Does anyone have noticed that when a Kremlin supporter talks about Eastern Europe the first thing he/she does is to erase the Eastern Europe countries from discussion, presenting the case as US/EU vs Russia?
This is a typical debate framing.
For [the Kremlin apologists] of this world Ukraine, Poland, the Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia don’t have any right to an opinion. Erased with it is a history of occupation under Soviets. For them only Russia has a right to be paranoid. The others once occupied by them for 50 years don’t.
– Samizdata commenter LuckLucky
I am giving a talk at a Libertarian Home meeting at the Rose and Crown pub in Southwark this Thursday evening the 2nd of October. (All welcome. Please come). The initial motivation for this talk was to attempt to shed some light on the causes of the current war in Ukraine. When I thought about is some more, I realised that while the Ukrainian situation is interesting (in an extraordinarily depressing way) the subject is more interesting in the broader context of Russian relations with the countries of the former USSR in general.
As it happens, I have spent a lot of time travelling in the countries of the former USSR. In the last year I have been to Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Lithuania, as well as the two most significant countries that are now in NATO and the EU, but which were formerly communist and Warsaw pact (Poland and Romania). With the exception of Belarus and Russia itself, these countries were not new to me – I have visited all of the others multiple times in the last five years, as well as every other formerly communist country in Europe. I have also visited the breakaway / Russian occupied territories of Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia in Georgia. I have seen a lot, and learned a lot, and this helps greatly in trying to understand what is going on. (To my great regret, I do not speak Russian. I would no doubt have learned a lot more if I did).
I have been told to talk for 20 to 30 minutes. I have chosen a gigantic subject for this length. I only have time to give a quick impression of each country, I fear, and a brief attempt to tie things together. For these impressions to make any sense at all, some historical and cultural background is necessary. Therefore, I am writing this article as a brief primer, and hopefully something that people will find interesting in its own right. People who wish to add things, disagree with things, tell me I am completely wrong etc in the comments are most welcome. I a not going to talk about communism at all. I am going to talk about everything in terms of ethnic nationalism and territorial changes.
→ Continue reading: A plug for a talk, and some background
Vladimir Putin has warned the Ukrainian government against getting closer to the EU, threatening their access to Russian markets.
So the Ukraine has to decide between losing their access to 142 million Russians with a total GDP of $2.1 trillion (official), or improving their access to 511 million people with a total GDP of $16.95 trillion (official).
Hmm, yes I can see how that might be a difficult decision
Okay, but there are ways of going about that which do not involve asking Russian tanks to cross the border in support and shooting down passenger jets. Last I looked, Scotland wasn’t fighting English soldiers in the streets, parading captured Englishmen through the streets of Aberdeen, and handing out weapons to Glasgow Celtic fans willy-nilly. I’d not have any problem if East Ukraine had attempted peaceful means of seceding from Kiev, but they haven’t: it’s been thuggish violence from the outset.
– Tim Newman, commenting here on Samizdata.
…and now it is happening in Kaliningrad! Yet another instance of unprovoked aggression by the Putinpotamus!
The evidence that confirms what anyone paying attention suspected has been released: Russian artillery is firing on Ukrainian forces across the border from inside Russia. And the PutinBots in the comment sections of the world’s media are out in force saying “nothing to see here, move along”.
The only surprising thing about this is that anyone is surprised. World War 3 is not at hand, but it is definitely time to pay more attention and point more guns eastward.
Tim Newman has a great piece about the authorities shutting down McDonalds in Russia. The article is splendid on oh so many levels, such as:
Apparently, he told one of the Russia servers to greet the customers and offer a smile, which prompted the following response:
“Why? We’re the ones with all the burgers.”
It seems that almost 25 years later some Russians still haven’t worked out the basic relationship between business and customer.
Read the whole article.
And whilst attention is focused on the horror in the Middle East…does that later day Mussolini (Russian edition) and gay icon Vladimir Putin invade the Ukraine?
