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Posts For: April 24, 2007

Russia’s New Dissidents

Anne Applebaum has a troubling piece in the Spectator on the new dissidents in Russia, the anti-Western rhetoric permeating Pravda and political discourse generally, and the rapidly growing authoritarianism that has characterized Putin’s presidency. Near the piece’s end, she makes this disturbing observation:

Slowly, Russia’s new political class is bringing not just a change in rhetorical tone, but a familiar kind of violence. Last weekend, some 2,000 members of the political opposition—among them Kasyanov, Kasparov, and Limonov—organized a march in Moscow. They were met by 9,000 club-wielding riot police. At least 170 people were arrested, among them Kasparov, who was charged with “shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people.”

Kasparov has deemed these harsh new police tactics evidence that the regime is “scared.” Others suspect the Kremlin fears a repeat of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, whose adherents used street protests to change the regime. I am not so sure. The new aggression might, on the contrary, be evidence that the Kremlin is now so self-confident that it no longer needs to make any gestures to Western public sensibilities at all.

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Anne Applebaum has a troubling piece in the Spectator on the new dissidents in Russia, the anti-Western rhetoric permeating Pravda and political discourse generally, and the rapidly growing authoritarianism that has characterized Putin’s presidency. Near the piece’s end, she makes this disturbing observation:

Slowly, Russia’s new political class is bringing not just a change in rhetorical tone, but a familiar kind of violence. Last weekend, some 2,000 members of the political opposition—among them Kasyanov, Kasparov, and Limonov—organized a march in Moscow. They were met by 9,000 club-wielding riot police. At least 170 people were arrested, among them Kasparov, who was charged with “shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people.”

Kasparov has deemed these harsh new police tactics evidence that the regime is “scared.” Others suspect the Kremlin fears a repeat of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, whose adherents used street protests to change the regime. I am not so sure. The new aggression might, on the contrary, be evidence that the Kremlin is now so self-confident that it no longer needs to make any gestures to Western public sensibilities at all.

Applebaum also notes that the new generation of dissidents—including Garry Kasparov and ex-PM Mikhail Kasyanov—have joined forces with older ones, like the the human-rights activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva. But to little avail:

Oddly enough, in their mixed motives and varying backgrounds, this new generation of dissidents does resemble its Soviet predecessors. They, too, were unpopular. Peter Reddaway, then the leading scholar on the subject, reckoned that at its zenith in the early 1980’s the dissident movement had made “little or no headway among the mass of ordinary people.” Today, the mass of ordinary people are probably not merely indifferent but actively hostile to Kasyanov with his liberal economics; to Kasparov with his mixed ethnic origins; to Alekseyeva with her high principles; to Limonov with his madness. Yet despite this—or perhaps because of it—the Putin regime increasingly treats these new dissidents in much the same manner as the Soviet regime once treated its dissidents.

The whole piece deserves your attention.

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David Halberstam’s All-Too-Prescient Forecast

David Halberstam was killed yesterday in an automobile accident in Menlo Park, California, bringing to a close a legendary journalistic career. Plaudits for the Pulitzer-prize winning author are flowing with abandon. Here is a bit of hagiography from the New York Times:

Tall, square-jawed, and graced with an imposing voice so deep that it seemed to begin at his ankles, Mr. Halberstam came into his own as a journalist in the early 1960’s covering the nascent American war in South Vietnam for the New York Times.

This reporting, along with that of several colleagues, left little doubt that a corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the United States was no match for Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies. His dispatches infuriated American military commanders and policy makers in Washington, but they accurately reflected the realities on the ground.

This is fascinating stuff, for what the Times omits to say is that Halberstam, who did come to deride the war in Vietnam ferociously, began his career as one of its most avid supporters. Indeed, as late as 1965 Halberstam was telling his readers that if America pulled out of Southeast Asia, a moral tragedy and strategic debacle would ensue:

[T]hose Vietnamese who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most under a Communist government, while we lucky few with blue passports retire unharmed; it means a drab, lifeless, and controlled society for a people who deserve better. Withdrawal also means that the United States’s prestige will be lowered throughout the world, and it means that the pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. Lastly, withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam.

Halberstam never came to terms with his past view of the war; he just silently shifted away from it.

As I wrote in my review of Robert S. McNamara’s memoirs in Commentary, “considering what happened to the South Vietnamese after America did pull out—hundreds of thousands bidding farewell forever to their ancestors’ sacred graves to flee ‘reeducation camps’ and other appurtenances of Communist rule, and so many perishing at sea at the hands of pirates or with the foundering of their rickety ships, not to mention the even more unspeakable fate suffered by millions in the mass graveyard that the entire nation of neighboring Cambodia became—surely Halberstam’s is the most clear-sighted forecast ever to be quietly disavowed.”

