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

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

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

https://www.authorhouse.com/en/bookstore/bookdetails/825538-%D0%B2%D0%BE%D1%81%D0%BF%D0%BE%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D1%80%D1%83%D1%81%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B0-%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BC-ii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Europe doomed to extinction: take the Belgian example of administering Covid vaccines

Though we generally have a dim view of Russians as genetically “bearish” and morose, those of us who know the bears somewhat better realize that Russians taken one by one often have a superb sense of humor. Not British understatement. Not scatological like German folk humor. Distinctly their own and often family oriented. But there is more to it than jokes at the expense of your mother-in-law.

I invoke this observation when I look at the awful administration of the Covid-19 vaccines here in Belgium, and in particular, in the Region where I happen to live – the Brussels-Capital Region.

But before getting serious, let us consider the Russian “anecdote”:

A funeral is going on in a cemetery and a throng of those paying their respect stands by the graveside. Two passersby ask someone at the edge of the crowd what the deceased died of.  The mourner points to the words on wreaths that have been deposited before the coffin:  “from his beloved wife,” “from his brothers.”

Indeed, here in Belgium we are being killed, or to be more correct, we are not being saved thanks to the actions and inactions of people in authority who surely, taken one by one are quite decent and well-meaning.  The only problem is that they are grossly incompetent and answerable to no one. They pay no price for their blunders, not even criticism from the newspapers who disseminate their interviews replete with very contentious and dubious logic.

I have in mind something very specific which occurred here in Belgium over the weekend. The French-language daily newspaper La Libre Belgique published, as it does every few days, statistics on the progress of the Covid infection: number of tests administered daily, number of positives, number of daily hospitalizations, number of those presently in hospital, number in ICUs. To this in the past couple of weeks they have added new updated statistics on the numbers of those who have been vaccinated, both once and twice.  And on Saturday, in what is truly rare, they broke down the numbers of vaccinations by the country’s three regions:  Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels-Capital Region. 

To any reader, it immediately became clear why this information is not usually given out. It is too shocking for words.  About 3.5% of the total population already vaccinated, nearly all in old age or other long term care institutions and their staff, have been vaccinated nationwide. This is roughly in line with the dismal results of the EU-27 vaccination program, kept low because of the incompetent administration of procurement led by European Commission President von der Leyen, whom I have previously criticized in preceding essays on this subject.

However, looking within Belgium to its three Regions, the situation becomes more dire and points to the reasons why well educated, sophisticated and caring Belgium is on the high road to hell because of the gross over-politicization of everything and anything and the widespread incompetence of those in power.

The newspaper in the same issue published an interview with the Minister for Health of the Brussels Region, Alain Maron.  Well not just Health – and there by itself is a key to the problem.  Mr. Maron is also responsible for “Climate Transition, Environment, Energy, Participative Democracy, and Social Action.” I have just enumerated the points in his title.  “Health” follows “Social Action” in last place.

In last place! In the midst of the worst contagion the country is passing through in a hundred years that has placed the country among the worst performers in the world as regards mortality. In a situation of economic devastation from which only the fastest vaccinations to reach herd immunity can save us.

And when I name the party affiliation of this Minister, everything becomes clear:  he is a “Green”  party man, known in the French community as “Ecolo.”   His qualifications to administer “Health” are surely nil.

Now for the punch line:  whereas the Flemish and French Regions of Belgium presently have a vaccination rate of over 3.6% to population, the rate in the Brussels-Capital Region is 2% as the newspaper account in Saturday’s La Libre informed us.  

Why is this so?  That was one of the questions raised by the reporter during the interview.  M. Alain Maron had a ready answer:  because here in Brussels a lot of the support staff in the old age homes and long term care homes are commuters coming into the city from the suburbs, which happen to be situated in the Flemish Region. They are prioritized along with the old and infirm living in these institutions.

The reporter did not pursue this question further.  I will.

This logic of the Minister is rubbing salt in our wounds.  Anyone familiar with the budget of Belgium knows that the Brussels-Capital Region is always chastised for being unable to meet its financial obligations and going to the federal government with a begging bowl.  They also know the reason why:  apart from embassies and international institutions like NATO, like the EU Parliament and Commission, whose employees pay nothing into the Brussels Treasury, while requiring security, mobility and other services from the city, the commuters from Flanders are a big reason of the Brussels deficits.  They use the transportation and other services of the city but contribute nothing to taxes because in Belgium you pay taxes where you live, not where you work.

Accordingly, it would have been very appropriate for the La Libre reporter to have asked why these commuters to the old age homes are not being immunized where they live and are instead taking vaccine that otherwise would go to those living and paying taxes in Brussels.   I ask that question now!

This seemingly small issue is part of the very big reason why Belgium and Europe as presently governed are responding so poorly not only to the challenges of the Pandemic but to most all other global challenges.  The people in power are surely well-meaning but their value system is cock-eyed and directs actions which are dysfunctional.  Here the sophisticates in power are the very embodiment of Davos culture. They stand for inclusionary policies. They stand for proportional representation.  The only thing they do not stand for is MERIT.

I rest my case

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

New release. “Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s”

My publisher and online retailers are working wonders.  The official release date of my new volume II of the Memoirs of a Russianist was two days ago, 12 February, and today, Sunday, Amazon has already put up a web page and is accepting orders on its global websites, including amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.de, amazon.nl, amazon.fr

To find this page on any of the amazon websites, just type into the search box “Doctorow, Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II”. Once on the page select hardbound or paperback.

In the days ahead they will add functions to this page such as the browsing function “Look Inside” and a tab to show enlarged screen of front and back covers. But the main thing is there:  the option to order the book in either paperback or hard bound.  An e-book format will be added within a couple of weeks.

As you see from the technical description, the book is immense, 788 pages. 

I was not trying to outdo Kissinger and his several 1100 page books of memoirs. Indeed the only commonality with his works is that books this size are meant to be consulted, to be sampled according to the interests of the reader.  

In fact, the book is 80% diary entries because I wanted to allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about Russia in the 1990s and not to spoon feed the reader with my/our views in 2021.   

Not every diary entry in this book will interest every reader, but I hope you will find enough of them to give you pleasure and satisfaction with the purchase.

The quote from the book now on the Amazon page is in fact the text I chose to put on the back cover – to whet appetites.  Judging by the comments I have received from various correspondents, I think this works well.  If you like this text, then you will like a lot of what is inside the book.

Please do let me know your thoughts as you make your way into this work.  I am planning to do a revised edition in a year or so combining the narrative part of Volume I and some diary entries from there with the entire text of Volume II.  Such is the solution I am using for the Russian edition of this book that will be published in St Petersburg later in the spring. Many thanks for your interest in this book.