Probably. The real question being, where is the Stop Line?
Apparently, there is a tremendous run on high quality cheese going on in Moscow. This wonderful range of delectable products is vanishing rapidly from supermarket shelves as customers stock up before the sanctions that Russia is imposing on Russia come into force.
The above photograph is of the main building of Moscow State University in the Sparrow Hills district of Moscow. This is one of the so called Seven Sisters – the Stalinist buildings that are prominent in the Moscow skyline. When completed in 1953 this was the tallest building in the world outside New York City, and it remained the tallest building in Europe until 1990. The building was built partly with gulag labour. As it was nearing completion, the gulag workers were housed inside it in order to minimise the number of guards required, so the building functioned as something resembling a gulag itself during construction.
The Seven Sisters were built in the 1950s after the USSR obtained the technical knowledge to built large steel framed skyscrapers from the United States. There are a few more such buildings scattered throughout the former USSR and the former Warsaw Pact states. The most notable of them outside Moscow is the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw, which I have written about before.
The Polish attitude to that building is, at this point in time, mixed. It is a memento of having been occupied by the Soviets, an experience of which the Poles are not especially fond of the memory of. However, the familiar becomes familiar, and it is hard to imagine it not being there. The Palace of Science and Culture is full of many good cinemas, theatres, concert halls, and other venues for cultural activities, and many a good evening has been had there by many a Polish person. As the years go by, other tall buildings have been built in Warsaw, none of which have anything like the same style, and the Palace of Science and Culture has become just a historical artifact (and a reasonably interesting one) in a more modern, and more western city. Nobody would ever think of building another building anything like it, and it remains as an integral, but singlular, landmark of the city.
Moscow is different. There are seven large buildings in the same Stalinist gothic style, and a number of smaller ones. They are not physically together, but are scattered all over the city. They don’t dominate the Moscow skyline, exactly – if anything does it is the spires of the cathedrals of the Kremlin and Red Square – but they lend an essential part of the character of the city. Take photographs and there is always one lurking in the background somewhere. Their style is one of the defining styles that defines Moscow, and even defines Russia.
Consider this building, though, to be found elsewhere in Moscow.
This is the Triumph Palance. This is a residential apartment building out along Leningradsky Prospect corridor in the direction of Sheremetyevo airport and the stadium belonging to the football team CSKA Moscow. It was completed in 2003. For a few years after that, it was the tallest building in Europe. There is also a hotel on the 53rd floors and above. A quick check on booking.com finds that the hotel offers rooms from £171 a night, which I think in Moscow puts it in the “very nice but not extremely luxurious” category. I bet the views are great. A walk up to the building finds security and people who come and going who look prosperous but not obscenely rich. I think we are talking oligarchs’ lawyers rather than oligarchs themselves.
The building, though, is clearly influenced by the style of the Stalinist-Gothic architecture from the 1950s. It would seem that there therefore exists an architectural style that might be called “Stalinist revival”. Saying that this style is nostalgic for the communism of the Soviet 1950s is probably not right, but it is clear that that era has had a big influence on what makes Moscow Moscow just the same – to the extent that the city is still building upon it. This is unthinkable in Warsaw, but is what happens in Moscow. This almost makes me think about some of the strange iconography I have seen recently from Eastern Ukraine: “Russian Nationalists” holding up communist symbols and Russian Orthodox Christian iconography side by side. Communist iconography no longer means anything as communism, but has become part of the language of Russian nationalism.
I am told there are some Stalinist revival buildings in Kazakhstan, too. In fact, there is even another Triumph Palace in Astana. What I should read from this, I shall leave for another day.
