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.

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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.

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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.

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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   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 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.” (

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

Russian elections of 8 September: initial conclusions

Russia’s nationwide elections at the level of local government which took place on 8 September attracted extraordinary attention in Western media, given that, at best, they could be viewed as a very preliminary indication of popular sentiment towards the “Putin regime” midway between the presidential election of 2018 and the next Duma (parliamentary) elections of 2021.

In fact, nearly all Western journalistic attention was focused on the race for the Moscow city legislative council because that is where the so-called ‘non-systemic opposition’ led by anti-corruption activist and one-day presidential hopeful Alexei Navalny had chosen to make a stand against the Kremlin by all means fair and foul.

Navalny and others in the various anti-Putin movements denounced the disqualification of candidacies to the Moscow city council from their own midst by the electoral officials on technical grounds of insufficient numbers of signatures of supporters to qualify or of falsified signatures.  Whether or not such disqualification of candidates whose normal level of voter support among the general population of Moscow would have been on the order of one or two percent was justified or arbitrary, the confrontation it sparked between the non-systemic opposition and the government escalated from war of words to successive, unauthorized street demonstrations. Tens of thousands came out to protest in Moscow. Moreover, what began as peaceful demonstrations ended on several days in violent clashes with police that assumed significant political dimensions because of the numbers of participants involved and the allegations of excessive use of force by the authorities.


I have introduced this essay by reference to “Western media” coverage of the elections. From the very beginning, Western media saw in Navalny and his fellow-protesters champions of democracy against an authoritarian if not autocratic regime. On the other hand, from my own observations, the man-in-the-street’s opinion of these activists, at least outside of Moscow, was that they were the paid lackeys of the United States hell-bent on recreating the chaos of the 1990s when Russia was the ‘sick man of Europe.’  It remained to be seen on election day, 8 September, whether the broad electorate would be indifferent to the cause of the non-systemic opposition or be moved to embrace them by the harsh treatment they were receiving from the ruling establishment.


As it turned out, the Russian elections of 8 September were held in an atmosphere of relative calm, both nationwide and in Moscow.  There were no noteworthy scandals, no voting irregularities, and no necessity for run-offs to decide the victor in close races. The polling results were unremarkable for the country as a whole, though they certainly provided grist for the Putin doomsayers in the West as regards the city of Moscow.


Headlines of first reporting on the Russian elections in Western mainstream media carried the message that the Kremlin had suffered a major setback, that the Putin regime was unravelling and that the ‘liberal opposition’ had scored victory. The most surprising feature of this reporting was  identification of Duma parties (Communists, Fair Russia, Yabloko) which did well in the city of Moscow (taking 13 seats, 3 seats and 4 seats respectively to United Russia’s 25) as now constituting a veritable ‘opposition’ to the governing party. Over the years, they have all been characterized by the West as ‘Kremlin projects,’ tame parties allowed to exist solely to provide a semblance of democratic choice. This time, of course, was different. They, and particularly the Communists, had received the backing of Alexei Navalny in his ‘smart voting’ advocacy meant to bring down United Russia at any cost.


In the past, I never agreed with the notion that the Duma opposition parties were just “pets.” I always saw them as having and often trying to implement in the Duma, legislative programs at greater or lesser variance with United Russia’s as regards domestic policies such as health care, education, pension reform, etc.  Except for Yabloko, which is odd man out, these systemic opposition parties are supporters of Vladimir Putin’s energetic foreign policy defending Russian national interests. That is so not because they are appealing to the Kremlin but because they are appealing to the general population, which overwhelmingly supports that foreign policy.  The odd man out, Yabloko, can gather its several percent of the vote, as just happened in the elections this past weekend, and will do no better given their fifth column, anti-patriotic foreign policy stance.


Let me begin my own estimation of the 8 September elections with the contests in the ‘regions.’

The 16 races for governorships do not seem to provide much material for creative analysis. United Russia won hands down, without serious challenges. The only region where United Russia lost control of local government was in Khabarovsk where they were overwhelmed by the Liberal Democrats (LDPR), who held the governorship. Not surprising there, because Zhirinovsky’s appeal to patriotism above and beyond the level nourished by the Kremlin has a ready audience in the Far East and their man on the spot was exceptional.