“If you want peace, prepare for war!” Sergei Lavrov to the EU

“If you want peace, prepare for war!”  Sergei Lavrov, 11 February 2021 speaking on cutting relations with the EU

In a televised interview on Russian state television yesterday, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov made this declaration  together with the threat to cut relations with the EU if Russia’s vital economic interests were put in danger by any further sanctions they might consider imposing. His remarks were clearly calculated to turn on a light in the thick skulls of EU Parliamentarians, of the EU Commission run by former German Defense Minister von der Leyen, and of her deputy for external relations Borrell.

“Prepare for war” is an old bit of wisdom that we have heard from time to time coming from the Kremlin together with related folk wisdom such as :  if you do not finance properly your own army, you will be financing someone else’s army; and if you cannot deal with Lavrov, then you will have to deal with Shoigu (Russian Defense Minister). 

I mention these last few remarks, because they all have one source, and that is Vladimir Putin.

Make no mistake about it, the new hard line from Lavrov has been set personally by his boss, who never minces words and means what he says.

The context for Lavrov’s remarks  yesterday in an interview with the leading public and governmental affairs television presenter Vladimir Soloviev was the remark earlier in the day by Borrell that he and his colleagues were now weighing imposition of further sanctions on Russia. This follows the perceived humiliation of Borrell at the hands of Lavrov the preceding week during their day-long meetings, which precipitated an outcry from Members of the European Parliament and heads of state. That humiliation was inflicted on Borrell because he carried to Moscow words of chastisement over the imprisonment of the now infamous blogger Alexei Navalny whose supposed poisoning was supposedly ordered by Putin.

Indeed, there is widespread perception among Russian elites that the whole Navalny affair was allowed to run freely for much too long. He should have been imprisoned and the key thrown away a long time ago. Regime change promoters in Washington, in London, in Berlin were given hopes by this inaction from the Kremlin that this time the “regime” in the Kremlin was frightened, was confused and could be shattered – something which had not come about from the long series of operations to discredit and destabilize Russia that we can easily trace back to the period just after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Russia stood up to US aggression, alongside France, Germany and Belgium. Those NATO objectors to the pending invasion of Iraq just got a tap on the wrist. The Russians got much rougher treatment that just does not end.. The most salient of these operations were the MH17 shoot-down laid at the Kremlin’s door without proof and the supposed poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, also based on “most likely” reasoning to which I would respond in very British terms “you would say that, wouldn’t you!”

To anyone with a bit of discernment and neutrality, it is patently obvious that Navalny, who is an ugly, aggressive nationalist peddling tampered ‘fake news’ videos to anti-elite masses would be a threat to world peace if he ever made it to power in the Kremlin. He is nothing more than today’s instrument, a battering ram being used by the USA, the UK, Germany, not to mention the jackals running Poland and the Baltic States to smash the Russian government and apply their knee to the neck of the Russian people, if I may use popular present-day images.  Similarly insane policy makers in Washington overdid their support for the Jihadists in Afghanistan in the ‘80s for the sake of pushing out the Soviets, thereby creating what later came back to haunt the United States and Europe in global Islamic terrorism.

Of late, the collective West has become utterly outrageous, obnoxious in its behavior towards the Others.  The latest tit for tat with China over news stations is just one other manifestation of this wild behavior that is begging for the slap in the face that Lavrov just administered. 

Today’s BBC was busy denouncing China for its cutting itself off from the world by ordering the closure of BBC World transmissions within the PRC.  There was barely mention of the announcement by the BBC in preceding days that it was closing the Chinese global news broadcaster in the UK for, as they said, being controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Regrettably, the Brits are behind what is now mutual excommunication and their underlying mentality is what always was best expressed by another bit of folk wisdom:  “Fog in the Channel,  Continent cut off.”

I cannot say whether Lavrov’s warning will sober minds in Europe, in the USA.  But it was made with all due seriousness and life will become pretty miserable for us all if Brussels does not back down and cease its threats and sanctions on Russia over made to order scandals having their authors in Washington.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

The post-Trump American political landscape

The three months from elections in the USA at the start of November through the first couple of weeks of the Biden presidency in February have been very turbulent, with dramatic changes in the balance of political forces virtually from week to week. Some of these contests have taken place in the courts or in Congress, others in the streets of Washington and in state capitals.

Even in the days just preceding the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President, the storming of the Capitol building by Trump sympathizers left uncertainty over the country’s stability and over the primacy of law. Although the pending impeachment proceedings against Trump mean that the country has yet to turn the page and move on, a return to normality may be approaching, as much as normality is possible in any respect during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

I propose in this brief essay to consider first the most important issue which Donald Trump raised before, during and after the elections, the issue which gave rise to the insurgency in the capital, the issue which he by design does not want to go away:  the legitimacy of the November 4th elections and thus the legitimacy of Biden’s holding power today. There are tactical and strategic sides to this issue.

The tactical dimension is very straightforward:  from even before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the Democrats did everything possible, both legal and illegal, both reasonable and insane, to wreck his coming presidency by calling into question his legitimacy. This line of attack was initiated by the Hilary Clinton campaign team, who had already in the summer of 2016 put out the message that Trump was a puppet of Putin. Immediately after the November election, the message of the Democrats changed to alleging an unholy collusion with the Kremlin leader to steal the election in November by hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s computers and feeding to the press dirt on Hilary and her allies. The whole “Russiagate” conspiracy theory, illogical and unproven as it may have been, was launched and expanded upon in January 2017 by release of the equally insane and unproven “Steele Report” that was intended not only to titillate the public by exposing Trump’s alleged sexual adventures in Moscow on earlier business visits but to insinuate that the incoming president would be subject to manipulation by the Kremlin, that he was subject to blackmail as a result of his past misconduct in their back yard.

This campaign to destroy the Trump presidency reached its culmination in the impeachment hearings in Congress of 2019. Trump was impeached but not removed by decision of the Senate. However, he remained under a cloud of suspicion to the end of his stay in office.

What Trump has been doing by his campaign to discredit the 4 November 2020 elections over allegations of voter fraud has been nothing more than paying back the Democrats for their past injuries to himself and his cause.

The strategic dimension, which will be put in play only if Trump passes the currently pending Senate vote on his impeachment and retains his political viability, will be to re-capture Congress in midterm elections of 2022 and possibly to recapture the presidency in 2024 using the argument that Biden and the Democrats are an illegitimate “regime” that came to power on the basis of fraudulent elections.

Is there any truth to Trump’s allegations that the Democrats “stole” the November 2020 elections?

Let me be perfectly clear:  Trump is correct in general but dead wrong on specifics.  He was never a towering intellect and certainly is not such today. His thinking is cloudy, not precise, just as his command of the English language has always been weak.

Trump has insisted that there were procedural violations relating to the mail-in ballots that handed the elections to his opponents. He cited ballots being given out to long dead citizens, the trashing of ballot boxes and other wrong-doing that cost him victory in a number of key states.  These charges were presented to the respective state and federal courts and were all rejected as unfounded.

