cultural / putin / rant / russian history / russian politics

Review/thoughts: Russia; Putin’s Playground

Is a “quick guide” to Russia even a good idea? How does one cram a “riddle wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside an enigma” into merely 130 pages without overgeneralizing?

I don’t know, but what I do know is this: Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin…don’t you forget it!

Lets keep this  review short and simple, but not sweet – perfectly complementing the book in question.

Russia: Putin’s Playground by Anastasia Edel is billed as quick introductory guide to Russia for people wishing to look beyond the news headlines. That’s a noble enough purpose – with Russia in the news for all the wrong reasons as of late, I can certainly see a receptive audience for a nuanced take on Russian affairs. However, even a casual glance at the book’s covers will probably tell you that it fails to live up to the standards of objectivity that we expect introductory guides to meet. Not only is the subtitle “Putin’s Playground” given more space on the cover than “Russia”, but the label Putin’s playground itself belies a clear bias: Russian affairs have been compared to a game in the hands of Putin not even one page into the actual book. When I saw the buzzwords on the back cover (mystery. Adversity. Dissent. Power. Despotism. Opulence. Poverty. Bombast. Heroism.), I knew this read was going to be rough.

Despite the division of the book into sections on Russia’s history, the state, the people, the culture, the dissenters, and the state of the nation today, Edel’s thesis is simple and consistent: Everything in Russia today can be explained/predicted by direct historical parallel*. The relationship between people (good) and the state (bad) within Russia and between other countries (good) and Russia (bad) on the global stage has remained constant across thousands of years; though leaders may change, the behaviors and processes don’t.

Here is a quick overview of what we learn from Lightning Guide #16:

  • history: Russian history is a continuous cycle of expansion and aggression followed by retreat and isolation. Throughout history, bad Russia oppresses the good ethnic minorities and neighbor states.
  • the state: Bad Russian government, good Russian people. Russia has imperialist foreign policy. Putin is behind everything that is wrong with the Russian state. By the way, he’s the new Stalin too.
  • The media: There’s no free press in Russia. Brave journalists killed by the wicked Russian state. Censorship everywhere.
  • the people: Good Russian people, bad Russian government. Everything about Russians can be explained by Russia’s history and state oppression.
  • Culture: Good cultural figures oppressed by bad Russian government. All Russian art can be considered political. Today, the authorities hijack culture to serve their own ideological needs. It’s been the same way throughout Russian history.
  • Dissenters: Good, brave dissenters are fighting for Russia’s free and democratic future against the bloody Putin regime. Russia is a society where the state aspires to dominate its subjects fully, and doesn’t take “no” for an answer. (p. 90)
  • state of the nation today: The Putin government is expanding. People are leaving Russia; no one wants to live there. Those who stay are zombified by Russian propaganda. Hybrid war in Ukraine is distracting people from economic/political stagnation at home. The New Cold War is starting.

There isn’t much more to this book than that, except perhaps that “Russia is not just Putin” (p. 9), despite his image appearing seven times and name appearing forty times within 130 pages.

Now you see why Putin’s Playground irritated me – it wasn’t the inclusion of corruption, weak rule of law, repression or xenophobia, which are all serious issues in contemporary Russia and deserve a place in any guide to the country; it was the prevalence of the author’s own black-and-white political views and her obsessive pattern-seeking treatment of Russian history. For example, we learn that the Russian government pursues an imperialist foreign policy in order to distract its gullible subjects from political economic stagnation at home – just like the Soviet government did in the ’70s. Russian longing for Soviet times is not caused by individual sentiment, or the need for an extensive social welfare system as was existent back then, it’s caused by “the manipulation of the national memory” (p. 67) by the state.

Putin’s Playground definitely has its strengths: its photos and infographics are high-quality and colorful, and the section on early Russian history is delivered engagingly and impartially. But when you throw in sensational phrases such as “coerced loyalty” (state-society relations, p. 34), distorted quotes (Putin calls the modern internet a CIA project on p. 46), omission of key information (the book mentions the 2014-15 economic recession but not prior rises in wages and living standards), and shaky assertions (“anyone at some point can become the hateful and feared other” p.70, “there’s no free press in Russia” p. 45), you’ve obviously gone from a guide to an opinion piece.