Why United Russia won in the regions has to be examined in each separate case, of course, but there is an overriding principle which has not much to do with carousel voting or other possible abuses, or even with the party’s domination of media.  I know the issue very well from the case of acting governor Beglov in St Petersburg, where I am a frequent visitor. Bland as he may be, he represents Kremlin investments in the region:  elect him and major infrastructure projects will be financed, elect someone else and the region will go penniless.  That results not merely from top down hardball politics but from the sadder fact that Russian bottom-up government has very few sources of income not tied to the federal taxes. Sooner or later, Russia will raise the property taxes at the local level from their pitifully low level to something more serious and then when the regions are self-financed, the thumb of Moscow on the scales of local politics will weigh much less. But that reform will come only after the Center is persuaded that locally elected officials have the competence and the integrity to spend their revenues wisely, without a flow of directives and inspectors coming from Moscow.


The Moscow city council elections are a very different case. They were highlighted by Navalny and other non-systemic opposition for the purposes of mobilizing the general population and grabbing media attention, which they certainly did.


Yes, United Russia was humiliated, losing more than one-third of its seats.  But it is more problematic to say who won.  It is particularly difficult to assess the influence of Navalny on the outcome.  One could read in some Western outlets that his support for the Communists explains their tripling their results over the last council elections to win a total of 13 seats on the council.  That reckoning is debatable.  In fact, the line-up of “winners” is precisely the same as in Duma elections, with the Communists doing three or four times better than any one of the other Duma parties. That they did poorly in the last presidential elections was due largely to Zyuganov’s not having done due diligence on his non-party candidate Grudinin and the exposure of his property abroad and expropriation of assets from the farming cooperative he headed.


In any case, the idea put up by one leading Western newspaper that Moscow’s liberal opposition ‘held its nose’ and voted for the Communists at the urging of Navalny does not stand up to critical analysis. The Communists have their own loyal supporters, who number at least the share they received at the polls not counting any liberals who may have been sent their way by Alexei Navalny.

A separate issue is why in light of all the hullabaloo over the Moscow elections the turn-out there was just 21%.  I have not seen this issue discussed though it is critical to understanding what happened on 8 September.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019


Letter from Orlino, August 2019

For the past several years, it has become a tradition for my wife and I to spend at least a month of summer at a house in the country south of St Petersburg. We settle down to a regimen of heavy gardening on a 1400 square meter property administratively designated for“subsistence farming” in the hamlet of Orlino, population 400, which falls within the Gatchina district of Leningradskaya Oblast.

Orlino is not just any destination. It is situated alongside a large lake of the same name measuring one half km by 6 km which has no big noisy beaches but many small coves for the enjoyment of local residents. Access to water is by way of 4 meter wide sand-bottomed corridors between reeds and water lilies or from boulders set on the shoreline.  With barely enough room on shore to lay out a beach towel, there are no barbecue parties coming here and consequently little or no litter to spoil the pristine nature.

Boating quays exist for those who come with inflatable rubber rowboats – no motor craft are allowed.  This attracts the usual complement of amateur fisherman who sometimes come away from a day “at sea” with a good sized pike, but more usually have to content themselves with minnows suitable to feed the cats. Their luck depends on the air and water temperature: the higher they rise, the more likely the large fish are to leave the shores for deepest parts of the lake which are fed by cold springs.

Swimming in the lake similarly depends heavily on days being sunny and warm, to heat up this large expanse of water that is permanently replenished with very cold subterranean waters.  With some luck, the surface water of the lake warms to well over 20 degrees Centigrade. This warm layer may first extend down to 20 cm, but after several consecutive days of true summer weather, may go as deep as a meter.  On the other hand, a day of strong winds can mix up the layers and attenuate the pleasure of a dip in the lake.

There being no bars, cafes or other places of socialization apart from the church and the library in Orlino, almost no teenagers set foot here.  Instead, youth is predominantly represented by toddlers and kindergarten age children, usually accompanied to the lake by grandparents or parents.  The librarian on her own initiative does what she can to amuse the older children of this cohort by organizing chess competitions, outdoor ‘concerts’ in the adjacent park and treating those who come to the library with cakes and candies.

