict of my time – not some concocted, prejudiced notion of an East-West divide, or of a resurrected crusade against Christendom or Islam. Authoritarian states are typically not governments of laws, but governments of leaders, who demand loyalty from their subjects and are hostile to dissent. Liberal-democratic states, by contrast, make no or few such demands, but depend almost solely on each citizen voluntarily assuming the responsibility of protecting the  freedoms of everyone else around them, regardless of their race, ethnicity, creed, ability, sexuality, or gender.”

In the book, Snowden discusses at some length his motivation for becoming a whistle-blower and serving the public interest, as opposed to being a mere “leaker” who is driven by personal or institutional ambition. He is deeply offended by the NSA’s violation not merely of existing U.S. law constraining its data collection rights but by its more fundamental violation of the U.S. Constitution’s protection of privacy. He points an accusing finger at Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for perjury in declaring to the U.S. Congress that no such data collection was going on.  What he intended to do by his fully documented revelations of NSA criminality was to initiate a public debate on citizens’ rights to privacy in the digital age, disputing the contention of these state agencies that individuals sacrificed their ownership of their data when they contracted with the telecoms companies and internet service providers.

Measured against this objective, Snowden can proudly tell us in the final chapter of his book that he achieved a large measure of success. Already in 2013 President Obama conceded that a national debate on these issues had begun.  Both the courts and the Congress subsequently curtailed the intelligence services’ collection and access to big data, while the internet and other technology service companies have built essential encryption features into their products to protect the public, starting with the “https” designation for protected sites.

Speaking as a member of the subset within the Russia expert community that might be qualified as “dissidents,” that is being opposed to the U.S. foreign policy to Russia, which we believe is heading the West towards an unwanted and potentially catastrophic war with Moscow, I am frankly envious of Snowden’s success in sparking public debate on the issue for which he was a dissident voice.  We have had no such luck, and, upon reading Snowden, it is apparent why:  to bring his case to the American public, Snowden relied entirely on the Fourth Estate, the press.  With the brave, unstinting support of journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and of the publications they worked for or cooperated with, including The Guardian and The Washington Post, Snowden’s stories reached the broad American and global public within days of his placing his cache of documents in their hands.  A video interview with him during their initial meeting in his Hong Kong hotel taken by Poitras was aired on Youtube.com and on television, bringing his case directly to that vast audience even before the intelligence agencies had the time or opportunity to discredit and demean him.


All of this media treatment for Snowden and data privacy is in stark contrast to the challenges we in the dissident Russia expert community face. In our case, the mainstream media are precisely the handmaidens of government in discrediting our advocacy of détente and of national self-preservation, applying to us the tar of “stooges of Putin.”

Snowden has been blessed with recognition by some in mainstream as well as alternative media as an intellectual leader.  He is now a member of the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation alongside such heroic defenders of the public’s right to know as Daniel Ellsberg. He has earned his living as a lecturer.

That being said, one may well be skeptical of the survivability of the Fourth Estate in our digital age. The very dis-intermediation and monetizing of personal data by corporations that have accompanied the digital wave are destroying the economic foundations of journalism, an issue that Snowden does not touch upon in his book, nor does it seem to be mentioned in the website of his Freedom of the Press Foundation.  It is no secret that today well above 50% of graduates from our schools of journalism never enter the newsroom, instead finding corporate jobs in public relations, where careers are still to be made.

Finally, the question “who is Edward Snowden” raises several key issues with the methodology we apply when reading works in the genres of biography and autobiography. It is an open question to what extent  the subjects are the product of their youth, of their formal education and even of their formal job descriptions.  Second, and more relevant to the case at hand, is the importance of mind over matter, of intellect over emotion in explaining how great people evolve and enter public space. I have described Snowden’s intellectual and moral growth in his 20s as exponential.  The same may be said of Vladimir Putin in the twenty years he has been in power.  This ability to grow is in fact a very rare commodity that is usually overlooked by biographers and autobiographers.

These factors also were overlooked by the NSA and the CIA when they vetted and eventually moved Snowden along his career path.  It was the hubris of his employers and their assumption that those below deck could be kept there by threat of violent force, if need be, that opened the way for Edward Snowden to become the hero we encounter at the end of Permanent Record.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Rapprochement with Russia?

Starting in July and running to the present day, there have been repeated calls from mainstream media, from leading statesmen and from diplomats, in the United States and in Europe, for some kind of rapprochement with Russia to be put in place.  This is remarkable given the continually escalating informational, economic, military confrontation between Russia and the US-led West over the past five years.  That confrontation has emerged in two waves of anti-Russian hysteria: the first, after the daring (or brazen) Russian reunification with (or annexation of) Crimea in March 2014, and the second, with still greater momentum towards war, following the November 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency, which was accompanied by allegations of Russian collusion with candidate Trump and other meddling in the U.S. election processes.

