Where the Dog is Buried

Vast traffic jams on the way from Domododevo airport to central Moscow, so that travelling 35 kilometers takes two and a half hours. Almost all the cars one sees are foreign made (though some may be locally assembled): Fords, Toyotas, Opels, Audis, and all the rest. A very occasional Volga and an occasional Lada. The latter is the offspring of the Fiat 124 and thus based on technology that is fifty years old.

The historic center of Moscow is also jammed. How anybody can ever find a parking place there is a mystery, given that there are no parking houses as in any Western city.

The hotel, the Akvarel, is a small one located in a small mew a few hundred yards from the Red Square and the Kremlin. I would give it three stars, though the tourist guide says it has four. The staff speak reasonable English and are quite helpful. The room is clean and in good repair. Only the breakfast is not as good as one would expect from a place that comes at $ 250 a night.

Not far away there is a small park. Walking there in the evening, I watched the members of an amateur folk-dancing club, men and women (more women than men, so that some of them were left without partners) being put through their paces. Very relaxed and very cheerful. Seeing me watch them, they invite me to join. But alas, with my three left legs I am no dancer…

Right next door is a pedestrian shopping street with some of the most renowned brand names in the world. Louis Vuiton. Tagheur. Cartier. Van Cleef and Arpels. And others such. Some of the shops are closed.

With my friend Marina, whom I met during my last visit, I visit the Historic Museum. It has a show dealing with the way Lenin and Stalin were presented to the Soviet public. Lenin’s coat and hat, Stalin’s uniform and boots. Photographs of their families. Paintings, statues, all in strict conformity with “socialist realism.” Movies of the two men’s funerals. Nikita Khruschev standing on Lenin’s grave reading an obituary to Stalin; a mere three years later, in his Secret Speech, he was to tear his former master to pieces. Yet the cult of personality did not die at once. Marina tells me that, aged 17, she and her classmates wept at Brezhnev’s death. Stalin at least is occasionally shown with something like the hint of a smile. Lenin is always seriousness itself, looking as if he would swallow all capitalists alive if he only could.

The strangest part of the exhibition consists of the objects the two leaders were presented by ordinary people. Pictures made of all kinds of improbable materials: shells, grain, various kinds of rope, and what not. We know that Hitler, accompanied by his chief architect Albert Speer, used to go over the mountains of gifts he received and make fun of them. How did Lenin and Stalin react?

In the evening I lecture to about 120 young students. The location: a cavernous, altogether bare concrete building that I am told used to serve as a warehouse for the post office. Nowadays it is populated, rather thinly, by young people who sit at tables or on arms chairs that look and feel as if they were made of rags. Each and every one of them has a laptop or handheld computer. The subject: The Rise and Decline of the State, a book of mine that has been translated into Russian and enjoys some success there.

I speak in English with the help of a simultaneous translator. He must be doing a good job, for the lecture goes on longer than planned and nobody leaves. Then question after question after question. These students are marvelous; very well educated, inquisitive, and polite. Above all, while they have heard of political correctness, that blight which is destroying free thought in the West, they do not subscribe to its tenets. One can talk to them without having to worry that they will take offense at every word. No speaker could wish for a better audience.

Yet talking to people, one quickly realizes that this is a society under pressure. In less than 48 hours, at least two people told me their business was suffering from the sanctions lately imposed by the West following the annexation of the Crimea. One of them runs a Russian Formula 1 racing team—he tells me they were doing not at all badly—but has now been brought to a halt by the lack of imported spare parts. The other is a lawyer who specializes in foreign investment of which, at the moment, there is none. Both men are still fairly optimistic about the future. However, supposing the sanctions last one would not be surprised if they turned bitter—at the West, at Putin, or both.

More information comes from the Moscow Times, an English-language daily that is mildly critical of Putin but obviously does not dare go too far in saying so. I learn that the economy is in a mess. Production is declining. Capital is leaving the country in spite of all attempts to prevent it from doing so. The number of entrepreneurs is falling. A survey shows that the middle classes are quite happy with their lot. But the institute which did the polling admits that a growing number of them are state employees rather than independents.

Facing international pressure, the state is trying to retrench. It has compelled foreign credit card companies to set up local subsidiaries’ presumably with the intention of enabling them to take over one day. It is putting pressure on people not to seek medical treatment abroad for themselves and their children, a measure that may result in some of them being condemned to death. There is talk of making those with dual nationalities declare their foreign passports, though how and whether this can be enforced is another question. The annexation of the Crimea has badly hurt the tourist industry there; so the authorities call upon people head south for their vacations.

The problems also have an international side. Still judging by the Times, the Russians deeply resent their exclusion from the G-8, now the G-7. President Putin’s visit to Normandy to commemorate the battle that took place there sixty years ago only goes so far to make up for this. By way of compensation, Moscow is seeking closer ties with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Pyongyang, and, which is much more important, Beijing.

Yet things are no longer what they were. Starting in the mid-18th century, in their relations with China the Russians were always the stronger party and called the shots. During the 19th century this led to the annexation by Russia of huge pieces of China. The same situation prevailed from the October Revolution until about 1990.

Since then, given the disintegration of the Soviet Union and China’s prodigious growth, the tables have been turned. Now China is the colossus, Russia very much the junior partner with a much smaller GDP and industrial base. Indeed I have heard Russia called, not without reason, a Saudi Arabia with an arms industry.

