After Russia’s annexation of the Crimea earlier this year, Adam Somerset tries to unravel the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma that is Vladmir Putin’s Russia in his literature review of this defining event.
It has been a rare day in the last two months that Russia has not been source for a lead news item. The camera is the medium of brilliance for immediacy and public event but miserable for insight, context and depth. Most of all it can never go where much of what matters takes place. Men gather behind sealed doors and make decisions that affect the lives of millions. The camera never goes there nor does it make much enquiry. The high-expense-maintenance editor of world affairs stands in a public square and cobbles together some second-hand jumble items. Happily, the media ecology is both profuse and variegated. The modestly-budgeted Hay Archive complements the massive image-driven behemoth.
Hay does words and words make for material that is denser, more nuanced and more sustained than the rapid, staccato image. On 31st May 2008, Garry Kasparov delivered a lecture at Hay on the politics of his country. It lasts just short of an hour and is a potent polemic with a now predictive force to it. His country, he says, is a vast Potemkin village put up for display to deceive the visitor. Russia has to be understood, says Kasparov, as a feudal state, more akin to the old caudillo republics of Latin America than any European country. The inner circle pays tribute to their generalissimo and they in turn extract their toll from their own circles of vassals.
The President wears in public a watch that costs one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. He is, according to investigative journalism, quite likely the world’s richest man. Crucially, says Kasparov, the foreign affairs adventurism has nothing to do with a return to the USSR. Its purpose is to create a permanent sense of instability that will maintain high energy prices.
It is a powerful piece and Hay deserves credit for both its creation and availability. The spoken word has done well over the last weeks, providing the detail that eludes the cameraman. Bridget Kendall’s live panel discussion Russia, Ukraine and Us revealed that a single piece of micro-blogging, written by an influential journalist in Kiev, had brought twenty thousand followers out on the streets. In the same programme Ann Applebaum delivered a severe conclusion. Russia, in the period after the Cold War, was regarded as a country in transition, en route to being part of the collective European polity. That was exemplified in G8 membership, even the toying, now quite extraordinary, with NATO membership. That period, said Ms Applebaum, is over. Russia, in its present form, is a country on its own.
Ben Judah punctured the posturings of the Kremlin’s propaganda. Ten million Russians are scattered around contiguous countries. When Turkmenistan enacted measures against its Russian population the response from Moscow, enjoying lucrative trade deals, was zero.
Mary Ann Sieghart had fifteen minutes of airtime for Profile: Vladimir Putin. She included detail that Wikipedia does not reveal and that television cannot do. Without the straitjacket of images she moved adroitly across the life; the loss of siblings, the father’s wartime activity in Estonia, the secretive childhood visits to church with his mother, the influence of a TV series The Shield and the Sword that glorified the KGB. The result was fifteen minutes of clear, uncluttered, authored reportage.
These early years of the President’s life are covered too by Masha Gessen in The Man Without a Face. Her subtitle is ‘The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin’. The author is a seasoned contributor to magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Republic. But quality reportage, however good, is different from material for a book. The Man Without a Face reads like a mixture of press cuttings mixed with a personal journal that lacks spice. Browder and Magnitsky, Khodokorsky and Primakov are all retold but it is cut and paste stuff. Putin’s home city, for instance, receives its introduction as ‘St Petersburg is a Russian city of grand history and glorious architecture.’
The third chapter is luridly titled ‘The Autobiography of a Thug’. Political scientist Stanislas Belkovsky wrote a headline-grabbing book last year, dressed up with pseudo-psychological claims about the President’s upbringing. Gessen’s account omits any mention of the church visits and focuses wholly on the future president’s attacks or defence against ‘the thugs from his courtyard’. A childhood friend is quoted on his scratching, biting, and ripping hair out by the clump.
Angus Roxburgh’s The Strongman, subtitled ‘Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia’, was first published in 2012 and has been swiftly revised and updated. As expected from a former BBC Correspondent in Moscow it is a good, reliable retelling of the last two decades. Some episodes like the Georgia War and the Politskaya and Litvinenko murders are familiar but many others less so. He draws attention, and gives credit to, the Gref and Ilarionov economic reforms enacted in the new century’s first year.
Roxburgh was not just the BBC’s man on the ground but surprisingly spent three years working, via a US PR company, for the President’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov. His chapter nine is particularly interesting with the author encountering for the first time PR’s glossary of ‘influencers’, ‘thought leaders’ and ‘third party outreach’. Roxburgh observes that Russia’s men of power have not a clue how a rambunctious media operates.
Roxburgh revisits Ukraine’s 2004 election, where unprecedentedly a neighbouring head of state spent several days in the company of the incumbent. He also touches on the relentless away-from-the-office activities of the President. Putin scuba-dives in the Black Sea and surfaces with two antique Grecian urns. A Kremlin spokesman later reveals they had been planted on the sea bed beforehand.