However, in general, Trump is right that the election was handed to the Democrats when mail-in voting was made universal in the 2020 balloting on the basis of the Covid-19 pandemic entailing confinement and social distancing that would hamper operations at polling stations.  Given that registered Democrats nationally far exceed in numbers registered Republicans, the procedure of automatic dispatch of mail-in ballots to all registered voters meant necessarily a bias in favor of a Democratic victory.

Mail-in voting is a long tradition in the United States, but state by state, it has always been restricted to those who request it and justify their request by specific reasons such as being on out of state travel during election day or having some disability.  The 2020 mail-in ballots were issued without the voter having to raise a finger, meaning that voting was made easier, required less civic engagement than ever before.  This could only favor the majority party, namely the Democrats.  In this sense, yes, victory in the 2020 elections was virtually handed to the Democrats on a silver platter. If such voting procedures are used in 2022 and later, then the United States runs the risk of becoming a one-party state, akin to countries in Central Africa.

The Democrats have from 2016 tried to characterize Donald Trump as a psychologically unbalanced person, as an ugly, self-centered and infantile personality. They have willfully dismissed the merits of the political causes Trump championed as the populist candidate rebelling against the rule of elites in both parties who have during the past 40 years superintended over the sharp concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few and the generalized decline and fall of the American middle class and of unionized labor. Trump argued that the deindustrialization accompanying globalization, the credo of the elites, has brought about national disaster. In his own chaotic way, he earnestly addressed all of these issues in his four years in office. He created great destruction in the federal government and in foreign policy. In fact, this real estate tycoon from Manhattan acted as a revolutionary in power.

It is no wonder then that the Biden presidency represents a Restoration of traditional rule and values. The new president has made every effort to stress that “America is back” both in foreign and domestic policies to where it was before Trump.  But that is no longer possible and the continuing attempts of the Democrats to destroy Trump through impeachment make any return to the pre-2016 bipartisanship impossible. In his favor, thanks to bi-elections for Senate seats in the state of Georgia in early January, Biden enjoys Democratic control of both houses of Congress. But the majority is very slim in both houses and the more contentious Left-leaning legislative initiatives that Biden has in mind will likely not become law due to the failure of Democrats to maintain perfect unity.

We may expect that the new Administration will have greater success in setting a New-Old course in foreign policy, that is taking foreign policy back from “America First” to close collaboration with traditional allies in Europe and Asia.  Europeans have been mildly responsive to the new outreach from Washington. But the genie is out of the bottle: Europeans are turning away from total reliance on the United States for their military security and that trend will not change.

Otherwise, there is full consensus in Congress over the two main competitors/adversaries to the United States in global management, Russia and China. This means that the new Administration will only be changing the conduct of foreign policy towards both at the margins, mostly in terms of atmospherics, with a return to Cold War ideological and “values-led” actions.  

With respect to Russia, the United States under Biden is once again standing on the soap box and speaking in the name of the “Free World” against the supposedly autocratic and expansionist Kremlin. 

What lies ahead with respect to US policy on Russia?

A return to personal vilification of the Russian leader. A return to regime change operations of which the Navalny case is the foremost example as it is now being pressed by US and friendly European diplomacy in a manner reminiscent of the Maidan appearances of Nuland and others to encourage demonstrators to come out onto the streets and to disrupt the daily work of the Russian state. Engines of “orange revolutions” like Freedom House will surely see their budgets and authority in public raised by Biden.

We already see the beginning of a propaganda barrage with the highlighting of the old iconic personalities who are sworn enemies of the Russian state. For the first time in many years Gary Kasparov is being given the microphone for long rants on television against President Putin, against corruption and supposed theft of national wealth.  There will be a lot of such poisoning of the atmosphere.  Sanctions will be focused on individuals said to be supporting the Putin regime, from his trusted collaborators in major domestic projects like Rothenberg to simply successful and very wealthy Russians who have interests abroad.

Meanwhile, we may expect some very constructive and much-needed steps to restore mutual confidence between Russia and the West in the domain of strategic and particularly nuclear weapons. The decision to unconditionally extend for five years the expiring New START treaty is indicative in this regard.  For that small step forward to sanity in global relations we may be thankful.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Американский политический ландшафт после Трампа

Три месяца от выборов в США в начале ноября до первых двух недель президентства Джо Байдена в феврале были очень бурными, с резкими изменениями в балансе политических сил практически из недели в неделю. Некоторые из этих конкурсов проходили в судах или Конгрессе, другие – на улицах Вашингтона и в столицах штатов.

Даже в дни, предшествующие инаугурации Джо Байдена в качестве 46-го президента, штурм здания Капитолия сторонниками Трампа оставил неопределенность в отношении стабильности страны и верховенства закона. Хотя ожидающее рассмотрения дело об импичменте против Трампа в Сенате означает, что страна еще не перевернула страницу и не двинулась дальше, возвращение к нормальной жизни может приближаться, насколько это возможно в любом отношении во время продолжающейся пандемии Ковид-19.

В этом кратком эссе я предлагаю сначала рассмотреть самый важный вопрос, который Дональд Трамп поднял до, во время и после выборов, вопрос, который вызвал восстание в столице, вопрос, который он по замыслу не хочет уходить: легитимность выборов 4 ноября и, таким образом, легитимность пребывания Байдена у власти сегодня. В этом вопросе есть тактические и стратегические стороны.

Тактическая сторона вопроса очень проста: еще до инаугурации Трампа в январе 2017 года Демократы делали все возможное, как законное, так и незаконное, как разумное, так и безумное, чтобы сорвать его предстоящее президентство, поставив под сомнение его легитимность. Эта линия атаки была инициирована предвыборной командой Хилари Клинтон, которая уже летом 2016 года заявила, что Трамп – марионетка Путина. Сразу после ноябрьских выборов послание Демократов сменилось на обвинение в нечестивом сговоре с кремлевским лидером с целью сорвать выборы в ноябре, взломав компьютеры Демократического национального комитета и подпитывая прессу грязью на Хилари и ее союзников. Вся теория заговора «Russiagate», нелогичная и непроверенная, была запущена и расширена в январе 2017 года выпуском не менее безумного и непроверенного «Steele Report», который был призван не только возбудить общественность, разоблачив предполагаемые сексуальные приключения Трампа в Москве во время его предыдущих деловых визитов, но и инсинуировать, что будущий президент будет подвергаться манипуляциям со стороны Кремля, что он стал объектом шантажа в результате своих прошлых проступков на их территории.

Кульминацией этой кампании по уничтожению президентства Трампа стали слушания по импичменту в Конгрессе 2019 года. Трампа нашли виноватым в Палате предстасителей, но не удален решением Сената. Однако до конца своего пребывания на посту он оставался под подозрением.

