2 more books; take your pick

Two more Russia books appeared on my radar this morning. The first one is serious…

Everyday Law in Russia by Kathryn Hendley (Cornell University Press, Feb. 2017)

Everyday Law in Russia challenges the prevailing common wisdom that Russians cannot rely on their law and that Russian courts are hopelessly politicized and corrupt. While acknowledging the persistence of verdicts dictated by the Kremlin in politically charged cases, Kathryn Hendley explores how ordinary Russian citizens experience law. Relying on her own extensive observational research in Russia’s new justice-of-the-peace courts as well as her analysis of a series of focus groups, she documents Russians’ complicated attitudes regarding law. The same Russian citizen who might shy away from taking a dispute with a state agency or powerful individual to court might be willing to sue her insurance company if it refuses to compensate her for damages following an auto accident. Hendley finds that Russian judges pay close attention to the law in mundane disputes, which account for the vast majority of the cases brought to the Russian courts.

Any reluctance on the part of ordinary Russian citizens to use the courts is driven primarily by their fear of the time and cost―measured in both financial and emotional terms―of the judicial process. Like their American counterparts, Russians grow more willing to pursue disputes as the social distance between them and their opponents increases; Russians are loath to sue friends and neighbors, but are less reluctant when it comes to strangers or acquaintances. Hendley concludes that the “rule of law” rubric is ill suited to Russia and other authoritarian polities where law matters most―but not all―of the time.

…and the second a joke.

Remember the very first review I did on this blog? Remember how thoroughly I panned One Steppe Beyond? Apparently I was part of a very small minority (no surprise there), and enough people praised One Steppe Beyond for Thom Wheeler to write a second book about another journey through Russia, this time down the Volga river.

The Way a River Went: Following the Volga Through the Heart of Russia by Thom Wheeler (Summersdale, Sep. 2016)

Thom Wheeler is not a man to be put off by the prospect of an uncharted, impractical or downright dangerous journey. Having accidentally introduced his old school friend Vicky to Dmitry, the Russian love of her life, at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Thom decides to travel to their wedding in Astrakhan in the most obvious and straightforward way: by following the Volga river, from its source over 1,000 miles inland, all the way to the Caspian Sea and a party to remember…

An unforgettable adventure with an average rating of 3.33 / 5 on Goodreads. Yeah, I don’t think so.

5 thoughts on “2 more books; take your pick

  1. One day some academics will use the Thom Wheeler text along with a bunch of other books as a 21st century example of orientalising travel writers in the same way we do today using Custine and Haxthausen. That’s not an endorsement, just an observation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “…in the same way we do today using Custine and Haxthausen.”

      But McCain and Brzezinsky use de Custine in the most unironic, “documental” way…


      1. Do they? Oh dear. I suppose there’s no hope for us then…. I raised this, because I do a whole section of an undergraduate course on ‘travel writing’ as contributing to myths about Russia


        1. Mr. Morris, I’ve finally listened to your interview with Sean Guillory and read your transcript of it (just to be on the safe side).

          You don’t know me, of course, seeing as you are the recent addition to our “commentariat” on J.T. most excellent blog. So, allow me to introduce myself. I’m Russian, born and raised, who lives in Russia still – constantly commuting between Moscow and the oblast on weekly basis. I grew up as a child during the Rough 90s in Yekaterinburg and then, due to a number of circumstances, my family relocated to southern Moscow oblast. I’m member of Russian/Soviet intelligentsia in 3rd generation, coming from the worker-peasant (and soldier) stock.

          I’m also absolutely horrible person, whose views you’d, most likely, find totally abhorrent.

          I’m representative of the significant number of Russians if not of the vast majority of them when it comes to the worldview and the perception of norms.

          I’m not a nice person. See – you’ve been warned.

          I think your work to describe what you call a “working class in post-socialism Russia” is a rare example of Russia research done right. As I told elsewhere, the current “Russia watching” resembles the fable about 7 blind bats and an elephant. Again, as I told elsewhere, most of the Westerners now resemble the 7th bat which missed the elephant completely and proclaimed that it does not exist. As for the other bats/experts, they don’t see Russia for what it is, seeing instead a reflection of themselves or their biases, so it’s really a story about them but not about a foreign country. Naturally, that liberal, urbanite and cosmopolitan “elite” of the Western chattering stratas will seek for “insight” into Russia likeminded urbanite, cosmopolitan kreakls, hipsters, members of intelligentsia and so-called “Russian liberals”. Any contact with the “aborigines” of the “lower class” is anathema to them, that ought to be avoided by all means necessary. After all – that’s what they do in their respective native countries, scoffing at the masses of Deplorables and denying them any political will… at their own risk. The root cuase of their subconscious Russophobia lies in yet unannounced realization, that in Russia said “Deplorables”, those whom bright Elves of the so-called Russian Opposition label as “vatniki”, “sovoks”, “biomass” and “bydlo” did constitute 90+% of the population – and that these people DO vote.

