Some grime off the lens

To say that the American public views Russia through a dark lens might be an understatement. This lens is caked with layer upon layer of dirt; snarling bears and missiles have been etched on its surface for extra effect. The cloth that could wipe it clean was long ago misplaced, though I imagine it is hiding in plain sight, obscured by the very same grime. For now, we must content ourselves with guidebooks to help configure our limited view. Enter Inside Russian Politics by Edwin Bacon, Reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck University of London.

Like Colton’s Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know, Inside Russian Politics states it has no time for the idea that Russia somehow defies logic and its people think and behave in ways too alien to warrant considered analysis (p. 3). And the book delivers on its refreshing premise in many regards: from remarking that politics-as-theater occurs the world over to examining public opinion data, revealing Russians to be no more nationalist than US and UK citizens and sharing similar daily concerns about living standards and their children’s futures.

Inside Russian Politics rejects simplistic models of the country’s political system. If you, like me, balk at a book’s insistence on following high-profile cases, the Pikalyovos and Pussy Riots, fear not – Bacon uses these epiphenomena as a springboard into deeper mechanisms, which he then proceeds to pick apart. Only be prepared to feel like some “nuances” were hiding in plain sight, if only the Usual Suspects bothered with proper research: the media sphere is partially, not fully controlled by the state; opposition is marginalized and harassed, but it exists and has occasionally extracted concessions from the incumbent regime. The bit on use of the prison system and police (p. 96) was appalling to read, but here Bacon notes that the use of repression varies from case to case.

In accessible, temperate prose, Bacon constructs a portrait of the Russian government more complex than one man controlling everything from Moscow. Richard Sakwa’s theory of a constitutional state (in which power is legitimized) clashing with an administrative regime (which exercises that power through informal means) makes an appearance. Readers observe how policy is developed and implemented across regions: for instance, to address the issue of declining single-industry towns, the Ministry of Economic Development designated a list of 300+ monogoroda, divided them into three risk categories, and provided subsidies to maintain some viability and socioeconomic stability (p. 46). Policies are instituted across the same range of areas to be found in any developed country without the Big Man’s manual control (p.58). Rather, he exercises power through an oversight function – meeting with ministers, governors, and his PM.

Bacon also touches upon the importance of National Projects to Russia’s economic development. During the 2000s, they focused on key areas (such as housing, healthcare, education, rural life) to be invested in and developed in order to enhance available services (p. 51). A target was set, resources were allocated, and a key figure in Moscow took responsibility for the outcome (in 2005, for example, it was Medvedev). In Bacon’s view, National Projects are appropriate for Russia’s political culture, in the sense that they are consistent with what was done in Soviet era and the “general” vision of state-as-overseer or provider.

Overall, whether the book is covering regime dynamics or public opinion, sobriety is at its core. Some readers may criticize Inside Russian Politics for refusing to stray too far from the middleground, but my only complaint is that Bacon doesn’t delve much into the system’s effectiveness.

Inside Russian Politics, as far as guidebooks go, is a good one…but there are a few aspects in which it could be better.

For instance, citations. Some statements have neither names nor sources attached to them, and the back contains no end notes. The selected bibliography maintains that “for reasons of style, Inside Russian Politics does not cite much literature in the text” (p. 247). This is problematic. I don’t know where the literature ends and the interpretations begin.  Yes, footnotes and endnotes can be aggravating sometimes, but a full-fledged bibliography would benefit the serious reader’s confidence in what she is reading.

For all its objection to “othering” Russia, Inside Russian Politics is inconsistent in its use of “Russians” and politically-charged version “The Russians”, and for all its insistence on interpreting the Russian state as “more than Putin alone”, it is privy to sliding into the prez=country trope (“Putin’s moves in Syria”). Both could be remedied by sticking to stated objectives and choosing words that don’t contradict them. It would also be extremely helpful to establish clear working definitions of our favorite -isms (nationalism, Eurasianism, anti-Westernism) and other terms critical to the argument.

I share Bacon’s skepticism of basing one’s national idea on vague “patriotism” but disagree with some of his judgment calls: for example, discussing the Izborsky Club, he notes they come from sometimes wildly different ideological strands (p. 179) but “have enough in common to create an identifiable sense of what they stand for; in short, the greatness and superiority of Russian civilization and the correspondingly defective and inferior nature of the West.” (p. 180) It’s one thing to argue IC believes in Russia’s own “unique path”, and I’d buy that. It’s another to talk of superiority, and the surrounding text does not support this conclusion.

I wouldn’t call this an isolated incident either – a quote from Putin’s “Millenium Manifesto” in Chapter 2 (“How Did Russia’s Politics Get Like This?”) is more open-ended than the conclusion Bacon draws. The author is certainly entitled to his own interpretation, but it would be nice to see the text and research better support his argument.

The stumbling blocks yours truly encountered throughout Inside Russian Politics point to a larger (non)issue: some grime is off the lens – some. The book itself, in its very opening, warns readers against viewing it as a counternarrative. Its argument is fairer than most but still lodged firmly within a Western, pro-opposition framework. Some comparative perspective is missing:

The remit of security represents a useful catch-all, since almost anything can be represented as a security threat and the tendency to do precisely this has run wild in the high politics of Russia for most of this century. (p. 62)

(^ See securitization theory.)