То, что Трамп делал своей кампанией по дискредитации выборов 4 ноября 2020 года в связи с обвинениями в фальсификации результатов голосования, было ничем иным, как возмездием Демократам за нанесенные ими в прошлом повреждения себе и своему делу.

Стратегическим измерением, которое будет реализовано только в том случае, если Трамп пройдет голосование в Сенате по его импичменту в ближайшие дни и сохранит свою политическую жизнеспособность, будет повторный захват контроля над Конгрессом на среднесрочных выборах 2022 года и, возможно, повторный захват президентства в 2024 году с использованием аргументации о том, что Байден и Демократы являются незаконным “режимом”, пришедшим к власти на основе фальсифицированных выборов.

Есть ли правда в утверждениях Трампа о том, что Демократы “украли” выборы в ноябре 2020 года?

Позвольте мне быть предельно ясным: Трамп в целом прав, а в деталях – мертвецки неправ.  Он никогда не был возвышенным интеллектом и уж точно не такой сегодня. Его мышление мутное, неточное, как и всегда слабое владение английским языком.

Трамп настаивал на том, что имели место процедурные нарушения, связанные с рассылкой по почте бюллетеней для голосования, которые передавали победу его оппонентам. Он ссылался на бюллетени, раздаваемые давно умершим гражданам, выброшены в мусорные ящики и другие ошибки, которые стоили ему победы в ряде ключевых штатов.  Эти обвинения были представлены в соответствующие суды штатов и федеральные суды, и все они были отклонены как необоснованные.

Однако в целом Трамп прав в том, что выборы были переданы Демократам, когда голосование по почте стало всеобщим в ходе голосования 2020 года на основе пандемии Ковида-19, повлекшей за собой ограничения мобильности и социальное дистанцирование, что затруднило бы работу на избирательных участках.  Учитывая, что число зарегистрированных Демократов в стране значительно превышает число зарегистрированных Республиканцев, процедура автоматической рассылки бюллетеней для голосования по почте всем зарегистрированным избирателям обязательно означала предвзятое отношение в пользу победы Демократов.

Голосование по почте является давней традицией в Соединенных Штатах, но по штатам оно всегда ограничивалось только теми, кто просит об этом и обосновывает свою просьбу конкретными причинами, такими как выезд за пределы штата в день выборов или наличие некоторой инвалидности.  Бюллетени для голосования по почте на 2020 год были выпущены без необходимости поднимать палец, что означает, что голосование стало легче, потребовало меньшей, чем когда-либо ранее, гражданской активности.  Это могло благоприятствовать только партии большинства, а именно Демократам.  В этом смысле да, победа на выборах 2020 года была фактически передана Демократам на серебряном блюдечке. Если такие процедуры голосования будут применяться в 2022 году и позже, то Соединенные Штаты рискуют стать однопартийным государством, подобно странам Центральной Африки.

Демократы с 2016 года пытались охарактеризовать Дональда Трампа как психологически неуравновешенную личность, как уродливую, эгоцентричную и младенческую личность. Они умышленно отвергли достоинства политических причин, за которые выступал Трамп, как популистский кандидат, восставший против правления элит в обеих партиях, которые в течение последних 40 лет разрешили резкую концентрацию богатства в руках немногих и обобщенный упадок и падение американского среднего класса и профсоюзного труда. Трамп утверждал, что сопровождающая глобализацию деиндустриализация, кредо элит, привела к национальной катастрофе. Своим хаотичным образом он всерьез занялся всеми этими вопросами за четыре года своего пребывания на посту. Он создал большие разрушения в федеральном правительстве и во внешней политике. Фактически, этот манхэттенский магнат недвижимости действовал как революционер у власти.

Тогда неудивительно, что президентство Джо Байдена представляет собой Восстановление традиционного правления и ценностей. Новый президент приложил все усилия, чтобы подчеркнуть, что “Америка вернулась” как во внешней, так и во внутренней политике туда, где она была до Трампа.  Но это уже невозможно, и продолжающиеся попытки Демократов уничтожить Трампа через импичмент делают невозможным любое возвращение к консенсусу между партиями до 2016 года. В свою пользу Байден, благодаря выборам на два места в Сенате в штате Джорджии в начале января, имеет Демократический контроль над обеими палатами Конгресса. Но большинство в обеих палатах очень слабое, и более спорные левые законодательные инициативы, которые имел в виду Байден, скорее всего, не станут законом в связи с неспособностью Демократов сохранить совершенное единство.

Можно ожидать, что новая администрация добьется большего успеха в установлении нового курса во внешней политике, то есть вернет внешнюю политику от “Америки прежде всего” к тесному сотрудничеству с традиционными союзниками в Европе и Азии.  Европейцы мягко отреагировали на новое приглашение из Вашингтона быть друзьями. Но джинн вышел из бутылки: Европейцы отворачиваются от тотальной зависимости от Соединенных Штатов в обеспечении своей военной безопасности, и эта тенденция не изменится.

В противном случае, в Конгрессе существует полный консенсус в отношении двух главных конкурентов/врагов США в глобальном управлении – России и Китая. Это означает, что новая администрация будет менять внешнюю политику только по отношению к обоим на периферии, в основном в плане атмосферы, с возвращением к идеологическим и “ценностным” действиям времен “холодной войны”.  

Что касается России, то США при Байдене выступают от имени “Свободного мира” против якобы самодержавного и экспансионистского Кремля. 

Что впереди в отношении политики США к России?

Возвращение к личному очернению русского лидера. Возвращение к операциям по смене режима, главным примером которых является дело Навального, поскольку на него сейчас давят американские и дружественные европейские дипломаты, напоминая появление на Майдане Нуланда и других, чтобы побудить демонстрантов выйти на улицы и нарушить повседневную работу российского государства. Двигатели “оранжевых революций”, такие как Freedom House, наверняка увидят, как их бюджет и авторитет публично поднимается Байденом.

Мы уже видим начало пропагандистского шквала с выдвижением на первый план старых культовых личностей – заклятых врагов российского государства. Впервые за многие годы Гари Каспарову дают микрофон для длинных выступлений по телевидению против президента Путина, против коррупции и предполагаемого хищения национального богатства.  Такого отравления атмосферы будет много.  Санкции будут направлены против лиц, которые, как говорят, поддерживают режим Путина, от его доверенных коллег по крупным внутренним проектам, таким как Ротенберг, до просто успешных и очень богатых россиян, у которых есть интересы за границей.