Russia: Putin’s Playground attempts to be an up-to-date introduction to the country, but falls into the same traps that many Russia books published post-2014 do. In its pursuit of relevance, it eschews a guide’s objectivity in order to become a platform for a black-and-white partisan message. I am not sure whether this is purpose-oriented reporting or a logical consequence of trying to condense “a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma” into a mere 130 pages. However, what I do know is this: its targeted audience – people new to the world of Russian affairs – will likely come away from this book with the impression that Russia is a hellhole dictatorship ruled by a Stalin-czar. (I’m sorry, there’s no other way to put it!) And considering the current conflict between the United States and Russia, caused in part by lack of critical understanding, that’s a real shame. My advice to potential readers is to watch the mainstream news instead – you’ll probably learn as much about Russia as you would reading this. Plus, it’ll be free.

The Lightning Guide hurtles toward the trash, inspired by spin!

What hath thou taught me, Putin’s Playground?

Give me the answer!

But Putin’s Playground gives none.


Russia: Putin’s Playground by Anastasia Edel. Pub. 2016 by Lightning Guides. Paperback, 134 pages. ISBN13: 9781942411628

26783546


*Let me make this clear: of course the events of the present are influenced by historical and cultural factors. But that’s no excuse for weak logic like: “Ivan the Terrible’s secret police served a supreme ruler and were awarded special privileges; therefore, the modern FSB serves a supreme ruler (Putin) and are awarded special priveleges.”

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4 thoughts on “Review/thoughts: Russia; Putin’s Playground

  1. Another mainstream book on “modern Russia”. Another reason for me to go full facepalm-y.

    This line, that rears its ugly head throught all “research works” on Russia:

    “Ivan the Terrible’s secret police served a supreme ruler and were awarded special privileges”

    should die horrible, agonizing death.

    Oprichnina system under Ivan IV wasn’t a “secret police”, or even a “police state”. For being that it lacked 2 core components:

    1) It wasn’t police.
    2) It wasn’t secret.

    It’s a clear case of projection from the Raciallu/Culturally Superior Westerners. If you want to find an equivalent of a true police state or a country with highly efficitnet (and ruthless) secret police then look no furhter than later Eilizabethean England and France under Richelieu.

    Oprichniks were just enforcers of Czar’s will, drawn from all stratas of then feudal Russia and equal in his eyes and among themselves. They were a temporary creation, brought to life to break the most powerful landed aristocracy (and to avoid the potential excesses of their disloyalty, that czar Ivan could have witnesses in both Germanies and France during his lifetime).

    Trying to draw this “historical” parallel from Orichnina to Imperial Russia’s 3rd Departament of Security (“Okhranka”), and then to ChKa, NKVD, MGB, KGB and FSB is a fetish among the Westerner Russia Watchers. It is as scientific and reliable as trying to prove that if two humans had 2 arms, 2 legs, one head and a “O” letter in their name, thea they were the same person. Ergo – Putin is new Stalin.

    P.S.

    Early warning. June 9th is the time for the “free and independent” ™ MEDUZA net-news portal (resident in Riga, Latvia) to return its first credit. By the end of 2015 the news agency managed to amass 1.4 millions of Euro in debt. I wonder – will they blame Putin for their screw ups as well?

