Reading on Russia Roundup #38

Risk, Uncertainty, and Black Swans: Why Soviet Socialism Was Forever Until It Was No More (Eurasian Geopolitics)

A few words to begin with about the title.

Many of you probably recognize the reference to Alexei’s terrific and influential book about late socialism, “Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More.” The book is framed around a particular observation, which is that in the late Soviet period Soviet citizens assumed that Soviet socialism would last forever, but after the fact they looked back and saw all sorts of reasons why it had to collapse.

It wasn’t just Soviet citizens who felt that way, however – outside observers did as well. Indeed there has been a great deal of criticism of academic specialists, and perhaps more importantly of the U.S. and Western intelligence communities, for having assumed that “everything was forever” and for failing to predict the collapse of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. In fact, just yesterday I read a piece in Foreign Policy claiming that Kremlinologists are “ haunted” by their “fabled inability to foresee one of the most significant geopolitical events of the 20th century — the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union.”

Contacts with Russian Embassy (Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr)

Our press seems to be in a feeding frenzy regarding contacts that President Trump’s supporters had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and with other Russian diplomats. The assumption seems to be that there was something sinister about these contacts, just because they were with Russian diplomats. As one who spent a 35-year diplomatic career working to open up the Soviet Union and to make communication between our diplomats and ordinary citizens a normal practice, I find the attitude of much of our political establishment and of some of our once respected media outlets quite incomprehensible. What in the world is wrong with consulting a foreign embassy about ways to improve relations? Anyone to aspires to advise an American president should do just that.

Yesterday I received four rather curious questions from Mariana Rambaldi of Univision Digital. I reproduce below the questions and the answers I have given.

History, Languages, and All Manner of Other Things: A Few Thoughts About Paul Goldberg’s The Yid (Lizok’s Bookshelf)

Paul Goldberg’s novel The Yid offers up an unusual angle on Stalin’s Russia: Goldberg begins the book on February 24, 1953, sending a Black Maria with attendant staff to arrest one Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, “an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater.” Everything goes topsy-turvy in Levinson’s apartment—and, really, in the rest of the novel, just as things have gone topsy-turvy in the USSR over the last several decades—thanks to Levinson’s skill with sharp objects. And so. What does a non-state actor (sorry for the pun!) do with dead bodies killed unofficially? And how might a non-state actor (meaning someone like Levinson) and his buddies try to combat Stalin? This second question is a new variation on the age-old burning question of “What is to be done?”

Navalny “Kompromats” Medvedev: Implications (Gordon M. Hahn)

The recent revelations from opposition leader and Foundation for the Fight Against Corruption (FBK) founder Aleksei Navalnyi has had a limited ripple effect in society but may reflect somewhat more turbulence for the regime’s ruling groups and their leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin. On March 2 the FBK published an article and video detailing a large empire of foundations. One is a supposed philanthropic foundation ‘Dar’ or ‘Giving’. It appears to stand at the center of the empire’s acquisitions around which others such as ‘SotsGosProekt’ and ‘Gradislav.’ Through Dar’s and the others’ accounts investments are made by Kremlin-tied oligarchs, and various properties, including wineries, yachts, and luxurious residences are held and de facto ‘owned’ indirectly by Russian Prime Minister and former Russian president Dmitrii Medvedev. Navalnyi’s estimation is that the sum of the properties can be valued at R70 billion – approximately $1.2 billion

Leading Putin Critic Warns of Xenophobic Conspiracy Theories Drowning U.S. Discourse and Helping Trump (The Intercept)

Decent article, but skip the praise Greenwald heaps on Gessen in the beginning.

Damage Done: How Russia Hysteria Has Hurt U.S.-Russia Relations (The National Interest)

More macro insect photography (Tatiana Zarubo) [images]

ISSF Roundtable 9-12 on Return to Cold War

Legvold engages thoughtfully with each of his roundtable critics, and contends that the Trump administration may in fact provide an opportunity for Washington to test the book’s arguments. Since the United States, in Legvold’s view, holds a “vastly stronger hand” than Russia, it has less to lose from attempting to build sustained cooperation on what Legvold sees as the defining issues of global security today. Yet Legvold ends on a sober note, fully cognizant that whatever cooperation emerges in coming years will much more likely center on simply managing confrontation between Russia and the West, rather than permanently overcoming the pervasive climate of distrust between them.


Don’t forget to vote on a Russia Reviewed summer series! The poll closes on April 8th.



  1. In other news…
    -My site continues to appear alongside alt-right and conspiracy theorist blogs in the WordPress Reader. I am not pleased. I have no control over what appears beneath my posts in the reader, however.

