One of the most deeply frustrating things for anyone with any knowledge of Russia who has been following the Russiagate saga is the staggering ignorance of basic facts about Russia which is so prevalent amongst elites in the US.
What makes this especially frustrating is that there is actually no shortage of knowledgeable and erudite experts about Russia who could be called upon if any true desire for knowledge about Russia actually existed.
Of those one who who stands out is Gilbert Doctorow, who has been a professional Russia watcher since 1965.
Gilbert Doctorow has now offered us a new book – “Does the United States have a Future” – which brings together his splendid collection of essays about Russia and about Russian-American relations which he has been writing since 2015.
This is of course the same period when in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis and because of Russia’s intervention in Syria Russian-American relations entered upon their present catastrophic downward spiral, with the US rolling out successive sanctions against Russia, and deploying ever greater numbers of its troops ever closer to Russia’s border.
In this heavy atmosphere of heightened Russian-US tensions, and amidst a shrill media campaign, the Russian side of the story rarely gets told. What we get instead is an exaggerated focus on the largely misunderstood doings of one man – Vladimir Putin – who is not just routinely blamed for everything that goes wrong – be it Trump’s election, the Brexit vote, the 2015 European refugee crisis, the secessionist outbreak in Catalonia and the rise in Germany of the AfD – but who has become dangerously conflated with Russia itself.
The huge achievement of Gilbert Doctorow’s essays is that they put entirely behind them this disastrous paradigm.
For someone fixated on psychoanalysing Putin’s personality and on learning the gossip about the internal squabbles of the Kremlin this collection of essays has little to offer. Doctorow has as little patience for this sort of thing as do I. Suffice to say that one of the essays, which goes by the dismissive title “Kremlinology is alive and well in Russia”, turns out to be focused not on mythical Kremlin power struggles but on the impact on the people of St. Petersburg of a visit by Putin to their city.
For anyone interested in Putin what anyone reading these essays will get instead is detailed and erudite analyses of his speeches, of his massive and truly astonishing Q&A sessions, of his media interviews, and of the effect of all these doings on Russian public opinion and what they tell us about Russian policy.
Not by chance, the only reference to me in the whole collection is when Doctorow disagrees with me about an interview Putin gave to the German newspaper Bild-Zeitung. I gave the German interviewers high marks for their conduct of the interview. Doctorow politely expresses his incredulity.
Ultimately far more interesting to anyone genuinely interested in understanding the rapidly recovering Great Power which is Russia, and who wants to get a genuine grasp of the sort of things that move its people, are those essays which touch on topics other Western reporters of Russia tend to ignore.
Here Doctorow’s immense knowledge of Russia and of Russian history is essential, and it shines through every essay.
Thus we find masterful discussions of works about tsarist history by the historian Dominic Lieven, and an outstanding discussion – the best I have come across – of Henry Kissinger’s insights and limitations as they concern Russia. There is even a remarkable essay which takes Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina as a starting point to discuss war.
However the single thing which sets the essays which are specifically about Russia apart is the extraordinary rapport Gilbert Doctorow has with Russia’s ‘everyman’. Take a comment like this one from the very first page of the very first essay in the book, which is dated 30th May 2015. Against a background of a deepening recession Gilbert Doctorow tells us this
I say assuredly that the mood across the social spectrum of my “sources” is uniformly patriotic and uncomplaining. These sources range from the usually outspoken taxi drivers; through the traditionally critical journalists, academics, artists and other intelligentsia who are family friends going back many years, to former business contacts and other elites.
How many of those who report from Russia are able to speak to a wide range of contacts like this? How many of them pay heed to the opinions of Russia’s “usually outspoken taxi drivers”, reliable purveyors of the public mood though those people are? How many of those who report from Russia even know how to talk to such people? (confession here: I don’t).
Or take Gilbert Doctorow’s deeply moving account from 10th May 2016 of the March of the Immortal Regiment, held now every year on 9th May to commemorate Russia’s sacrifice in the Second World War. What other Western reporter of Russia has both the erudition and the common touch necessary to write a passage like this?
Given the manifestly patriotic nature of Victory in Europe Day celebrations, which open in Moscow and cities across Russia with military parades, precise marching columns, displays of military hardware on the ground and in the air, I was uncertain how possibly strident the Immortal Regiment component might be. As it turned out, the crowd was uniformly good humoured and focused on its private obligations to be met: the celebration of parents, grandparents, even great grandparents’ role in the war and reconfirmation of their status as family heroes whatever their military or civil defence rank, whether they survived or were among the countless fatalities.
Elsewhere Gilbert Doctorow is able to talk knowledgeably in two different essays about the state of the Russian shopping basket – a matter of fundamental importance to Russians and therefore given Russia’s power and importance to everyone – of Russian responses to the Trump-Clinton debate, of the Russian public’s response to one of Putin’s mammoth annual Q&A sessions, and of the steely response – utterly free of sentimentality and hysteria – of the people of St. Petersburg and of Russia generally to a terrorist attack on the city.