David Halberstam was killed yesterday in an automobile accident in Menlo Park, California, bringing to a close a legendary journalistic career. Plaudits for the Pulitzer-prize winning author are flowing with abandon. Here is a bit of hagiography from the New York Times:

Tall, square-jawed, and graced with an imposing voice so deep that it seemed to begin at his ankles, Mr. Halberstam came into his own as a journalist in the early 1960’s covering the nascent American war in South Vietnam for the New York Times.

This reporting, along with that of several colleagues, left little doubt that a corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the United States was no match for Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies. His dispatches infuriated American military commanders and policy makers in Washington, but they accurately reflected the realities on the ground.

This is fascinating stuff, for what the Times omits to say is that Halberstam, who did come to deride the war in Vietnam ferociously, began his career as one of its most avid supporters. Indeed, as late as 1965 Halberstam was telling his readers that if America pulled out of Southeast Asia, a moral tragedy and strategic debacle would ensue:

[T]hose Vietnamese who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most under a Communist government, while we lucky few with blue passports retire unharmed; it means a drab, lifeless, and controlled society for a people who deserve better. Withdrawal also means that the United States’s prestige will be lowered throughout the world, and it means that the pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. Lastly, withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam.

Halberstam never came to terms with his past view of the war; he just silently shifted away from it.

As I wrote in my review of Robert S. McNamara’s memoirs in Commentary, “considering what happened to the South Vietnamese after America did pull out—hundreds of thousands bidding farewell forever to their ancestors’ sacred graves to flee ‘reeducation camps’ and other appurtenances of Communist rule, and so many perishing at sea at the hands of pirates or with the foundering of their rickety ships, not to mention the even more unspeakable fate suffered by millions in the mass graveyard that the entire nation of neighboring Cambodia became—surely Halberstam’s is the most clear-sighted forecast ever to be quietly disavowed.”

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The Walls of Baghdad

Confusion persists about the erection of walls in Baghdad. Some critics of this joint Iraqi-U.S. military project are raising the specter of the Berlin Wall or of a West Bank-style barrier separating Sunnis and Shiites. Reacting to such criticism, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced, while attending a meeting in Cairo, that he did not want to see a twelve-foot-high wall built around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

Odds are, however, that the building of walls will persist, though most of them will be made up of shorter, three-foot-tall “Jersey” barriers rather than the taller “Texas” barriers that stretch twelve feet high. Most American and Iraqi security officials are convinced that the barriers are the way to go. (In fact, in one Baghdad meeting recently, I listened to an Iraqi general ask for taller barriers to go in faster.) An increasing number of ordinary Iraqis agree.

It’s not hard to see why: Concrete saves lives by impeding the movement of terrorists. In fact, as Linda Robinson reports in U.S. News & World Report, last week’s car bombing of the Sadriya market, which killed over a hundred people, might have been averted had not local complaints led Iraqi security officials to remove several Texas barriers arrayed around the market prior to the blast.

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Confusion persists about the erection of walls in Baghdad. Some critics of this joint Iraqi-U.S. military project are raising the specter of the Berlin Wall or of a West Bank-style barrier separating Sunnis and Shiites. Reacting to such criticism, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced, while attending a meeting in Cairo, that he did not want to see a twelve-foot-high wall built around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

Odds are, however, that the building of walls will persist, though most of them will be made up of shorter, three-foot-tall “Jersey” barriers rather than the taller “Texas” barriers that stretch twelve feet high. Most American and Iraqi security officials are convinced that the barriers are the way to go. (In fact, in one Baghdad meeting recently, I listened to an Iraqi general ask for taller barriers to go in faster.) An increasing number of ordinary Iraqis agree.

It’s not hard to see why: Concrete saves lives by impeding the movement of terrorists. In fact, as Linda Robinson reports in U.S. News & World Report, last week’s car bombing of the Sadriya market, which killed over a hundred people, might have been averted had not local complaints led Iraqi security officials to remove several Texas barriers arrayed around the market prior to the blast.

The point of these barriers isn’t to create a dividing line between Sunnis and Shiites, although admittedly that would be their effect in some places. The real point is to allow Iraqi and American security forces to keep a neighborhood free of terrorists once it has been cleared. Concrete barriers limit movement, channeling cars and pedestrians through a handful of checkpoints (known formally as ECP’s, or entry control points). Security personnel manning those checkpoints can turn away anyone who doesn’t have any business being in the neighborhood.