Since the United States initiated the New Cold War, it is only fitting that the first steps towards its resolution are coming from there. And it is not in the least surprising that these steps were taken in the aftermath of the April 2019 release of the Mueller Report, which showed that the allegations of Russiagate were without merit or not actionable.  Trump’s political enemies were compelled to move on to other issues of contention that would serve better in the next presidential campaign, which is quickly approaching.

That is the context in which I place the fairly amazing editorial of The New York Times dated 21 July 2019 entitled “What’s America’s Winning Hand if Russia Plays the China Card?”  The NYT, which along with The Washington Post, had been among the most fervent disseminators of Russiagate theories and of poisonous characterizations of the “Putin regime” now was calling for…re-establishing civilized relations with Russia in order to draw the country back from its growing alliance with China.

While the editorial opens by citing a recent Defense Department report on the serious security threat to the U.S. from any Sino-Russian alliance, the fact of such alliance in formation has been obvious to anyone following the growing cooperation between these two countries in energy, aviation, military exercises, common positions taken in the UN Security Council and much more. It was also obvious for years that a major factor encouraging the Russian-Chinese embrace was the political, military and economic pressure each was receiving from the United States going back to the administration of George W. Bush and running through the Obama and Trump administrations. What is new is only the Times’ using this impending geopolitical tectonic shift to justify an extensive reversal of U.S. policy towards Russia.  Now we read that “…President Trump is correct to try to establish a sounder relationship with Russia and peel it away from China.”

This is not to say that the NYT raised the white flag and abandoned its identification of Russia as a malevolent rival: “America can’t seek warmer relations with a rival power at the price of ignoring its interference in American democracy.”  Nor did it abandon its identification of Russia as a “declining power” which it very inaccurately ranks as “not even in the top 10” economies, when in fact Russia is close to taking the fifth largest economy slot when purchasing power parity is applied.

Specifically, The Times called for cherry-picking topics for cooperation with Russia such as space travel, managing the Arctic and arms control “especially by extending the New Start Treaty.”

I have taken time with this editorial because the reasoning did not come from nowhere.  Moreover, the same logic underlies most, though not all of the calls for rapprochement with Russia that  have punctuated the past two months on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for where it came from, I would put forward the name of Henry Kissinger, who exerted considerable influence on candidate Trump in 2016 and continued to have his ear in the early days of the new administration. There can be little doubt that Kissinger urged Trump to reach out to Putin precisely to halt the dangerous drift of Moscow towards Beijing under pressure from successive US administrations. After all Kissinger was Nixon’s man who drew China into an informal alliance with the United States, implementing the policy whereby Washington was closer to both Moscow and Beijing than either was to the other.  He did not need to wait for Pentagon white papers in 2019 to know what was afoot and what had to be done to avert the worst, which spelled the destruction of his single greatest achievement during his time in power.

At the same time, Kissinger would have been advising only selective cooperation with Moscow, not full-blown détente.  This is precisely the position that he and other ‘wise men’ from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations urged upon both candidate Barack Obama and candidate John McCain during the electoral campaign of 2008, when relations between Russia and the United States were fraught with danger relating to the August 2008 war in Georgia. Their recommendations eventually became the “re-set” policy approved by Obama and implemented by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton early in 2009.

“Re-set” achieved progress on the various select issues for cooperation chosen by the Americans, in particular on arms control, resulting in the New START that today faces expiration.  However, the ‘’re-set,’’ like what the New York Times editors now call for, did not begin to address the overriding issue driving the Russian foreign and military policy which the U.S. finds so unacceptable:  Russia’s exclusion from the security arrangements that the Europeans have put in place together with the U.S., an architecture that is in fact directed against them. That very issue was the subject of the single most important diplomatic initiative of Russia’s President in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev: his call for negotiations to establish new security arrangements for Europe, outside of NATO, where Russia could be an equal member.  That initiative met with no response whatsoever from either the United States or its European allies, and so the days of ‘’re-set’’ were numbered.

* * * *

In the period just before, during and after the G7 meeting in Biarritz on 24—26 August 2019 there have been several widely noted remarks from senior Euro-Atlantic statesmen on the need to improve relations with Russia.

A week before the summit, French President Emanuel Macron received Vladimir Putin for talks at his summer residence on the Côte d’Azur. Macron “played up efforts ‘to tie Russia and Europe back together’ and underscored his belief that ‘Europe stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.’….In his Facebook post [after the meeting] Macron said….’I’m convinced that, in this multilateral restructuring, we must develop a security and trust architecture between the European Union and Russia…” (The Moscow Times, 20 August 2019).

Before and during the G7, Donald Trump told reporters that Russia should be there with them. At the summit’s conclusion, he indicated he was thinking of inviting Russia to the meeting when he hosts the group in Florida next year. Implicitly this means reviving full lines of communications with Russia which were cut at the insistence of Obama to punish Moscow for its misbehavior in Ukraine.