Между тем, мы можем ожидать некоторых очень конструктивных и столь необходимых шагов для восстановления взаимного доверия между Россией и Западом в области стратегического и, в частности, ядерного оружия. Показательным в этом отношении является решение о безусловном продлении на пять лет истекающего нового Договора о СНВ.  За этот небольшой шаг вперед к здравому смыслу в глобальных отношениях мы можем быть благодарны.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

The EU’s Ship of Fools, Installment Two: The Financial Times Weighs In

Further to my latest essay excoriating the heads of the EU Institutions for mismanaging the 27 country-wide vaccination program to combat Covid-19, The Financial Times has weighed in today with a very similar critique, though, of course, stepping back into safe territory when looking at what, if anything, can be done to call to account those at the top of the Commission and the Council.

Today’s “Brussels Briefing” email to subscribers has as its lead article and main content “Von der Leyen under fire,” by Mehreen Khan. As is typical of these briefings, which are digests pointing the reader to detailed articles on aspects of the overall question of the day, Khan talks about Friday’s misstep of von der Leyen with respect to Ireland and the EU’s claims to monitor and control the shipment of vaccines from its territory to the rest of the world.  She points to the pending conflict with Japan and Canada that the same rash and highhanded policy of the Commission President has ignited.  And then in the middle of this twaddle, Khan comes to an essential question that underlies the whole failure of the vaccine program and much else in the daily business conducted by the EU Institutions.  We read with respect to Sandra Gallina, the commission’s director-general for health policy:

“Ms Gallina is expected to be quizzed by MEPs over the restrictions and a broader vaccine strategy that is struggling to meet demand. As the official in charge of negotiating contacts with drugmakers since last year, she has won plaudits for securing jabs at competitive prices. But with many EU regions having to halt vaccinations because of shortages, the strategy has prompted questions as to whether Brussels has wrongly prioritised cost over delivery.  Ultimately it is the commission president who will need to do the talking. Liberal MEP Sophie in t’Veld has demanded Ms von der Leyen explain the ‘procurement saga in a full and public session this week.’”

And Khan then goes to the political dimension of von der Leyen’s vaccination management :

“Ms von der Leyen faces a chorus of private criticism from officials and diplomats about how her centralised management was partly responsible for Friday’s mishap [over Ireland].  She has tried to defuse the furore by announcing that AstraZeneca will up its deliveries by 9m in the first quarter, to a total of 40m – still far shy of initial hopes.”

So where does all this lead in the view of the FT?  Nowhere, they say with comforting words: 

“Ms von der Leyen’s position is not under threat, as she retains the support of the powerful member states that got her the job (France and Germany).”

A lovely conclusion, but one arrived at by airbrushing the story of von der Leyen’s nomination and the confirmation process in the European Parliament.  The fact is that the appointment of the European Commission President was carried out in strict violation of the recently established tradition of giving the post to the head of the party that won the greatest number of votes in the elections to the European Parliament. That party was the German partner of the European People’s Party and it had a candidate who was sidelined under pressure from Emmanuel Macron at a time when Angela Merkel was on the back foot due to health and political problems.  Because of the scandals surrounding her mismanagement of the Defense Ministry in Germany, von der Leyen did not enjoy the united support of her own country, Germany, and as a result of that split, she barely, very barely won confirmation in the full voting of the Parliament.  Therefore, the FT’s conclusions about her unsinkability are very easily challenged.

But putting aside the question of von der Leyen’s political future and a possible vote of no confidence in the Parliament, the FT article points to a dimension of the decision making surrounding management of the Covid-19 crisis at the EU level and surely also at the national levels of Member States:  economizing in ways that are penny wise and pound foolish.

Given the economic devastation caused by Covid shutdowns, the only dike till now against uncontrollable replication of the virus, it is simply stupid to have prioritized cost saving in negotiations with the drug manufacturers over secure delivery schedules.

In light of the recent policy decision of Germany to disallow administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine among those over 65 years of age because of its apparent ineffectiveness in raising immunity in the old, who happen to be the most vulnerable group in the general population to serious illness and death from Covid, we have to ask what is the value of von der Leyen’s hammering the company over its failure to meet delivery promises.  Why is the Commission not turning instead to Pfizer, to Moderna and to others whose vaccines have given much more promising results for all age groups as detailed in Phase 3 studies.

Is von der Leyen planning to foist the AstraZeneca vaccine on seniors just because her scientific advisers made the wrong choice in choosing suppliers?  Then again, I raise my question about the whole decision-making process that excluded from consideration the Russian vaccine and other competing vaccines from around the world.

Let us hope that the MEPs in the coming week find a bit of courage to press these questions and put von der Leyen to a vote of no confidence.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

The EU’s Ship of Fools and Vaccinations against Covid-19

In my last essay dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, I spoke about the newly found courage on the part of the Belgian federal authorities to ‘do the right thing’ and introduce a well devised and limited confinement to turn back the Second Wave of Covid infections that struck the country in October and threatened to wreak havoc.  It is reasonable to say that the infection rate, hospitalization rate, ICU occupancy rate and mortality rates have been stable in the country for the past several weeks at a higher level than was hoped for but at a far lower level than was feared.  In my Covid 19 update essay I noted that the immediate problem  of combatting the pandemic in Belgium is the snail’s pace at which the vaccination program has been rolled out, and I pointed a finger in the direction of the European Institutions for letting down Belgium and the other Member States by their incompetent handling of the procurement of vaccines.

I was only a few weeks ahead of others in noting this disgrace. Now our newspapers and airwaves are full of condemnation of EU institutions for fumbling the ball, for falling far behind the United Kingdom, Israel and even…remarkably behind the United States which we all knew was until 20 January run by the infantile Donald Trump and his minders who took no heed of science.

To be specific, Belgium, now declares that 250,000 citizens have received their first jab of the vaccine, amounting to roughly 2% of the population and concentrated virtually exclusively in the population of nursing home/long term care patients and staff.  When the second priority group of over 65s will be invited to the vaccination centers no one can say.  Belgium shares this miserable vaccination to population rate with virtually all other EU States.  Meanwhile the UK has run ahead with more than 10% of the general population vaccinated and 80% of the oldest citizens already served.  The United States is just behind the UK in its success.

As I said in my last essay, the “buck stops” at the desk of the EU Commission President Ursula  von der Leyen who was a failed Minister of Defense in Germany surrounded by scandals and who was promoted for her post by Emmanuel Macron for reasons that not many people understood other than that she was a fluent French speaker and was not being promoted by her boss Angela Merkel.  

The buck also stops, of course, at the desk of Council President Charles Michel, whose tenure as Belgian prime minister was less than impressive, whose ideological stubbornness over the wrong cause – unlimited migration into the EU- brought down the government and whose main claim to his office was that he was his father’s son.    No, Mr. Michel, we do not forget your incompetence and ideological bent now, when competence, courage and pragmatism are precisely what is needed to save lives by daring action.