Orlino enjoys an historic reputation as the site of an estate owned by the Counts Stroganoff, of which only the ruins of a tower remain.  The most imposing monument from the pre-Revolutionary past is the Orthodox Church, which is situated on a property, overlooking the water line, has magnificent golden cupolas which are visible from far out on the lake, and is both large in scale and quite active as a social center thanks to financial support from an unnamed oligarch living in the region.

The forests which still remain in this area once attracted Shishkin and other famous Russian painters of the late 19th century.  At a distance of 10 km from Orlino is the well-known 19th century resort town Siversk, which is memorialized on souvenir photos of that age by views of the fast moving Oredezh River that passes through its middle. Over the course of centuries, the Oredezh cut through red sandstone of the higher bank, exposing admirable geological formations to the many sportsmen who do white water canoeing down the river. In Soviet times, Siversk was a center for children’s Pioneer summer camps and so is well known to St Petersburgers of a certain age.

At a similar distance but in another direction is the family homestead of the Nabokovs at Rozhdestveno, where for about a year before the Revolution Vladimir Nabokov  was the owner of the large wooden manor house, today a museum, that had been built in the late 18th century by Catherine the Great to house her regional governor. The surrounding locale is described in his autobiographical volume Speak Memory.


At the conclusion of each annual sojourn in Orlino, I have established a corresponding tradition of writing up my experiences as they bear on the general wellbeing or otherwise of Russians living in the Northwest of the country. This year as I approached the task I wondered what I might talk about because the only outstanding news was meteorological.  The weather was disappointing though in no dramatic way.  We did not have record heat waves as in Western Europe about which to complain or philosophize over global warming.  Nor did we have weeks upon weeks of never-ending rain as happened here two and three years ago.  It was just overcast and cold for most of the six weeks of our stay.  A stable weather system over Western and Central Russia extending to beyond the Urals brought a cover of arctic air to the entire area.

Given the unseasonal and gloomy weather for much of this time, Orlino was very quiet.  No day visitors.  Only the local residents busy tending their potatoes and vegetables, taking their Saturday evening saunas and gossiping over fences.  The only noise to break the general silence was the high-pitched whining of gas-powered trimmers that every property-owner uses in lieu of lawn mowers, there being few if any proper “lawns” in the Russian countryside, the evening barking of bored or frustrated dogs, and the cacophony of swarms of crows surveying our fields from on high.

However, during the six sunny days when the temperature soared to 30 degrees C, Orlino instantly turned into a resort.  From morning to late evening, there were processions of visitors from nearby settlements coming for a refreshing swim.  Dozens of cars were parked along the sides of roads leading down to the lake. And the general store was doing a brisk business in cold beer and pre-packed single portions of ice cream.

Just as I was despairing of extracting something of political or socio-economic importance from our 2019 experience of rural life in the Russian Northwest, Le Monde Diplomatique plumped in my lap an article entitled “Dachas fall from favour as holiday homes. Russia’s vanishing summerfolk” by journalist Christophe Trontin to which I can now respond drawing upon latest first-hand impressions. See

The teaser introduction to the article goes on to say: “The dacha, so familiar from Chekhov’s plays, has lost its appeal for most Russians, who now don’t have to grow their own produce and can often holiday abroad. Can the new downshifters save these unloved summer houses?”
I take my hat off to the author for doing his research thoroughly.  The half or more of the article that is devoted to the history of the dacha [country property] in Russia from the 18th century through Soviet times will be useful to those seeking an introduction to the subject. But the researched, that is to say secondary source nature of the given article is both its weakness as well as its strength. As for the present and future projections, it is based on economic and demographic statistics gathered by others, not on the author’s own experience of countryside life and conversations with people living there. Trontin relies too much on appraisals of the dacha market as determined by Moscow region real estate agents. The Moscow region may well be an important indicator of trends of this national market as it is of trends in other Russian markets, but Russia is vast and the country house phenomenon exists outside all its urban areas.

The author claims that “Russians are falling out of love with their dachas because there are so many other leisure options..” In particular he points to options for spending vacation time abroad  – “the middle classes opt for package holidays in Turkey, Thailand and the Red Sea, or cultural tours of Europe.”  And quite importantly the dacha no longer is needed to provide food on the table:  “…now that fruit and vegetables are available all year round in Russian supermarkets, a major attraction of the dacha has gone.”