    -Fictional Stalin is a thing. We still don’t have novels told from Peter the Great, Lenin, Yeltsin, Khrushchev, or Gorbachev’s perspective, but at least we have Stalin:

    Does the name ‘Richard Lourie’ sound familiar? He’s the author of an upcoming Putin book with this glorious description:

    Why is Putin still a mystery? He keeps catching us off-guard because we have no feel for his deeply Soviet background and his KGB psychology. His society is as opaque as he is. Crime, government, business, and the secret police are four different things, but in Putin’s Russia they are almost indistinguishable.
    Putin’s Russia will collapse just as Imperial Russia did in 1917 and as Soviet Russia did in 1991. The only questions are when, and how violently, and with how much peril for the world.

    I found a copy of the Stalin novel in a bargain bin at Book Warehouse No.5, but I won’t review it for RR. Because reasons.


  2. This week’s collection of articles in the Russian Roundup warrants an introduction of J.T. to yet another “word of the week”! Last week it was “бомбить с/от чего-то”, and now it’s:

    Годнота [Godnota] – is an internet-born neologism, that is formed of combination of two Russian words. Годный [Godniy] – means good, useful, well-made. Лепота [Lepota] is the old-Russian word denoting something beautiful, very good and done appropriately. The opposite of something which is “лепо” is “нелепо(сть)” – something foolish, absurd, ill-fitting.

    And thus, about this week’s Russia Roundup Ivan Vasilyevich says:

    1) Re: Risk, Uncertainty, and Black Swans: Why Soviet Socialism Was Forever Until It Was No More (Eurasian Geopolitics)

    On the one hand – the blogroll and links to his previous articles makes this person a thoroughly handshakable, pro-liberal anti-Russian in my understanding. His previous article on that site about “Deterrence of Russia”, reeks of self-assured triumphalism of someone from the ½ half of 2016. Yet, everything he says in this particular blogpost is, surprisingly, devoid of any ideological bias. A paradox!

    “To wrap up, probably the most robust finding in the literature on decision-making is that all of us, to one degree or another, suffer from “confirmation bias.” As one study famously put it, “Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant.” Which is to say, most people are not good at Bayesian reasoning: we get “anchored” to a particular belief, sometimes for entirely irrational reasons, and then refuse to change our minds when confronted with new evidence. That is one way in which we’re “predictably irrational,” and there are some pretty convincing arguments as to how evolution helps explain this and other hard-wired biases. And it also doubtless helps explain why some people continued to think Soviet socialism would be forever longer than they should have.

    There’s another relevant, perhaps more important, finding in the decision-making literature, which is that after an unexpected event, people fool themselves about what they thought at the time, and remember themselves as having been more prescient than they actually were. More importantly yet for our purposes, they also see patterns, construct narratives, and offer explanations for why what happened happened, and indeed for why it had to happen. It turns out, not surprisingly, that it’s easier, and psychologically comforting, to narrate or explain ex post, and it’s easy, and comforting, to ignore or underweight uncertainty and contingency after the fact.”

    All so-called Xperts on Russia must be face-punched with these two paragraphs till they stop see what they want and start seeing reality as it is. Less gentle measures just won’t work.

    2) Re: Contacts with Russian Embassy (Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr)

    Oh, imagine what would happen should Russia answer in kind, and start “persecuting” our own fifth columnists, who go to Spaso-House as if they are working (earning salary!) here. Just look at these shy and modest people!

    Lev Ponomaryov (0:40) was at the moment member of Russian Duma. He conducted contacts with the American ambassador without consent of Duma or his own party. If you gonna burn at the stake your own “fifth columninst”, can we have our own rendition of “Light My Fire”, starring our oppos? Or should all western MSM be dismissed outright as “Soros propaganda”?

    3) Re: Navalny “Kompromats” Medvedev: Implications (Gordon M. Hahn)

    In Russia everybody ignores Navalny and his “investigations”, which are low on substance and high on hype. Is it a bad thing that Russians are less eager to follow the Fake News?

    4) Re: Greenwald piece.


    I’d like to sue the editorial board of the Intercept. The picture of Maria Alexandrovna Gessen triggered me. I consider it an act of micro-aggression. I demand compensation for the unspeakable and unutterable horror which I survived.

    As for the article, I wait for a moment when anyone will get the right to state the obvious, speak out truth and be actually heard out. So far only “even Putin’s critics” have this unchecked privilege. This is entirely wrong approach, which forces a person to add obligatory Putin/Russia bashing to be considered handshakable and getting heard and respected.


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