Via the Twitter page of Dominique Lazanski, I recently found my way to a fascinating but depressing piece about Russian internet policy, by “Russia’s First Blogger”, Anton Nossik:
As for Putin’s solemn oath to protect the Russian Internet from any undue and arbitrary attempts at government regulation, well, he honored it for the next 13 years. As keen as Putin was to control the federal nationwide TV channels, he seemed absolutely uninterested in regulating the Internet, be it the content, the cables, or the e-commerce. Any attempts by overzealous Russian lawmakers, ministers or law enforcement (the infamous siloviki, or strongmen) to regulate the Net were routinely aborted by Putin’s administration. Anyone who proposed such legislation to please the Kremlin soon found out that the Kremlin was very far from pleased. Internet regulation bills sponsored by everyone from Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to government ordinance drafts by ministers, and dozens of other proposals to regulate the Net had been quickly buried and forgotten for lack of presidential support between 2000 and 2012.
As a result, the Internet developed into Russia’s only competitive industry. Companies like Yandex and VKontakte easily outperformed international competition (Google and Facebook, respectively) in Russian-speaking markets. These Russian start-ups did not copy successful American models, but rather the other way round: Almost every Yandex service (maps, payments, webmail, contextual advertising, etc.) was launched several years ahead of its Google-based analog. The VKontakte social network has many services and features that Facebook badly lacks, such as social music and video hosting and an advertising exchange, allowing any popular page or group to monetize its traffic almost automatically.
The Internet also became Russia’s only territory of unlimited free speech. Opposition figures, banned elsewhere in mass media, found easy access to their audiences by going online. Moreover, privately owned online media sources, such as Lenta.Ru, Gazeta.Ru, NewsRu.com and RBC News, used to outperform traditional mass media outlets in terms of audience and pageviews. Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most prominent independent politician and Kremlin-basher, found millions of followers all over the country, despite being banned from all nationwide TV channels and radio stations for almost half a decade.
But then, President Putin decided to shut it all down. What had happened?
We should blame the 2011-2012 Moscow protests for Putin’s unexpected and instant conversion into a paranoid Internet-hater.
He blamed the messenger for the message, in other words.
He made his change of mind public during a speech on April 24. Putin shocked the entire world with his epiphany that the Internet was initially created as a special CIA project, and is still run as such. Putin went on to claim that Yandex, Russia’s biggest and most successful Internet startup – ranked fourth in the world by number of search requests, valued at about $15 billion on NASDAQ in mid-February 2014, earning more revenues and profits in 2013 than any other media company in Russia—is also controlled by foreign intelligence seeking to harm Russia’s interests. Those remarks instantly brought Yandex shares down 5.5 percent. As of this writing, the company is now worth $9.19 billion, nearly $6 billion off its mid-February mark.
And so on. The golden days of the Russian internet would appear to be over:
Under the new laws, any social media platform that wishes to serve a Russian audience will be obliged to retain all user data for at least six months and to surrender this information to Russian security services upon request, without a court ruling or any other form of justification or explanation. Moreover, any foreign social media platform serving Russian users has to physically keep all sensible user data within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. And we’re not talking Russian user data, but rather all personal information of any user who happens to have some readers from Russia – like, say, Barack Obama, who has no less than 3,000 Russian nationals among the 40.5 million subscribers to his Facebook page. Twitter should also prepare to move all of Obama’s personal data to Russia and hand it over to the FSB, since both Putin and Medvedev are his followers on Twitter. Ditto for Google. If any of these companies don’t comply they would be subject to administrative fines, up to 500,000 roubles ($14,000), and Russian ISPs would have to block access to these platforms.
This Orwellian masterpiece of legislation was signed into law by Vladimir Putin on May 5, 2014, and it will be enforced from August 1, 2014. Will that be the last day of Russian Internet? Maybe. Unless a new law kills it even faster.
As you can see, picking out the highlights of this piece was a task that was basically beyond me. This really is one of those Read The Whole Thing things. I am in no position to second guess Anton Nossik, but given that the excellent Dominique Lazanski linked to it, I assume the story he tells to be at the very least roughly right. And if it is roughly right, doesn’t it remind you of another similar tale that unfolded in Russia just under a hundred years ago? From dire economic necessity, Lenin had presided over a similar period of economic liberty and creativity, known as the New Economic Policy. And then he shut that down.