          As for your interview and, to an extent to the book, I have several objections and comments. First of all, you and your interviewer start up wrong, without defining what do you undersand by the “working class” to begin with. Judging by your words alone I can only presume (probably, wrong) that you understand the working class as the proletariat in the Marxist meaning of the word – i.e. people selling their labour for money (salary) and who does not own the means of production. Thus you include in your tale cashiers in the local chain stores, factory workers, gypsy cab drivers – and a librarian. In the West (the US in particular) there is a fine distinction between the “blue-” and “white-collar” jobs, which replaces the Marxist definition of classes. So, a librarian might be seen as a “white-collar” profession, a member of “working intelligentsia”, if you like, a breed apart from the “commoners”.

          Nuance and correct definition if everything. Those you think that all people are “on the same wavelength” when talking about such topics take the humanity for the hivemind sharing *their* worldview. The Semantic Warfare is happening every moment with all of us participating in it, because our mind is the battlefield. We, humans, think in words. Change, mutate the meaning of the word and you can effectively change and mutate humans thought process. Just think about how many buzzwords and clichés you take for granted, thinking, erroneously, that you know their definition or that there is no big deal in using them in such a context. The best example here – “Russian Propaganda”. Everyone uses it in the West. Nary anyone can find right words to describe it. But everyone knows that it must be a Real and Present Danger.

          So, a talk about what you define as “working-class” Russians should be a must, if we are to understand about whom you are talking here. Take my family for example. 90s were a disaster. A sad reality, now, thankfully, belonging to the old TV serials and anekdotes, paints a picture of academicians working as janitors for pittance during the “Democratic 90s” under Yeltsin the Drunk. One of my grandfathers was the school’s principal and member of the city’s educational board. In 90s he, a retiree pensioner, had to work as storage manager. My uncle was a scientist in our local institute of microbiology. Again, 90s being 90s he had to work lots of odd jobs – even as fish-seller at a market at one time. Then since early 2000s he worked as pests “exterminator” in one of Moscow’s firms, rose through ranks and came to the helm of the company. As a third example I’d mention a family acquaintance, who came from the real “academia” sub-strata of intelligentsia, who then emigrated to Israel in early 90s. Here he was promptly told that his specialty is needed to no one, his Russian wife, who came with him, promptly divorced him, and the fellow had to travel back to Russia where he for a time being worked as a tiler rubbing shoulders with gastarbeiters from Moldova and Ukraine.

          These stories also tell a sojourn to (and, rarely, back from) the working class of the people, who were not “born” into it. The 90s in Russia were the time of, mainly, social downward mobility for the vast majority of the people. I don’t know, whether you paid any attention to this nuance in your book. I also don’t know whether you devoted any attention to the “working pensioners” phenomenon in Russia. In the West the ageism is a norm, and nearly palatable hatred to the elderly can be felt in their (and Russia’s so-called liberals’) sermons about “backwards Russia” with wishing the soon death to them.

          Mr. Morris, you wrote:

          “Personhood is a just a way of drawing attention to the socially-shared and experienced aspects of ‘identity’. I used it to avoid too much the language of the ‘self’, which is so associated with a middle-class, bourgeois sense of identity – acquisitive, individualistic, and interpreted in similarly negative ways by working-class people all over the world.”

          Its a rare thing these days when the people realize their own shortcomings and class biases, so for this attempt to realize them you should be appreciated and thanked. But the fact remains – you, your interviewers and the vast majority of your readership remain the aforementioned middle-class, bourgeois, acquisitive, individualistic “white-collar” or student strata of people, who, seemingly, see themselves as the pinnacle of the development of the (Human, not just Western) Civilization. For them to learn about other people not sharing their views (like yours truly here) and who resist the “conversion” to the one and true Faith (and Liberalism in the West by now acquired all characteristics of religion, of the totalitarian sect variety) is a reason to be, first, triggered, and then do their utmost to annihilate the Other. Said Other is a Threat by the virtue of existing and providing an alternative, so the option of “just letting it live without poking and prodding” is not an option. As I told in the beginning – interactions with Others are actually not about finding the truth and understanding the object of your inquiory, but all about Yourslef. Mainly – fellating your Ego. Modern fairy tales about the First Contact, be it with the Rubber Faced Aliens from some sci-fi series or the “deep and thoughful” ™ with octopoids using unique language are a pack of lies, as is evident to anyont who bothered to see how humans fail to understand each other.