For those who decried Trump’s lack of appreciation for Science, let me remind them that it is precisely the scientific caution of the advisory body to the EU on approval of vaccines that is behind the present catastrophic shortage of vaccines.  The EU authorities have let the scientists take decisions that are, in the final analysis, political and not technocratic. They have been terribly slow in granting authorization for use of any of the vaccines that are now being distributed in the world.  They have created a non-tariff barrier to importation, distribution and use of these life-saving medicines.

In the USA Trump ran roughshod over the opinion of the FDA, over the office of Dr. Fauci, and the result has been vastly better than the Science-respecting European Union politicians have wrought.

And, in conclusion, I want to add one further dimension to my condemnation of the EU leaders for depriving us of the vaccines that could save lives right now and could prevent the development of new and still more threatening  mutations of Covid-19 by creating herd immunity and shutting down replication. Remember, no replication means no mutations.

The further dimension is once again ideological – the stubborn, self-destructive refusal to cooperate with Russia, and with China, to make their vaccines available to the European public and so speed up greatly the immunization process.  From mass media reports that the Russians had stolen the Astra Zeneca vaccine, which like all such reporting is done in the service of press releases coming from the respective ministries of propaganda, to the reports that the Russian vaccine was not supported by release of technical data on the tests of Phase 3 comparable to data put out by Western producers, there has been a concerted campaign to frustrate any cooperation with the big neighbor to the East that is, in effect, abuse of power by EU leaders to the detriment of the European population.

Now that there is a hue and cry in a number of states, and I think in particular of the latest denunciation of EU practices on the vaccination coming from the Minister President of Bavaria, who happens to be a leading candidate to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor, I hope that the issues sketched above will be treated with the seriousness they deserve and that the offending leaders will be called to account.  Europe may not have “impeachment” but many countries do have “recall.”  It should be applied to the current top office holders of the EU Institutions.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

Belgium and Covid: An Update

In the wake of the first wave of Covid-19 infections, I issued a couple of essays very critical of the way Belgium mismanaged the pandemic so as to arrive at one of the world’s worst levels of mortality. Notwithstanding the replacement between the two pandemic waves of an interim government operating at less than full powers for more than a year by a new multiparty government enjoying the support of a majority in the legislature, Belgium’s numbers early in the second wave were not very encouraging.  Indeed, looking at the more than 20,000 deaths due to Covid that have occurred in this country since March 2020, half were in the first wave, when there was general confusion over testing, over the value of face masks, over treatment of those hospitalized, and half have occurred since September, when the medical profession and the political powers should have learned a great deal from the past errors.

However, at present it would seem that by one measure at least, Belgium is finally headed in the right direction and, strange to say, is doing far better than other Member States of the European Union.  At the very moment when the United Kingdom, Italy, Portugal, Spain and a number of other countries in Europe are reporting levels of infection, hospitalization and death that go well above the same measures in Wave One, Belgium has over the past month recorded a very solid retracing in all of these metrics.  Yes, these same numbers began ballooning out as from August and reached frightful levels in October-November, but then the government slammed on the brakes and installed what might be called Lockdown Lite, which struck at the most dangerous spreaders of the virus and left unfettered most of the economy.  All restaurants and cafes were shut, except for take-out service. Bars were shut. All theaters and other venues of public entertainment were shut. All “contact” services, meaning hairdressers, manicure salons and the like were shuttered. All nonessential stores and services were stopped, but only for several weeks, and then reopened. Most important, all schools from primary through secondary school were left open. Only higher education was put on the remote learning regime. And as regards social life, it was curtailed to a great extent by strict limits on receiving persons outside the immediate household or gatherings outside the home.

At present this has reduced the daily number of hospitalizations to 125, those in hospital number less than 2,000 of which those in Intensive Care are down to 360. This, in a country with a population of over 11 million.  The closely watched R number is now 0,95.  The rate of positives from testing is down to 5%.  And the number of tests conducted daily has been vastly increased to the level of more than 40,000 at present. Talk of increasing numbers of infections detected daily, which we find in the Belgian dailies yesterday and today, fail to mention the surge in tests carried out which fully explain the situation.

Kudos is due to the fragile show of courage and perseverance of the present federal government. Experts hold out the prospect that by mid-February daily hospital admissions may fall by half, bringing the medical situation back under full control.

That being said, the patience of the public over the lockdown is wearing thin and each day editorials in La Libre belgique are giving out doses of solace, balm to the feelings of desperation and depression that abound in the population.

Moreover, lockdown is only a time-buying measure until herd immunity is reached via the vaccine. And that is where Belgian authorities now are in trouble once again.  The immunization program is moving at a snail’s pace.  So far only the Pfizer vaccine is being administered and in medicine drop scale.  The priority population, residents and staff of old age homes and similar long term care institutions, are the sole recipients and the schedule for full vaccination in this limited group reaches into mid to late February. There is no transparency on the likely schedule for vaccinating other groups of the population.

Today’s Belgian newspapers announce the arrival of the Moderna vaccine at a number of hospital centers. However, when I phoned one, Iris Sud in Brussels and enquired about the possibility of receiving a vaccination, I was told to take this question up with my communal administration.  I duly phoned Ixelles, who told me that the convocations to vaccination are being handled by the Brussels Regional government, and of course, no one can say whom to address there.

The bigger and underlying issue is that Belgium has access to only a small fraction of the vaccine doses it needs to conduct a mass vaccination program with any sense of urgency.  And beyond that critical failing is…that bureaucratic monster, the European Union, where the buck stops at the desk of head of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen.  In recent days, as critical voices have been raised in various countries over the miserable pace of allocating vaccines von der Leyen has been talking about only one issue: how to ensure that the entire Union marches in lockstep towards….the abyss.

Let us be frank:  von der Leyen was an incompetent Minister of Defense in Angela Merkel’s cabinet and she is proving to be a thick-headed and unimaginative chief executive of the EU Institutions.

One has to wonder how long will the frayed social fabric of Europe stay in place when the Union’s vaccination program makes such poor comparison with now liberated and “sovereign” Britain and with that paragon of vice and incompetence, the United States, which as of today leads the ‘free world” and “rest of the world” not only in numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths but also in the rate of immunization to population.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

The Russian Booker Prize for Literature

  The Russian Booker

                                  Chapter Seven in Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II

My time serving as chairman of the Russian Booker literary prize extended across the four years covered in the two previous chapters, 1998-2002. But it was an activity quite distinct from the day to day business issues that my jobs and consultancies entailed, and for that reason I have decided to devote this special chapter to the Booker.

To be sure, I was appointed chairman in 1998 ex officio, that is to say because I was the Managing Director of the UDV/Diageo operations in Russia and the company was paying the costs of this competition as general sponsor. However, I was retained as chairman for more than two years after I left Diageo, so long as the company remained general sponsor, at the explicit request of the UK Booker because of what was perceived as my outstanding contribution to the award’s growing renown within Russia. Why this perception was justified I will explain shortly by describing exactly what initiatives were undertaken under my direction to reach out to additional stakeholders in the literary establishment, namely libraries, publishers, book sellers

Before proceeding to recount my experiences running the Booker Prize within Russia, I propose to take a step back and explain what the Booker meant to me and why.