But Lenin shut down his NEP because he never believed in it. He only let it happen in the first place because people were starving and the Soviet State wasn’t yet able to suppress the resulting popular complaints. As soon as Lenin and his new apparatus of tyranny got strong enough to do this, bye bye NEP.
But what is Putin thinking? My first guess at a guess would be that he thinks that shutting down the Russian internet is of no more consequence than had been his initial impulse to leave it alone. Letting a thousand internet flowers bloom didn’t mean anything. And nor does him zapping all the flowers with legislative weedkiller. That’s his attitude.
But what do I know? Not much, but I will soon know rather more about such stories as this one, because Dominique Lazanski will be speaking at my home this coming Friday, on the subject of “The Future and Its Digital Enemies”:
I will talk about International Internet policy issues otherwise known as Internet Governance and how individuals, groups and governments play key roles in this process. Ultimately, it is the work of governments that is the real threat, but many play interesting roles in the political chess game. However, all is not lost, innovation and the market process are helping to undermine these threats.
Whenever that word “governance” is heard, you just know that something very bad is being attempted, so it is good to know that the Governancers are not having it all their own way in these matters.
About a month ago, I was at the Institute of Economic Affairs to hear a talk given by Antoine Clarke to the End of the World Club. The audience was larger than usual, and of a very high quality. It listened, fascinated and engrossed, and with some rueful laughter at the intense relevance of a seemingly rather obscure slice of history to our own times.
The talk was about French investment, private but egged on by French politicians for their own foreign policy reasons, in pre-revolutionary Russia. This investment was huge, and for a while it provided a healthy income to French savers, by French standards. But then, because of events which the French media of the time somehow neglected to inform their readers about, it all started to go wrong, and wronger and wronger, and then of course very wrong indeed. Collusion and corruption on a huge scale among and between politicians, bankers and journalists is not, said Antoine, anything new.
Antoine has now gathered his spoken thoughts from that night into a blog posting at the Cobden Centre.
The first Russian bonds sold in France were in 1867 to finance a railroad. Others followed, notably in 1888. At this point the French government decided on a policy of alliance with Russia and the encouragement of French savers to invest in Russian infrastructure. From 1887 to 1913, 3.5% of the French Gross National Product is invested in Russia alone. This amounted to a quarter of all foreign investment by French private citizens. That’s a savings ratio (14% in external investment alone) we wouldn’t mind seeing in the UK today!
A massive media campaign promoting Russia as a future economic giant (a bit like China in recent years) was pushed by politicians. Meanwhile French banks found they could make enormous amounts of commission from Russian bonds: in this period, the Credit Lyonnais makes 30% of its profits from its commission for selling the bonds.
In 1897, the ruble is linked to gold. The French government guarantees its citizens against any default. The Paris Stock Exchange takes listings for, among others: Banque russo-asiatique, la Banque de commerce de Sibérie, les usines Stoll, les Wagons de Petrograd.
The first signs of trouble come in 1905, with the post-Russo-Japanese War revolution. A provisional government announced a default of foreign bonds, but this isn’t reported in the French mainstream media or the French banks that continue to sell (mis-sell?).
During the First World War, the French government issued zero interest bonds to cover the Russian government’s loan repayment, with an agreement to sort out the problem after the war. However, in December 1917, Lenin announced the repudiation of Tsarist debts.
Boom, bust. And surprise surprise, French governments of the twentieth century were neither willing nor able to provide anything like the kind of compensation for disappointed French savers that had earlier been promised.
Antoine Clarke is fluently English thanks to his English father and fluently French thanks to his French mother, and he has lived and worked in both countries. As long as I have known him I have urged him to make maximum use of this bilingualism, in connecting us Anglo libertarians to French stories and writings, and vice versa. This talk and his subsequent written version of it is a perfect example of the sort of thing I had in mind, and I thank and congratulate him for it. How many non-French libertarians already knew this story? Some, certainly, a bit, but certainly not me.