The bear facts: new books on Russia

Issue: 114

Pete Glatter

Edwin Bacon with Matthew Wyman, Contemporary Russia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), £16.99

Stephen Lovell, Destination in Doubt: Russia since 1989 (Zed books, 2006), £12.99

Craig Murray, Murder in Samarkand: A British Ambassador’s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror (Mainstream, 2006), £7.99

Whether all the authors realise it or not, these books are about the extra dimension added to the global imperialist struggle by the long-term consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Stephen Lovell’s contribution to the attractively titled ‘history of the present’ series starts by asking how Russia managed to survive a gruelling decade and a half of post‑Communism. But he fails to come up with an answer to it for most of the book.

Part of the problem is his over-reliance on subjective evidence about attitudes. At one point he asserts that the vast majority of Russians are ‘located in the amorphous “middle” of low-paid employment’. Actually, his Russian source, based on polling results, is just as open to a class interpretation along Marxist lines. Things look up when he starts to deal with how ordinary Russians survived the disasters of the 1990s—those who did survive. I was particularly struck by the story of a group of workers at a cash‑starved coffin factory who found that their salary came in the shape of a wooden box.

The best part of the book is the chapter on Russia’s war in Chechnya—the original ‘war on terror’. Whatever its faults, this chapter tells a story too often ignored in the West. But the book’s overall weakness is summed up by the its final sentence: ‘Russia may spend the next phase of its history going nowhere in particular.’ Not only lame, but way off beam, especially given the repeated actions of the Russian state against foreign interests inside and outside the country around the time this book appeared.

Bacon and Wyman have produced a basic academic handbook, a bit like a Rough Guide with the practical bits removed, packed with information, as much of it as possible presented in handy, bite-sized chunks—a cliche, I know, but one that really works here. A number of telling points emerge that are contrary to much of the accepted wisdom. One of these is about the so-called ‘oligarchs’, often presented here in the West as major victims of an anti‑capitalist regime. In fact it is only those among them who become distinctly oppositional and pro‑Western who ‘attract the negative attentions of the Russian state’. This point is reinforced by Forbes’ list of the world’s top 100 millionaires, in which Russia comes third with 11 to Germany’s 14 and the USA’s 38. However, such points only come to light as part of an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ survey of different approaches, with the more conservative ones well in the foreground.

A serious underestimation of Russian imperialism is at least implicit and, as in the case of Lovell’s book, this now looks increasingly at odds with reality. Also like Lovell, Russia’s progress from Communism is very much judged by the extent to which it has adopted Western values and ways of doing things. Overall, the ideological similarities between the two books outweigh the differences, and Bacon and Wyman’s conclusion is just as weak. To their own key question, ‘How far has Russia travelled from the Soviet Union?’ the response—that the picture is ‘mixed’—has zero adequacy.

An increasingly important aim of Western foreign policy is to bring Russia more into line with Western thinking on issues such as Iran, energy security, etc, by the judicious application of various carrots and sticks. This leaves the media free to hype the story of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko while burying the assassination of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who, in sharp contrast to Litvinenko, was a genuine and heroic opponent of Russian authoritarianism and imperialism. Politkovskaya was in a media tomb well before the Litvinenko story broke. At the same time, academics can point to the fact that the glass is still half full—that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is still a lot freer than in Soviet times.

The fact remains that tension between Russia and the West has been jacked up repeatedly over the past decade, first and foremost by the implied threats to Russia that went along with the West’s wars on Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. More recently Russia has made its own attempts to claw back some of the ground it lost with the break-up of its Soviet empire in 1991, and assert its domination of big foreign investors such as Shell and BP. For all its weaknesses, which the oil boom has only partially alleviated, Russia remains the second biggest nuclear power on the planet. So when the influential US Council on Foreign Relations, run jointly by prominent Republicans and Democrats, heralds a change in US policy on Russia, as it did last March, from so‑called ‘-partnership’ to ‘selective opposition’, the rest of us had better sit up and take notice.

This new found assertiveness is what has really disturbed the West, not the increasing authoritarianism of the Putin leadership, which is common to other states committed to one aspect or another of the ‘war on terror’. The new assertiveness is not simply a product of the Russian oil boom—which supplied a means but not a motivation—much less from some innate national propensity for aggression against non-Russians (often referred to by academics as ‘Russian political culture’ or ‘the Soviet legacy’). It is the threat from the West which has galvanised the Russian leadership following the fragmentation and infighting of the Boris Yeltsin years. The Western assault on Serbia preceded this hardening consensus among the Russian elite, which saw Putin rise to power, just as the Iraq war began long before Russia’s alarms and excursions in 2006.

If you want two crucial reasons why Putin & Co remained successful in electoral terms, one is that the US’s popularity dived to an all‑time low during the invasion of Iraq, while another is that Putin’s critical attitude to the West has been consistently well received.1 Take, for example, the clash between Putin and George Bush at a joint press conference during the G8 summit in St Petersburg in July 2006. Bush boasted of bringing ‘a free press and free religion’ to Iraq. ‘A lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same thing,’ he added. Putin retorted, ‘Well, of course, we wouldn’t want the same kind of democracy as in Iraq—I’ll say that quite honestly.’ According to the Financial Times, laughter ‘drowned out the thinly smiling Mr Bush’s rejoinder: “Just wait”.’

The fact is that, since the end of the Cold War, the US has witnessed the rise of rival powers, including a reinvigorated Russia, which could potentially challenge its domination. This is leading to growing tensions and instability, which are in some ways comparable to those in the run-up to the First World War. The problem, as academics used to say about the Soviet Union, is systemic—and so is the ultimate answer.

Craig Murray has produced an extraordinary personal memoir of his time as British ambassador in Uzbekistan, one of the Soviet republics which, as he so rightly says, ‘left the USSR in order to keep the Soviet system, not to destroy it’. Murder in Samarkand powers its purposeful way through an Uzbek landscape of horrific torture, suffering and devastating poverty on one side, power, luxury and ruthless arrogance on the other. The Uzbek elite are backed up by sinister Foreign Office mandarins ready to toe the ‘war on terror’ line at any cost, certainly at the cost of increasingly acrimonious confrontations with their man in Tashkent.

Murray does not forget to mention a selection of genuine heroes, Uzbek and otherwise, most of who will probably never be recorded anywhere else. He supplies masses of inside information about everything from the sources of the ruling elite’s wealth to the process by which unreliable intelligence came to be used as evidence for the allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Murray also has the guts not to defend his personal behaviour. ‘Women, attraction to’ may get no less than 15 entries under his name in the index. But the longest of these also deals with the damage suffered by women who sell sex, institutionalised rape and female genital mutilation, ending with an impressive change of heart on his part. By contrast, all the revolting practices which flourished under the Uzbek regime were effectively aided and abetted by Western diplomats who accepted President Islam Karimov, the Papa Doc Duvalier of Uzbekistan, as a valuable Muslim ally in the ‘war on terror’. The Foreign Office may yet come to rue the day it decided to railroad him out of a job. One can but hope.

Murray also voices a number of illusions, especially about privatisation, and this can make him sound like the authors of the academic texts considered above. But there is an important difference. Illusions in aspects of the system are shared by millions of those who oppose the war in Iraq and whose opposition is shaking the powers that be in Washington and London. They are the illusions of people whose understanding of the world is changing and who are prepared, like Craig Murray, to do something about it.


1: Iurii Levada, ‘Uroki “atipichnoi” situatsii: popytka sotsiologicheskogo analiza’, Monitoring obshchestvennogo mneniia, number 3 (65), May-June 2003, pp10, 13, 17. Accessed 1 February 2007 via