    Liked by 1 person

    • You honestly don’t know how irritating this “informed and nuanced” (Dr. Ryan Maness, back cover) “guide” was to read.
      -The author cites Marquis de Custine’s ‘La Russie en 1839’ as “one of the deepest and most accurate analyses of Russia and Russians today” (p. 31), for crying out loud! Referencing de Custine implies that Russia will not and cannot change, that all these things we Westerners love to talk about – corruption and bad infrastructure, despotism and backwardness – are endemic problems, ingrained in the Russian DNA. There’s absolutely no hope. Now is that really something you’d want to include in an introductory guide?
      -The author likens the defeat of the Nazis in WWII to a “surface victory” (y’know, because millions were dying in the gulags and stuff), though if I recall correctly – feel free to correct me if I am wrong – defeating the Nazis was very much a matter of survival.
      -She says that the concept of honest business doesn’t resonate in Russia b/c basically everything is corrupt. Yup, even the harmless-looking family-owned bookshop in Perm is being run criminally.
      -Everything the current Russian government does must be painted as nefarious, because lord knows what would happen if the state were to be portrayed as deeply flawed but NOT EVIL.
      -Countersanctions=”masochistic”, apparently.

      These are pulled directly from my review notes for this book (which I have since decided to call the Rage Pages). Guides are supposed to be objective, but I guess not if they’re about Russia. When it comes to Russia, facts don’t matter as much. Blind faith, opinions, and emotions do.

      “By its style of government and attitude toward personal freedom, modern Russia is much closer to the Golden Horde than to European parliamentary democracies.” (p. 56)

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      • ““By its style of government and attitude toward personal freedom, modern Russia is much closer to the Golden Horde than to European parliamentary democracies.” (p. 56)”

        I wonder if Honorable Lady-Author knows anything about the Golden Horde. Like – anything?

        It’s a common trope to compare Russia to the Golden Horde, to show both its Asianess ™ and Backwardness ™ – as opposed to Racially/Culturally Superior West.

        – In late 13 c. Golden Horde had an active and very efficient postal system. Thing completely alien to the European countries at the time.

        – Golden Horde was tolerant to all religions. 13 c. saw the birth of the Inquisition, 4th Crusade, Baltic Crusades and the genocide of Languedoc aka the “Albigensiean Crusade”.

        – Golden Horde began fulfilling an ancient role of any civilization that took up the dominant position in the northern Black Sea region – as protectors of trade (who, naturally, took some money for their “protection”) and were in this regard no different than Scythians, Sarmatians, Khazars, Pechenegs or Cumans.

        Russia was NEVER a country based on the same values and socio-political organization as any of these northern Black Sea region realms, so the comparison to the Golden Horde cannot be true. Unless, Honorable Lady-Author decided that this is a Safe Space to vent off her Russophobia and Racism.

        “The author likens the defeat of the Nazis in WWII to a “surface victory” (y’know, because millions were dying in the gulags and stuff), though if I recall correctly – feel free to correct me if I am wrong – defeating the Nazis was very much a matter of survival.”

        A lot of Russian liberasts share this sentiments (d’uh – naturally, if the Superior Westerner is voicing them!). They push this narrative: “You call this Victory? Look at the Germany! Oh, if only we surrendered then! By now we will be living like Germans and drinking Bavarian beer!”

        For them I have 2 counter arguments:

        – You won’t be drinking any beer. You will be beer. General Plan Ost demanded extermination of 70% Slavs (at first…) while the rest were to be worked to death on the fields of the shining new Lebensaraum, where happy Aryan bauers would be growing seeds for the future beer. And your own (and your parents and grandparents) bones and flesh would be a nice fertilizer for them. If not the “Bloody Ghoul Stalin” and his “Bloody Bolsheviks” you would be a “Bavarian”.
        – And for other, very loud and… chose minority, among those who support such views, I’m going to say – you won’t be drinking “Bavarian” either. Because pieces of soap and lampshade hangings don’t do such things.

        Like

        • ‘Russia was NEVER a country based on the same values and socio-political organization as any of these northern Black Sea region realms, so the comparison to the Golden Horde cannot be true. Unless, Honorable Lady-Author decided that this is a Safe Space to vent off her Russophobia and Racism. ‘
          I don’t even know. In any case, a guide for the uninitiated is NOT the appropriate place to vent against anything, really.
          Now let me return to writing the review for another prolonged Russophobic rant: ‘Winter is Coming’ by Garry Kasparov.

          Like

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