The iPlayer has archived a good Start the Week from 10 June 2013. Oliver Bullough is one of the speakers. Bullough lived in Russia for seven years and is the most-widely travelled of writers on Russia. The Hay Archive also holds his report from the Caucasus from 2010. Bullough’s last book The Last Man in Russia was reviewed in Wales Arts Review 3.6. The book’s subject is a priest, Father Dmitry Dudko, an emblematic figure, gulag survivor, proponent of religious revival, who descends to anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism. The life is interesting but Bullough’s value is that he takes the reader back before the 1990s and far outside Moscow to paint a picture of twenty-first century Russia that makes it a country unlike any other.
When independent economists came to look at the USSR after its demise their findings revealed the basics of economic logic had been overturned. An estimated one-third of food rotted in warehouses due to the absence of the most elementary logistics. Swathes of industry operated on a unique value-subtraction basis, whereby the aggregated inputs had a lower value than the output.
Bullough gets the numbers for the withdrawal of subsidies, particularly in the north. The Soviet Union had one hundred and fifty thousand villages in 1989. Since then twenty thousand have been abandoned and a further thirty-five thousand have fewer than ten inhabitants. With life expectancy lower than many African countries the population is in freefall. The 1989-2005 population drop was twelve million. With the number of twenty-year olds dropping so sharply the UN is forecasting by mid-century a drop of thirty-two million.
This population imbalance has unsettling consequences. China’s bustling Heilongjian region, with a population of thirty-three million, is next to a region in Russia of the same size but one-eleventh the number of inhabitants.
Bullough roves across much of the country’s recent history. The prisoner death rate in the year 1942 was a quarter, 352,560 zeks, around the average. The war years saw two million die. He revisits Medvedev taking on Lysenko’s fake biology. He recalls the abuse of the psychiatric system. Leonid Plyushch is remembered, to whom a mix of powerful sedatives and insulin were administered with the intent of soaking up blood sugar and putting the prisoner-patient into induced comas.
But most of all Bullough writes about drink. Alcohol and the Leninist state were soon inseparable. Prior to 1917 alcohol duty made up 40% of government revenue. High-minded attempts to do without were short-lived and ruinous. By 1940 Russia had more shops selling alcohol than fruit, vegetables and meat combined. Over the decades 1940-1980 consumption increased eightfold.
In 1965 the first official statistics reported deaths from ‘external causes’, an elastic category that included murder, suicide, road accidents, poisonings and drownings. The deaths that year were 119,170, tripling by 1995. Four-fifths of car deaths were alcohol-related. Cardio-vascular deaths tripled. In 1975 alcohol was damaging one in eight rural children in utero. It was strongly implicated in STD transmission. An official response was to recategorise alcohol sales. It was included alongside ice cream, coffee, cocoa and spices.
Bullough is journalistic and readable in the best sense. His eleven pages of notes and bibliography miss out on Misha Glenny’s McMafia (Bodley Head, 2008) with its unnerving depiction of a South-eastern Europe where former intelligence structures have morphed into all-pervasive political organisations.
The Hay Archive, the radio broadcasts, and the books, no one piece of this reportage is in itself the full story but all play a part of value. Combined they speak for a variegated media that, for all the deserved charges of cheapness, indolence, inaccuracy and malice, is a universe away from its opposite.
The Black Sea is in crisis and there is another side to be heard, but it is hard to find. Ukraine is off limits to the media in all the central Asian ‘Stans. Independent voices in Moscow have been extinguished. The historian who pointed out the similarities of the statements behind Crimea’s annexation with Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland did not even last the day in his job. Ria Novosti, a news agency, has had a purge of its journalists and TV Rain, a private channel, taken off air by the main cable providers. New legislation is pushing yet further the splintering of the internet.
Then there is the Institute for Democracy and Co-operation. Angus Roxburgh’s adjective for it is ‘pernicious.’ Roxburgh has his view, but judgement should be made from firsthand evidence. I read its ‘The State of Human Rights in the United States’. Its one hundred and sixty pages look impressive. Its footnotes run to five hundred and ninety-seven references. Its argument is structured and well-marshalled but its persuasiveness is fatally aid low by the blatant mistruth of its opening sentences.
I have switched many a time to Channel 512 for another view. Angus Roxburgh reports that the budget for the RT Channel in 2005 was $60m. In 2014 its coverage manages to be both chilly and laughable. E M Forster a long time ago managed his two cheers for democracy and the same should be offered for the media. A cluster of tabloid barons may be in the dock at the Old Bailey but a small cheer is deserved for what we still have.
The Hay Lecture: Putin’s Russia; Hay Festival Archive
Russia, Ukraine and Us, BBC Radio 4, 8 March 2014
Profile: Vladimir Putin, BBC Radio 4 9 March 2104
The Man Without a Face, Masha Gessen, Granta, 314 pp
The Strongman, Angus Roxburgh, I B Tauris, 370 pp
Putin’s Russia, Start the Week, Radio 4, 10th June 2013
The Last Man in Russia, Oliver Bullough, Allen Lane, 284 pp
‘The State of Human Rights in the United States’/ Institute for Democracy and Co-operation, 160 pp, 2013
Adam Somerset is an essayist and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.