Of the essays specifically about Russia it is however what Doctorow writes about the Russian media which Western readers may find most surprising.
It is now generally conceded even in the West that Russia does have a public opinion, something which tended not to be admitted in Soviet times, though there still seems to be little genuine interest in finding out what it is.
The lazy assumption is anyway that in Russia public opinion is effectively manipulated by the government through its supposedly all-encompassing control of the news media.
Though it is sometimes grudgingly admitted that the printed media does have some independent voices, and that the Russian media now has a degree of sophistication unknown in Soviet times, the prevailing opinion in the West is that it remains every bit as propagandistic and mendacious as it was in Soviet times. The classic statement of this view is Peter Pomorantsev’s “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia”.
Doctorow’s essays are an important corrective to this bleak and distorted picture.
Doctorow does not sugarcoat the reality. He concedes that the television media has a bias favouring the Kremlin and that ‘non-system’ politicians whose parties are not represented in the Duma like Kasyanov and Navalny have difficulty gaining access to it.
I would say in passing that Russia’s television media is not exceptional in this. In my opinion Russian television today is much less controlled by the government than was French television during Charles De Gaulle’s and Georges Pompidou’s time in France, when I was in Paris as a child.
In any event, as a regular participant in Russia’s extraordinarily extended and elaborate political talk-shows – a vital and massively popular information tool for the Russian population – Doctorow shows that the common Western view that Russian television viewers get no exposure to the Western view-point and hear only the Kremlin’s view is simply wrong. Here is one passage where Doctorow describes them
The regulars of these talk shows are a mix of Russians and foreigners, pro-Kremlin and anti-Kremlin voices. There inevitably is at least one American who can be counted on to purvey the Washington Narrative. A reliable regular in this category has been Michael Bohm, who was for a long-time op-ed manager at The Moscow Times and now is said to be teaching journalism in Moscow….
From among Russians, the talk show hosts bring in one or more representative of opposition parties. On the 11th it happened to be a personality from the Yabloko Party (Liberals). But at other times there will be the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, the founder of the right nationalist LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or the leader of the social democratic party, Just Russia, Sergei Mironov. They all get their time on air in these shows.
Elsewhere Doctorow gives vivid accounts of these sprawling and at times chaotic talk shows, which have no precise analogue anywhere else that I know of.
Doctorow’s book, as its title shows, is not only about Russia. Rather it is about the collapse of any sort of dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding between the US and Russia.
In essay after essay Doctorow pinpoints the cause: at a time when the Russian mind is becoming increasingly open, the American mind is becoming increasingly closed.
The title of the book – “Does the United States have a future?” – is in fact an intentional exercise in reverse imaging.
At its simplest it refers back to Doctorow’s previous book: “Does Russia have a future?” published in 2015.
However the title of both books must also be seen as a comment on the ‘disaster literature’ about Russia which has become so prevalent in the West, and which continues unabated to this day even as it is repeatedly proved wrong.
Basically what Doctorow is saying is that it is in the US not Russia that the suppression of debate and independent voices is putting the future in jeopardy.
It is in these essays that look at the situation in the US where Doctorow dissects the evolution or rather regression of US policy towards an increasingly strident Russophobia, and where one senses Doctorow’s growing exasperation and alarm.
Take for example what Doctorow has to say about one of the most outspoken Americans calling for ever more confrontation with Russia: NATO’s former military chief General Breedlove
Most everything is wrong with what Breedlove tells us in his article. It is a perfect illustration of the consequences of the monopoly control of our media and both Houses of Congress by the ideologists of the Neoconservative and Liberal Interventionist school: we see a stunning lack of rigour in argumentation in Breedlove’s article coming from the absence of debate and his talking only to yes men.
Perhaps the biggest mistakes are conceptual: urging military means to resolve what are fundamentally political issues over the proper place of Russia in the European and global security architecture. Whereas for Clausewitz war was ‘a continuation of politics by other means’, for Breedlove politics, or diplomacy, do not exist, only war.
The alarm in the last paragraph finds still greater emphasis in the essay which immediately precedes ot. This has the ominous title “The Nuclear Clock is at Two Minutes to Midnight”.
It is however in the closing of the American mind where Doctorow pinpoints the danger
My point is not to ridicule the very earnest and well-intentioned anti-war campaigners whose ranks I joined that day. It is to demonstrate how and why the highly tendentious reporting of what we are doing in the world and what others are doing to us, combined with the selective news blackouts altogether by major media has left even activists unaware of real threats to peace and to our very survival that American foreign policy has created over the past 20 years and is projected to create into the indefinite future if the public does not awaken from its slumber and demand to be informed by experts of countervailing views. We are living through a situation unparalleled in our history as a nation where the issues of war and peace are not being debated in public.
Along with the alarm and frustration there is also very real disappointment.
Like most people who lived through the later stages of the Cold War Doctorow remembers a world where the US’s European allies acted as a force of restraint on the US.