On 27 August, the day after the G7 closed, in the course of a speech to the assembled ambassadors of France in the Elysée palace, President Macron spoke at some length about the need to ‘reconsider’ ties with Russia within the context of facing up to the major challenges of a world in which the West had lost its hegemony. He called the exclusion of Russia from the New Europe following the fall of the Berlin wall a ‘’profound mistake.”  He insisted that “if we do not know how to do something useful with Russia, then we will remain with a profoundly sterile tension, we will continue to have frozen conflicts everywhere in Europe, to have a Europe which is the theater of a strategic struggle between the United States and Russia, thus to have the consequences of the Cold War on our soil.” (www.liberation.fr).

Several days later, on 4 September, in an interview with the Financial Times,  Finnish Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto used his country’s current position as rotating president of the EU to make a similar point, saying “It’s very difficult to imagine a solution [to global crises] without Russia – or a solution that Russia is not somehow an active partner on.”

The FT deemed it worthwhile to quote him extensively:

“Mr Haavisto also said that the uncertainties created by Brexit and statements by US president

Donald Trump’s administration ‘distancing themselves from European affairs” meant EU states

needed to do more themselves to maintain stability in Europe. ‘It creates a space where

European countries need to think …’how can we guarantee security here and what can we

do…together?’ he said.”

It went on to note: “Finland’s thinking is significant both because of its EU presidency and its unique relationship with Russia.”

Finally, in this listing of statements by public figures advocating better relations with Russia, I call attention to another article in the Financial Times, dated 15 September setting out the contents of an internal diplomatic note written by EU ambassador to Russia Dr. Markus Ederer. Dated 3 September, the addressees of the report were Ederer’s senior colleagues, the managing director for Asia Pacific at the EU’s External Action Service, and the acting managing director for Europe and Central Asia. The paper sets out arguments and options for engaging with Russia ‘taking into account the political environment, but also Russia’s natural relevance for EU-Asia connectivity.”   It was drafted in preparation for the forthcoming 27 September meetings in Brussels on EU-Asia links to which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been invited and in which European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is expected to take part.

Among the choice quotations from the report which the FT shares with its readers we find:

“[The EU] would have everything to lose by ignoring the tectonic strategic shifts in Eurasia.”

“Engaging not only with China but with Russia, selectively, is a necessary condition to be part of the game and play our cards where we have comparative advantage.”

The FT article calls attention to five areas for prospective cooperation with Russia:  the Arctic, digital, the Eurasian Economic Union, regional infrastructure and the ‘Northern Dimension’ joint policy between the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland. In these areas, the EU could ‘’engage effectively, on concrete, technical matters’’ with Russia.  The paper concludes that ‘’[t]he aim would be to set up a ‘framework of exchanges with Russia on longstanding issues in the EU interest’ involving European business and commission officials.”


* * * *

Considering where we stand today in relations with Russia, at a low point more dangerous than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, all of the aforementioned calls for improving relations made by very prominent and influential heads of state, public officials and media deserve a round of applause. The wise saying “jawjaw is always better than warwar” attributed to Winston Churchill applies with equal relevance today.

Looking at all the calls for better relations cited above, I believe the leitmotiv of them all is geopolitical considerations rather than fear of war, particularly nuclear war between the major world powers.  Arms control is cited as only one of several objectives for cooperation.  Concerns about the future alignment of those powers around the global board of governors are predominant. If humankind is said to be driven by the contradictory emotions of fear and greed, it would seem that our global leaders are presently acting in the spirit of greed rather than fear.

In his 27 August speech to the French diplomatic corps, President Macron called for an “audacious” foreign policy, effectively one that would move outside the box of conventional thinking. Correspondingly, thus far he is the only advocate of improved relations with Russia from among world leaders who had broached the subject of a comprehensive détente with Russia rather than cooperation in selective areas of greatest convenience to us.  He is the only leader to have raised the question of revising the architecture of security in Europe to accommodate the fellow Europeans to the East.

Those who follow closely the political démarches of President Macron will object that his thinking about Russia has been all over the place since taking office.  And I am among the first to consider him a shallow opportunist rather than the tower of intellect that he styles himself.  The summit meetings he called with both Presidents Putin and Trump soon after moving into the Elysée palace had only one objective: to position himself as a prospective power broker in resolving the New Cold War in formation; they had no material content.

In the two years that have passed since he assumed power in France, Macron has been unlucky in domestic politics when his ill-considered fuel tax sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement.  But he has been very lucky in foreign policy, because the dominant personality in European politics for the past decade or more, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, entered into the twilight period of her reign and the path opened for Macron to take the lead of EU politics with what he now calls an audacious roadmap.

The specific concept that emerges from Macron’s recent statements is an entente between Russia and the European Union based on shared values and creating a third force in global affairs alongside the United States and China.  The alternative, which is looming absent any initiative such as Macron is proposing, will be for the EU to remain a junior partner to the USA and for Russia to be a junior partner to China while their two principals square off.  Let us hope that in the days and months ahead Macron can muster the consistency of purpose and powers of successful execution to see through to conclusion what he has begun.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019