And how will they know who belongs and who doesn’t? In order to make this policy effective, officials or soldiers need to canvas the neighborhood, gathering census-style data about every household. It would help tremendously if Iraq launched a formal census and issued biometric identity cards to everyone. Such a step is under discussion by the Maliki government, but don’t hold your breath—it won’t happen anytime soon. Even short of such a solution, U.S. and Iraqi security forces are already improvising population surveys in their areas using handheld computers.

The whole process ought to be familiar to students of counterinsurgency. It is, in essence, an update of the old plan known as “concentration” zones or camps. The latter name causes understandable confusion, since we’re not talking about extermination camps of the kind that Hitler built, but rather of settlements where locals can be moved to live under guard, thereby preventing insurgent infiltration. The British used this strategy in the Boer war, the Americans during the Philippine war, and many other powers took similar steps in many other conflicts. In Vietnam they were known as “strategic hamlets.”

This type of massive population movement is not practical today given Iraq’s dense urban environment and nationalist sensitivities, but concrete barriers and tamper-proof identity cards can achieve some of the same result. There’s nothing nefarious about the process. It’s Counterinsurgency 101. The only wonder is that it’s taken so long for this obvious strategy to be implemented.

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Boris Yeltsin’s Ambiguous Legacy

Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?

Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.

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Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?

Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.

Nonetheless, despised as he was at home, and in sharp contrast to his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev, having few if any admirers abroad, Yeltsin still had achievements that are far more significant than many of his critics have ever been willing to acknowledge.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin was an example of a rare but not entirely unknown species: an honest Communist, a man of integrity like Gorbachev, but, unlike Gorbachev, far more earthy and practical and not so deeply in the grip of Communism’s ideological inanities. This is not to suggest that Yeltsin in his early years was in any way a heretic. After he became head of the Sverdlovsk party apparatus in 1976, his speeches were as fawning toward the “deep and profound” Leonid Brezhnev as those of any other Communist apparatchik.

Appointed by Gorbachev to run the Moscow party machine in 1985, at the dawn of the era of perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin used his Moscow perch to declare war on the hidebound and highly recalcitrant local bureaucracy. His vigorous attacks on the establishment’s privileges gained him an appeal across the strata of the nominally classless Soviet society that rapidly outstripped Gorbachev’s. His rise as an authentic leader coincided with so many other tectonic shifts that it was little appreciated in the West, particularly a West that was in the grip of a Gorbomania that the Russian populace never shared or grasped.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin appears initially to have been convinced that the Soviet system could be repaired by shining a spotlight on corruption, malingering, and privilege. But unlike Gorbachev, as he ran into a brick wall of resistance from conservative elements above and desperate bureaucratic infighters below, his essentially pragmatic disposition led him to jettison cherished dogmas with relative ease. By the close of 1991, when the Soviet system dissolved, Gorbachev was pushed aside, and power fell into the hands of Russia’s first-ever democratically elected president.

Russia’s problems in every sphere were so acute that no leader, no matter how wise and no matter how stalwart, could have successfully grappled with all of them at once. And Yeltsin was not always wise or stalwart. Certainly, his personal shortcomings, including his drinking, must be weighed in the balance. But Yeltsin’s real and imputed character flaws must be placed in context. Many of Yeltsin’s critics suffered from amnesia with respect to the USSR’s recent and not-so-recent past. If one considers the morass that was Russian society under Communist rule, not to mention the rivers of blood that were flowing there another five or so decades earlier, the Yeltsin era appears in a rather favorable light.

Russia held more than a half-dozen democratic elections under Yeltsin’s tutelage, and his rule was followed by the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president; these were no small accomplishments for what had been recently a totalitarian regime. By the end of his presidency, he left Russia with a press that was freer and more vigorous than anything throughout its long history of dictatorship and oppression. He presided over the dismantlement of a cutting-edge army that once drained the coffers of the government. Russia, at the turn of the millennium, was no longer a military-industrial state.

It is unquestionably true that millions were thrust into poverty by the transition to a market economy, and thousands upon thousands were unduly enriched, but it is too easily forgotten that virtually the entire citizenry lived in poverty under the old regime, while a privileged elite governed every last detail of their life and squeezed every last breath out of society.