Based now in Brussels at the very epicentre of the European Union Doctorow is shocked at the extent to which this is no longer the case, and at the degree to which the same attitudes of hubris, belligerence and hysteria which have gained such a hold in the US have now also managed to gain a hold in Europe.
Like many others Doctorow is totally unimpressed by the current crop of European politicians, and as someone able to remember the likes of Charles De Gaulle and Helmut Schmidt Doctorow does not balk from expressing his scorn in withering terms. A good example is to be found in the title of one of his essays: “News flash: Europe is brain dead and on the drip”.
It is in his discussions of Europe that Doctorow allows himself his brief flashes of anger. Take these comments he makes about Elmar Brok, the truly dreadful chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs
I remember with a shudder an exchange I had with Elmar Brok on 5 March 2015 on The Network, a debate program of Euronews. Brok, a German, is the chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. He comes from Angela Merkel’s CDU party and within the Parliament is in the European People’s Party bloc, on the center right, the bloc which really calls the shots in the EP.
Brok is big, brash and does not hesitate to throw his weight around, especially when talking with someone outside the Establishment whom he has no reason to fear. We were discussing the shooting of Boris Nemtsov, which occurred just days before. Brok insisted the murder was the responsibility of Vladimir Putin. Not that Putin pulled the trigger, but he created the atmosphere where such things could happen, etc., etc. One way or another the talk shifted to the allegedly autocratic nature of the Putin ‘regime,’ with its crackdown on freedoms, and in particular ever tightening control of media.
At that point, I objected that the Russia media were very diverse editorially, with many different points of view expressed freely. Brok shot back that this was patently untrue, and he did not hesitate to cross all red lines and indulge in libel on air by asking how much the Kremlin paid me to say that.
Apart from the obvious truth that an authoritarian like MEP Brok would not know freedom of speech if he tripped on it, I think back to that exchange every week whenever I turn on Russian state television and watch one or another of the main political talk shows.
Doctorow’s strongest feelings of disappointment however remain firmly focused on the US.
Doctorow’s essays show that like many people he entertained very cautiously worded hopes about Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton after all was the self-styled ‘war candidate’ and the preferred choice of the Neocons, whilst Trump at least spoke of the need for better relations with Russia.
Not for nothing is one of Doctorow’s essays entitled “War or Peace: the essential question before American voters on November 8th”.
Doctorow’s hopes were never very high and like many others he was appalled by the conduct of the 2016 election, which he calls disgraceful. His essays which follow Trump’s election victory show the speed of his disillusionment. Not only has Trump proved completely incapable of fulfilling any of Doctorow’s hopes; he seems to have no idea of how to conduct foreign relations, and is rapidly reverting to the aggressive belligerence which is now the default position of all US Presidents.
In the meantime his election has heightened partisan tensions within the US to unheard of levels.
In his final chapter, which has the same title – “Does the United States have a future?” – as the whole book, Doctorow sets out the consequences.
A US which twenty years ago bestrode the world is now incapable of governing itself, whilst its increasingly reckless conduct is spreading conflict and alarm around the world.
Not only has trust in “American leadership” as a result all but collapsed but the two other Great Powers – Russia and China – have been completely alienated, and are busy forging an alliance whose combined resources will soon dwarf those of the US.
About all that the US however remains in denial, as it is about the world crisis its actions are generating. In a political system where all dissenting opinions are excluded it cannot by definition be otherwise. Thus the US looks set to continue on its present ruinous course, with no ability to change direction
….a still greater threat to our democracy and to the sustainability of our great power status has come from the inverse phenomenon, namely the truly bipartisan management of foreign policy in Congress. The Republican and Democratic Party leaderships have maintained strict discipline in promotion of what are Neoconservative and Liberal Interventionist positions on every issue placed before Congress. Committees on security and foreign affairs invite to testify before them only those experts who can be counted upon to support the official Washington narrative. Debate on the floor of the houses is nonexistent. And the votes are so lopsided as to be shocking, none more so than the votes in August on the “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act”….
It would be comforting if the problems of our political culture began and ended with the elites operating in Washington DC. However that is patently not the case. The problem exists across the country in the form of a stifling conformism, or groupthink that is destroying the open marketplace for ideas essential for any vital democracy.
I recognise the accuracy of this picture and am prey to no illusion. However in my opinion it is still too early to give up hope.
Trump’s victory, if it shows nothing else, shows that there is more resistance to the ‘groupthink’ in the US than Doctorow in these passages perhaps allows. What is the Russiagate hysteria after all if not the expression of a collective nervous breakdown on the part of the US elite at the discovery that the American people as a whole do not share their obsessions?
A state of hysteria of the sort we are going through now cannot be sustained indefinitely. Eventually a reaction will set in, at which point those at the forefront in spreading the hysteria will be exposed as the charlatans that they are, whilst many of those they fooled will feel ashamed.
When that point comes it is good to know from this outstanding collection of essays that there are still genuine experts available that the US can call upon to guide its policies like Gilbert Doctorow.