If the reader is at a loss as to what the “Booker” Prize for Fiction was all about, I am forgiving.  More than that, I offer the comforting admission that I had not a clue about this literary competition before I was named to take over its Russian offshoot. The fact is that the Booker Prize occupied a place in British cultural life out of all proportion to its standing in the United States or on Continental Europe.  As regards the USA, the administrators of the Booker had decided from the beginning of its existence to exclude American authors from competing out of fear they would overwhelm British and Commonwealth authors. Consequently the competition attracted only specialist attention there. I note that this has very recently been overturned, and Americans are now eligible for the Prize. As regards the Continent, the prize competition that captured top of mind was the Prix Goncourt in Paris, which was much older and better established among cultural elites.

However, once I was introduced to the concept and procedures of the UK Booker Prize during meetings with the administrators in London, once I participated for the first time in a Prize dinner, when the suspense of waiting for the jury’s decision electrified a very privileged audience of predominantly businessmen and politicians in the prestigious Guildhall in the City of London, I understood that the Booker plc under its chairman Sir Michael Caine had created a brilliant cultural institution that had no equal anywhere.

The history of the Prize is all by itself quite remarkable. The public versions I have seen in Wikipedia and on the Prize’s latest website are incomplete or air brushed in favor of those who have controlled the prize after Booker plc was gobbled up by the Icelandic Group and lost control of its creation to a succession of other corporate sponsors. Here I wish to set down in brief the version I heard from Sir Michael Caine and his assistants, and most especially to record what they said motivated them.

Booker plc traced its roots to the “colonial” trade in the first half of the 19th century when it estrablished itself as the controlling force in sugar production and export from British Guyana. In the 1990s, it had turned itself into a major food wholesaler in the UK. As from the 1960s, it had used tax loopholes to invest in author’s copyrights. Per Sir Michael, the first success in this vein was its purchase of the rights to royalties from Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, in his final years when he was ailing and in need of cash. The company later bought the rights to the works of Agatha Christie and others.  These investments produced a cash stream well above expectations and Sir Michael decided to return these funds to the literary establishment by setting up the Booker Prize for Fiction at the end of the 60s.

Over time he and his collaborators at Booker set rules for conducting the literary competition which generated public excitement in the process of selecting the Long List, then the Short List and finally the jury vote on a winner announced during the aforementioned splendid dinner event.  The rules specified that the prize would go to a work of fiction in English published in the preceding year and that every year there would be a new jury consisting of literary critics, people in the arts and eminent political personalities named by the advisory committee. The idea was that literary excellence has many dimensions and only by changing the jury could you avoid staleness and partiality to one style at the expense of others having equal or greater claims to talent and originality. Unlike so many competitions in the arts where awards go to friends of friends, or are given for lifetime accomplishments, the Booker Prize sought out excellence in one year’s harvest of literature without prejudice. Indeed, in the 1990s, the juries could show great courage in resisting political correctness. The result was to make the competition suspenseful and socially exciting.

The prize money reserved for the winner of the prize was substantial, but the still greater value to the shortlisted six and to the single winner was the prominence given to their works in every bookstore in the UK upon publication of the Short List. For his part the winner could expect sales numbering in the hundreds of thousands of copies. At the three prize dinners which Larisa and I attended, the top level business executives seated at our table may not have read the shortlisted books, but their wives all did.  To my experience, the Booker Prize in the late 1990s succeeded in generating great interest in contemporary English language literature, far greater than the hoary Prix Goncourt did for French language literature, as measured in book sales.

For that matter, my experience with the U.K. prize changed entirely my own view of modern fiction in the English language. Reading the shortlisted books year after year, I came to appreciate that among them were works in no way inferior to the “classics” from the 19th century and early 20th century that I had read in secondary school. Just to name a few of the Booker winners that attracted my great admiration during my time in the milieu, I direct attention to Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999), Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000) and Life of Pi byYann Martel (2002). I had little doubt that a couple of them are works of genius. Whether they become “classics” only time will tell.

The decision of Sir Michael in 1992 to set up a Russian Booker Prize also had a logic to it that I heard from him and his associates but do not see anywhere today on the internet.  Booker plc had business dealings with Russia (Soviet Union) going back decades relating to tinned salmon caught and produced there, distributed in the UK by Booker.  So the country was on the corporation’s map.  But it was also in the consciousness of Sir Michael, the intellectual, who was known to have great admiration for the Russian literary traditions going back to Dostoevsky, Gogol and Pushkin.  Watching the devastation of the Russian economy and the hardship that all of Russian culture was undergoing, Sir Michael and his team decided to lend a helping hand to Russian authors by setting up a Booker prize competition in Moscow.

I did not see very much of Sir Michael in the months following my appointment as chairman of the Russian Booker in December 1998 to his death in March 1999. But I did see his team of prize administrators who were an impressive lot and who spoke very well of the founder.  For that reason, I was pleased to pay tribute to him for his generosity of spirit towards Russian literature by proposing that a bronze bust be sculpted in Russia and donated to the UK.  The bust was duly executed by a very talented and today very prominent sculptor, Gyorgy Frangulian. It is now on display in one of the colleges of Oxford University.

The Russian Booker Prize that I took over in December 1998 had little in common with the original other than the name and worthy ambitions. The impartiality and professional excellence of the administration and jury were questionable.  The advisory committee choosing the jury was very conservative and, I would say, small-minded. They tended to choose juries in their own image. However, the biggest problems were not on our side but lay in the deplorable state of Russian publishing. As I recall, almost all of the novels presented for the prize competition had been published in Russia’s “fat” literary journals, not as self-standing books from a commercial publishing house. Then there was the near absence of authors delivering quality fiction. The field was demoralized by the economic chaos in the country and depleted. The few authors who were exciting, even scandalous, were not recognized by our conservative juries. I think in particular of Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin.

Russians had been writing a great deal over the preceding decade that began with Glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev. But they were writing and reading non-fiction. What little fiction was published tended to be in the genre described not very sympathetically as чернуха, which one dictionary describes as “a gloomy genre of Russian horror, everything negative in everyday life (e.g. cruelty, poverty, violence).” Needless to say, this is not a genre which sells many books. Otherwise, the most popular fiction of the time was the series around detective Fandorin written by the author Boris Akunin. Fine literature was hard to find.  Accordingly it was a great task to identify enough published novels for the Long List to appear presentable.

Meanwhile, book distribution was in a parlous state. Books which were being sold in the capitals never made it out to the country at large, not even to the cities with populations over one million.