          I’m fearing, Mr. Morris, that you still did not overcame your own class biases while trying to finally “grok” Russia, by contacting working-class people here, nearly universally ignored by the Westerners. You draw attention as to something groundbreaking “progressive” to the fact that there are a lot of working women in Russia. This clearly shows more where you’ve came from rather any “new discovery”. What is “progressive” for you is a norm from me and for the most of Russians – a legacy of Bolsheviks policy, much hated by the West and so-called Russian liberals. I grew up with women being doctors and nurses, state officials, teachers and principals, cashiers, trolley/bus/tram drivers, journalists, librarians, factory workers, janitors, small-business owners etc, etc. In the Army my first commanding officer was major Elena Alexandrovna K. – and indomitable woman who could at ease execute both the precision F-strike and cluster-F bombing of the people (even her higher ups – but out of their hearing) who pissed her off. Her second in comand comrade seior praporsh’ik. Nadezhda Pavlovna S., a mother of 2, who during my time took a re-app course together with other kontraktniks of our unit which include a month long survival course and “living in the wild”. She survived it and re-apped. A praporshik from another unit who also participated in said course had a heart attack during a long march that took place during that month. I think he survived, but was promptly discharged due to the health issues.

          What “women question” you, Westerners, are talking about here, is beyond me. I simply don’t understand.

          What I do understand is that, as I said, you, Mr. Morris, still don’t accept Russians for who we are, due to the values dissonance and class differences. You said the following:

          “What’s really depressing is how much punishment and lowering of living standards all Russians can put up with.”

          Well, what more evidence do anyone needs here, to see that you, personally, subscribe wholeheartedly to the aforementioned “middle-class, bourgeois, acquisitive, individualistic” identity, which most of Russians to this day find distasteful if not completely alien and repugnant? Have it eve crossed your mind that thanks to this “depressing” trait Pavlov’s house in Stalingrad fought off Nazis longer than Adorable, Free and Democratic France have resisted Hitler? That, despite all the forecasts back from 2014. the “Downfall of the Regime” (c) of Putin is not in the sight, that Russians did not rose against the Tyranny, to have real Western jamon in exchange of Crimea and sovereignty as a country?

          Basically, you are admitting that you find Russians wrong, totally incorrect, i.e. alien to your own “middle-class, bourgeois, acquisitive, individualistic” identity. Then, maybe, this is not about Russia – it is about class? Then this is not, really, a particular Russophobia, which to some extend color every attempt to analyze Russia by any Westerner, but rather a much more broader and universal narodophobia? Really, how is jeering and belittling of any given “redneck” or “Deplorable” is any different from the livid hatred and/or dismissal of the typical Putin’s voter, this vatnik and morlok, who dares to exercise one’s will to ruin the would be Utopia of the liberal Elves and Eloi?

          Mr. Morrison, your research is important, but it doesn’t go far enough. I’d previously discussed this phenomenon of Westerners seemingly “sympathetic” to Russia ultimately failing to go far enough in their analysis and to accept both the People and Country for what they are. I will end with this quote from the classic, which, I think, describes perfectly any given “sympathetic” Western Russia watcher, who, nevertheless, shies away from one final step:

          Prince Andrew was somewhat refreshed by having ridden off the dusty highroad along which the troops were moving. But not far from Bald Hills he again came out on the road and overtook his regiment at its halting place by the dam of a small pond. It was past one o’clock. The sun, a red ball through the dust, burned and scorched his back intolerably through his black coat. The dust always hung motionless above the buzz of talk that came from the resting troops. There was no wind. As he crossed the dam Prince Andrew smelled the ooze and freshness of the pond. He longed to get into that water, however dirty it might be, and he glanced round at the pool from whence came sounds of shrieks and laughter. The small, muddy, green pond had risen visibly more than a foot, flooding the dam, because it was full of the naked white bodies of soldiers with brick-red hands, necks, and faces, who were splashing about in it. All this naked white human flesh, laughing and shrieking, floundered about in that dirty pool like carp stuffed into a watering can, and the suggestion of merriment in that floundering mass rendered it specially pathetic.


          “Flesh, bodies, cannon fodder!” he thought, and he looked at his own naked body and shuddered, not from cold but from a sense of disgust and horror he did not himself understand, aroused by the sight of that immense number of bodies splashing about in the dirty pond.
          – L. Tolstoy, “War and Peace”, volume 3, Book 10, Chapter V.


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