I will begin my counter-arguments to the author’s overarching thesis with the last named, always basing myself on what I see around me in Orlino and not on abstract considerations.   The author is ignorant of an irrefutable trend among the Russian middle and upper classes: namely concern to live in ecologically pure environments and to eat organically grown food in which no pesticides or artificial fertilizers have been applied, which are not only GMO free but are coming from traditional seed pools as opposed to seeds merchandised globally by several (Western) multinational corporations.  The bio food trend largely explains the latest fad observable everywhere in the Russian countryside:  high technology greenhouses.

I noted the appearance of these greenhouses around me on Orlino properties last year.  This year the trend has continued so that many homeowners, including those who otherwise do not have the land or inclination to maintain potato fields, now own two or more such greenhouses in a compact area next to their houses. In these greenhouses they grow a profusion of fruits and vegetables which by their short shelf life or rarity are not sold by supermarket chains. Russian supermarkets, like supermarkets everywhere, depend on large scale and regular supplies of given produce that does not bruise easily, so that variety is always relatively limited.

The dachniki share what they grow with family; they tin the surplus, as applicable.  As one neighbor deeply involved in this process replied when I asked what he buys when he goes to the supermarket:  “bread.”  The rest he provides for himself. In this respect, growing produce is one more dimension of self-reliance, alongside having one’s own artesian well, own septic system, own log-fed heating system and “own” bottled gas for the stove. The only regular bills to arrive from the outside world are for electricity: the Russian countryside has yet to discover the merits of solar panels for house roofs, though one day it may well do so, more for reasons of pride than for economy.

As regards the less affluent, particularly the older generation of pensioners, I have often wondered why year after year they put in 600 square meters of potatoes, beets and onions when these commodity products are so cheap at supermarkets and when their own produce in these categories is undistinguishable in taste characteristics from what is commercially available.  After consulting with neighbors and friends, I conclude the reasons are love of tradition in what is undeniably a conservative society and creating a pastime that gives life purpose. As my regular taxi driver says about his mother living in the countryside, if she did not look after her extensive garden and process the harvest to gift to relatives and consume herself during the winters, she would spend the day watching soap operas on television and would likely lose her mental acuity.

Now turning to the question of travel abroad as a competing attraction to minding the dacha, I believe that Le Monde diplomatique journalist Christophe Trontin is out of step with the times.  To be sure, foreign travel is a significant factor when Russians choose how to spend their vacation time.  After all, more than 10 million, or about 7% of the general population go abroad every year now, 6 million of them having chosen Turkey in the last year.  However, judging  by the behavior of our St Petersburg friends from the intelligentsia and economic middle classes, I believe that trend has peaked.  Over the past decade, they have “seen it all,” traveled to all their dream destinations and returned home in the knowledge that there is no Eden abroad. Moreover, the Russophobia of Western Europe has turned our friends against return travel there. Instead, they are traveling around Russia,  pursuing their interests in cultural or religious travel in ever more remote places.

None of this travel, whether abroad or within Russia, impinges on time that can or should be spent at the dacha.  Looking after the land  on patches ranging between 600 and 1400 square meters is a weekend occupation, not a full-time task and it can be done intermittently.  In our own case, our property is essentially an orchard of apple, plum and Northern cherry trees, which can be left for months on their own and produce a remarkable harvest of commercially unavailable fruit varieties.

Since the author focuses attention on the bottom of the dacha market, meaning derelict or shabby structures without conveniences, it bears mention that there is an ongoing and significant wave of construction of country houses that resemble and have all the comforts of American suburban homes although their occupancy will be only a few days a year as suits the owner and his or her relatives.

On the outskirts of Orlino there is a growing settlement of such owners who decidedly do not keep potato fields.  The logic for these investments is specifically Russian:  the Russian city dweller, even in outlying districts of the city, lives in an apartment, not a townhouse or villa. The market price per square meter of Russian apartments is higher than in most European cities, and, accordingly, the living space is not overly generous.  By building a country villa, this Russian city dweller buys quality space at construction prices three or four times cheaper than in the city. In the country home, there is room for guests, whether extended family or friends.

While Russian capital markets offer few secure investment opportunities, investment in bricks, especially at knock-down countryside prices, is financially prudent.

For all of the above reasons which I have seen in life around me in Orlino, I believe the Russian country home has a secure future even if a noticeable transition away from its amenity-poor past is underway.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019