In the end, Leon Aron was quite persuasive when he argued in his biography that Yeltsin would have had to work “miracles” in order to transform Russia in the way that his foreign critics, and much of the Russian populace, seem to have assumed was possible. Russia under Yeltsin may not have done all that well, but in comparison to what it was before him, and in comparison to the resurgent authoritarianism that has come after under Vladimir Putin, it did well enough. That is Boris Yeltsin’s ambiguous legacy.

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Bookshelf

• Kingsley Amis, who specialized in writing pithy comic novels that cut to the chase in the very first sentence, would doubtless have been amused to find himself the subject of a thousand-page authorized biography. I don’t presume to know how he would have felt if he’d known how brutally revealing it was going to be. Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis (Pantheon, 1,008 pp., $39.95) leaves no doubt whatsoever that the author of Lucky Jim was a dreadful, pitiful man who, like so many other great comedians, contrived through inexplicable acts of literary alchemy to wrench amusement out of his awfulness.

I led with my chin in that last sentence. I do indeed think Amis was a “great” comedian, by which I don’t mean great as in Shakespeare—but not as in Jack Benny, either. He wrote laugh-out-loud novels in which he cast the coldest possible eye on the manners and morals of postwar England. A highly intelligent middle-class populist with a powerful aesthetic streak and a long nose for humbug, he listened to Mozart with the same gusto that he read the novels of Ian Fleming. (He even turned out a fair amount of far-better-than-average poetry.) For all his love of art in its myriad manifestations, rage was the fuel on which Amis’s engine ran, and he was never funnier than when he was most disgusted. As a no-longer-young man he became ferociously conservative, having decided that the enemies of all he held dear were (mostly) on the Left. Yet even in his belligerently crusty old age, he never ceased to live by Noël Coward’s credo: “Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.”

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• Kingsley Amis, who specialized in writing pithy comic novels that cut to the chase in the very first sentence, would doubtless have been amused to find himself the subject of a thousand-page authorized biography. I don’t presume to know how he would have felt if he’d known how brutally revealing it was going to be. Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis (Pantheon, 1,008 pp., $39.95) leaves no doubt whatsoever that the author of Lucky Jim was a dreadful, pitiful man who, like so many other great comedians, contrived through inexplicable acts of literary alchemy to wrench amusement out of his awfulness.

I led with my chin in that last sentence. I do indeed think Amis was a “great” comedian, by which I don’t mean great as in Shakespeare—but not as in Jack Benny, either. He wrote laugh-out-loud novels in which he cast the coldest possible eye on the manners and morals of postwar England. A highly intelligent middle-class populist with a powerful aesthetic streak and a long nose for humbug, he listened to Mozart with the same gusto that he read the novels of Ian Fleming. (He even turned out a fair amount of far-better-than-average poetry.) For all his love of art in its myriad manifestations, rage was the fuel on which Amis’s engine ran, and he was never funnier than when he was most disgusted. As a no-longer-young man he became ferociously conservative, having decided that the enemies of all he held dear were (mostly) on the Left. Yet even in his belligerently crusty old age, he never ceased to live by Noël Coward’s credo: “Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.”

In private life, alas, Amis was a caddish, self-absorbed pleasure-seeker not unlike Roger Micheldene, the hideous anti-hero of One Fat Englishman, one of his sharpest and least appreciated novels, and The Life of Kingsley Amis is crammed to overflowing with well-sourced tales of his beastliness. Such things should of course be known, but Leader could have made his point four times as effectively in half the space, though he writes well enough to make his excesses palatable. He also has a sharp eye for self-revealing passages in Amis’s novels, as in this striking excerpt from The Green Man: “You just have your own ideas about what to do and when and how, about everything, and they always stay the same, doesn’t matter who you’re dealing with or what they say to you. . . . I don’t know what you think about people, which is bad enough, but you certainly go on as if they’re all in the way.”

By all means read The Life of Kingsley Amis if you’re familiar with his work. It will tell you everything you could ever want to know about him, along with a lot of things you’d just as soon not know. If, on the other hand, Amis is only a name to you, go first to Lucky Jim, which is as funny as anything by Waugh or Wodehouse (from both of whom he learned a lot). Thereafter I suggest Girl, 20, The Green Man, That Uncertain Feeling, One Fat Englishman, The Alteration, and The Russian Girl, in that order. Somewhere along the way, you should also dip into Amis’s Memoirs, which are as irresistible as they are unreliable. From there you can branch out to the lesser novels, poetry and nonfiction (The Amis Collection contains a representative selection of essays and reviews). Not all of Amis’s books are worth the trouble—Russian Hide-and-Seek is a dud—but few 20th-century writers have been more consistently entertaining.

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