The first Russian Booker winner under my chairmanship was a case that fits perfectly the situation described above, Strange Letters by Alexander Morozov. The author had just published a novel written thirty years previous but which had remained in his desk drawer all that time because it was a scathing critique of Soviet domestic life.

Over the next several years, the Russian Booker was more successful in identifying currently active serious authors. In my second year, 2000, the jury recognized as winner Mikhail Shishkin, then as now living in Switzerland, for his novel The Taking of Izmail [Взятие Измаила]. The work was truly a credit to the national literature.

In my third year, 2001, I had the pleasure of presenting the award to Ludmilla Ulitskaya for her socially engaged work The Kukotsky Case. A photo of the two of us on the dais proudly hangs on the wall of my Brussels home office. Ulitskaya now lives in Israel, has many friends and admirers in the USA, and visits Russia often. Her winning did more credit to the Prize than added luster to her name.

I tried hard to raise the excitement surrounding the Russian Booker by inviting onto the jury well known and loved personalities from the Russian arts. Over the years these included the actor Sergei Yurski, cinematographer Valery Todorovsky,as well as the director of the Helikon Opera in Moscow and Dmitry Bertman.

To the advisory committee I brought the former dissident and satirical novelist Vladimir Voinovich, who was then living in Germany, and Yuri Belyavsky, editor-in-chief of the influential Kultura weekly newspaper. Belyavsky was the one who put us together with our next sponsors, the Open Russia Foundation of Khodorkovsky, thus providing for financial continuity at a crucial moment. We knew him from Larisa’s publishing some of her music and theater reviews in his paper. I also saw to it that a prominent librarian from one of the larger provincial cities was added to the advisory committee.

Within our budgetary constraints we staged glamorous, socially significant awards dinners in the grand ballroom of the Metropole Hotel in Moscow, inviting in well-known and popular performers, like Bolshoi tenor Nikolai Baskov, and featuring live music by high quality chamber orchestras. We successfully attracted media to our events. To be sure, there was no live television coverage as in England, but we won time on the evening news broadcasts and in the print media.

My work on the Russian Booker included some important new initiatives. One was to take the Booker prize winners to the regions. I accompanied Morozov to several of these remote book presentations, in Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg. Another was to meet with the book publishing trade, which was in formation at the time to see what could be done to get new Russian novels into print and into circulation in book stores, which were badly undercapitalized like all of the Russian economy. We hosted a seminar that brought together industry leaders. Among the booksellers, the lady managing director of the landmark Dom Knigi bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg, Samokhvalova, was an enthusiastic supporter of these measures.

I wish to extend a bouquet to the British Embassy which contributed significantly to the success of my initiatives by lending its prestige and physical assistance to Russian Booker activities. Ambassador Andrew Wood and his wife kindly hosted luncheons at their residence for our visiting colleagues from the U.K. Booker. His successor David Gowan also lent a hand to some of my Booker activities.

The total budget of The Russian Booker was $250,000 per year during my time in charge.  Of that $15,000 was given to the first prize winner. Runners-up in the Short List got nominal compensation.  Meanwhile, the jury and advisory committee received no compensation for their time, only reimbursement of travel and lodging for out-of-towners. While Diageo was sponsor, the administrative charges to the Prize were minimal. Our significant costs were the hospitality to journalists and guests at each of the events in the awards process and costs relating to the seminars for booksellers and others that we organized. Then there were typography costs for our printing the novels of our laureates as self-standing books in a retrospective collection

The second half of my tenure as Chairman of the Russian Booker was complicated by administrative and financial problems that had their origin on the British side. We had been receiving a good deal of advice and assistance from the Booker organization which came to a halt when Booker plc was taken over by the Icelandic Group and the ownership of the Prize for Fiction was hived off, landing after some time in limbo in the hands of the investment management Man Group, who eventually carried it forward for several years but had no interest in the Russian Booker. Accordingly we applied our energies to seeking out new sponsors once it was clear that Diageo would not continue its support indefinitely.

We were compelled to set up a Russian legal entity in order to continue to manage the prize ourselves according to our precepts while soliciting new sponsors. Together with our Literary Secretary, Professor Igor Shaitanov, I incorporated the Russian Booker Foundation and assumed its presidency and responsibilities of financial director.

The management of the Russian Booker logically was going to be made fully “native” once the foreign sponsor was replaced by a local Russian sponsor which happened in mid-2002, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russian Foundation took over from Diageo. That set the stage for my departure after the awards ceremony in December.

I present in Part Two a verbatim transcript of a meeting that Shaitanov and I went to at the headquarters of the Open Russia Foundation in downtown Moscow in August 2002. The reason of our visit was the sponsor’s withholding of funds that we urgently needed to move on from the Long List presentation to the next stage in the competition, the Short List presentation. These events were costly, entailing rental of hotel premises and equipment for a press conference, as well as sizable catering costs for our generous feed to journalists.

My purpose in including the transcript was less to show how our sponsors were ordering us to falsify expense documentation for their convenience than to show their open contempt for the independence of jury concept that made the Booker such an exceptional and praiseworthy literary competition.

A fish rots from the head, and this contempt for the bottom-up principles of civil society came from Khodorkovsky and his colleague and fellow oligarch Nevzlin. What kind of chap was Nevzlin is fairly clear from my mention of his words of welcome at the given meeting. He did not bother to repeat to us the claptrap about building Russian civil society that Igor offered to be ingratiating. No, Nevzlin talked about his interests in getting to know the new patrons of the Booker in the U.K., the financial advisory group.

I was therefore not in the least surprised when I heard from friends within the Booker advisory committee that in 2003 the Prize was awarded to the winning author on direct instructions from Mikhail Khodorkovsky who overrode the wishes of the jury. Khodorkovsky gave these instructions from his prison cell. He had been arrested for financial crimes in October 2003 and would eventually be meted out a lengthy prison term.

The charges against Khodorkovsky and the scandal which enveloped Yukos led the Russian Booker’s administrators to search for a new sponsor of the prize. Eventually the eminently respectable U.K. firm British Petroleum stepped in and took over the financing of the prize for several years.

Before closing this chapter, I wish to add a word about who was running the day to day operations of Khodorkovsky’s charitable foundation.  Irina Yasina, Maria Orzhonikidze and the other mainly female managers were the offspring of Communist nomenklatura going back to Stalinist times who held on to their privileges and elitist views under the new regime of “democratic” Russia forged by Boris Yeltsin and his entourage.

This brings me to draw attention to an article from the Exile that is also presented in Part II where the author remarks how unfortunate it is that Westerners view the political contests going on in Russia in their elections as a fight between good and evil, between democracy and autocracy, when it is nothing more than a fight between contending interest groups for power. Regrettably from the end of the 1990s to present in 2021 our mainstream media and political classes have not become more enlightened and reasonable in the way they describe politics in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble.  Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s will go to press in one month]