Opposition and independent sources receive privileged treatment while skepticism is positioned as “provocation”:

…it’s easy for their [the oppos’] opponents to tar them with corruption, unpatriotic pro-Western conspiracy, etc. (p. 73)

…abstract aims, like democracy and human rights, that can be tarred somehow as pro-Western and anti-Russian… (p. 99)

(^ Not gonna explore whether the critics have a point?)

And the narrative zooms in on more troubling aspects of “Russian civilizational turn” while not giving other aspects – such as a seemingly incompatible mishmash of symbols (painting of Stalin standing under an icon of Christ beside the Virgin Mary in the garb of a Russian peasant woman, p. 183) – the attention they deserve.

Yet to me this isn’t a punishable offense. Even if one is committed to completely revamping the way we see Russia, to expect them to fully shed the cultural/social/political framework in which they were raised would be, hm, slightly unrealistic.

I’m not on board with “strategic empathy” (p. 7), nor do I appreciate phrasing like “democratic deficit” (p. 151) or “during what passed for a presidential election campaign in 2012” (p. 180), but I can respect the steps Inside Russian Politics has taken elsewhere to resist the pull of polemic. Bacon did a great job with Inside Russian Politics, and given the current state of discourse, Biteback has guts for publishing it.

The book starts off strong and ends strongish; what’s in between can be negotiated.

And its lens, while perhaps still grimy, gives a more complete view.

Inside Russian Politics by Edwin Bacon. Pub. 2018 by Biteback Publishing. Paperback, 150pp. ISBN13: 9781785902314.

5 thoughts on “Some grime off the lens

  1. J.T., your previous book reviews were already good, but, I think, with this one in particular, you have perfected the academic angel of approaching it. It feels more like a work of a professional reviewer, balanced and articulate, everything just it right measures so that the review makes everyone reading agree – you “nailed it”.

    [Just don’t become all-too serious, okay? Snarkbait and multiple facepalms coupled with vitriol are perfectly fine when the book and/or its subject warrants it]

    It’s obligatory to scoff, to deride and diss in general instance of Marx/Engels/Lenin/(Stalin) quotation in the Soviet era scientific works, which might have the most tenuous relation to the subject at hand. No, it was seemingly obligatory – even if talking about, say, Pushkin and his time, to provide a relevant quote, highlighting the understanding of the inter-class relations of the time, the serfdom, something-something-Decembrists-something, and stuff like that. At the time, higher education was universally free and widely accessibly all across the country.

    In the Medieval times, higher education was shockingly restrictive, accessibly by a few, and had large gaps in it. Even the ones lucky enough to get it, could not simply praise the works of the Classics of the Antiquity who were all heathen pagans after all. Instead, it required a fine dance and extensive patristic knowledge, which would allow one to prove that that’s not heresy at all, that it is all done De Majore Dei Gloriam (please, Holy Office agents, go away). People nowadays pity intellectuals of the era, who had to tie themselves in the knots for the simple pleasure of accessing ancient Greek-Roman literature.

    Is it then such a surprise though, that even know a certain rigid ideological system, that can’t simply pronounce some thing out loud lest the whole construct comes down crumbling, burying its adherents and faithful, has trouble accepting Russia as it is? If one to claim that Russia has the right to be as it is, that Russians might decide for themselves without Western lecturing and handwringing – what would come with the world liberalism? How can one doubt its universality? If you doubt it’s universality re:Russia, what to stop the people in the West itself from doubting its usefulness and utility in their own countries?.. Oh, wait! 🙂

    Any Western “researcher of Russia” bound to be biased against us – the country, the people, the state. The very nature of the higher education in the West, it’s ideological component, the class/stratum component inevitably lead to the situation, when the “researcher” becomes antagonistic to the vast majority of the Russian people, the state (“REGIME”) that they support and are in no rush to topple, and the country itself, so vast and threatening by its mere… otherness. These “researchers” seek someone in Russia with whom they can emphasize – someone, who, more or less, resembles them outwardly, or, at least, worships some idealized version of the West. It’s rather telling, that while in the USSR Michael McFaul quickly became enomoured with the refuseniks and the farsovschiki. It’s also rather telling, that when trying to perceive Russia, these “researchers” either believe, or actively hope, that such handshakable marginali would make up the (ruling) majority. They are, naturally, outraged when it proves not so, for this goes against everything they were taught to .believe.

    The vivid image of the West looking at Russia through the glass, darkly, is stunningly accurate. One shouldn’t mention, though, the substance which covers this much abused glass is not, well, a “grime”, or that a veritable legion of, ah, “people” apply more and more of this substance either out of ignorance or spite. As for the lack of a simply piece of cloth, with which to clean some… stuff… off it – is this particular book is any indication, then that piece f cloth is rather small-ish and already tarred by its own bias. Using it one might inevitable get some of the “stuff” on their own hands and, at the end of the day, agree with the premise that Russia is ruled by the “Regime”, which, naturally, had to be toppled. For yours and ours freedom (c). ТакЪ победимЪ!

    Liked by 1 person

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