And that is where the dog is buried, as we Israelis say. Why has Russia, a large, old country blessed with endless natural resources and a people as capable as any on earth, never succeeded in developing a civil society independent of the state? Why are all quality consumer goods, from clothes to laptops, made abroad? Why has nobody ever seen any Russian consumer goods being put on display and sold in any country outside Russia? Why is the state as powerful, and often as dictatorial as it is? Is the state preventing the growth of civil society, or is there something in the national character that obstructs the creation of such a society and allows the state to become what it is? These are questions to which only you, my Russian friends, can provide an answer.

Until you do, the dog will remain buried.

The First Casualty—But Not the Last

The first casualty of war, it has been said, is always the truth. At no time was this more true that in the Ukraine right now. In the eastern districts of the country a civil war has broken out. Stories and images that deal with it, many of them of dubious origins and contradictory, are being flashed around the world. The one certain thing is that Ukrainian government troops are involved, not too successfully if one judges by the number of helicopters that have been shot down (assuming the reports are true). Whom they are fighting is anything but clear. Judging by media reports there is more than one “separatist” militia. That in fact, is what one would expect in such a situation. But just how they differ and how they relate to each other may be unclear not only to the outside world but even to many of their own leaders.

Nor does the confusion end at this point. Russian volunteers may, or may not, be taking part in the fighting. Russia may, or may not, have withdrawn its troops from Ukraine’s frontiers (even if it did, it could easily put them back). It may or may not be providing the “separatists” with weapons and other equipment. The head of the CIA may or may not have visited Kiev. If he did, then presumably in an attempt to find out what kind of assistance the U.S can provide to the government there. “Heavily armed” American mercenaries may or may not be assisting the Ukrainian troops. Chechenian militias are said to have entered the Ukraine, presumably in an attempt to avenge themselves on the Russians who brutally suppressed their own country’s bid for independence. Yet war is an expensive business. Supposing the story is true, who pays the militiamen is another mystery—is it Iran, is it Saudi Arabia?

With the situation as confused as it is, making predictions is extremely difficult. Still, a few things may perhaps be said. First, unless some miracle happens, this is going to be a long and bloody war. There will be no end to civilian casualties, rapes, destruction, economic deprivation, and, perhaps, ethnic cleansing. Second, the war will be fought primarily on the ground rather than at sea—given the geographical facts, that is a matter of course—and in the air. One may also safely predict that the newfangled forms of war which so preoccupy American analysts in particular, such as space war and cyberwar, will only play a very minor role, if any.

Two recent examples, Syria and the former Yugoslavia, provide useful analogies. The Syrian Civil War has now lasted for over three years. As in the Ukraine, the beginnings were small. Since then the number of dead is said to have risen to 160,000, though in truth nobody knows. On one side are President Assad’s armed forces which get their equipment and perhaps other things from Moscow and Tehran. At one point they were assisted by Hezbollah troops coming from Lebanon, though whether the latter are still involved on any scale is not clear. Arrayed against them are any number of militias, some “liberal”—supposing that term can be applied to any Arab group or country—others Islamic. The latter are joined by volunteers originating not only in the Arab world but in Islamic communities resident in various Western countries. British Moslems, or Moslem Brits, are said to have a particularly ferocious reputation. Many militiamen—there seem to be practically no women among the fighters—keep butchering each other even as they clash with Assad’s army. All are said to be assisted by Saudi money and American weapons reaching them by way of Jordan. How it will end, if it will end, only Allah knows.

Another close analogy is the war in the former Yugoslavia. The war there has often been presented as if it were a question of nation—Serbs, Croats, Christian Bosnians, Moslem Bosnians, and others—fighting nation. It was that, of course, but just like the Syrian civil war it was many other things as well. Local politicians, many of them veterans of Tito’s Communist regime, fought other local politicians. Private armies fought other private armies. Gangs fought other gangs. Many did so with a strong admixture of criminal elements with no other objective in mind than to enrich themselves by murder, kidnapping, ransom, robbery, and smuggling. Most wars are supposed to be directed from the top down; it is governments which give the orders, armies that fight, kill and die, and civilian population that pay and suffer. Not so these two. To use a useful phrase coined by a British veteran of another such war, the one in Afghanistan, they were driven, to a considerable extent, from the ground up.

Bristling with atrocities as they did and do, both wars cast doubt on the idea that the better angels are on the march. Both were and are catastrophic to the countries in which they were fought. In the end, the Yugoslav war was resolved without spilling over into other countries. In spite of some attacks by anti-Assad forces on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, so far the same applies to Syria. It is here that the situation in the Ukraine may develop in a different way. Should ethnic Russians in the Ukraine start dying in large numbers, then Mr. Putin may have no choice but to intervene even against his will. His forces, which are far stronger than any the Ukraine can mount, should be able to overrun the disputed provinces in a matter of weeks, perhaps less. The question is, what comes next? If they succeed in imposing peace and setting up some puppet government, well and good. If not, then just as the War in Afghanistan helped bring about the collapse of the former Soviet Union so the one in the Ukraine may bring about that of the Russian Federation.

That Federation in turn already contains about 32 million non-Russian people not all of whom are happy to be governed from Moscow. Should some of them try to use the opportunity to liberate themselves, then the first casualty would hardly be the last. In this connection it is worth recalling that rarely has an empire collapsed without massive bloodshed. However much many people in Moscow may detest Mr. Gorbachev, the former Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, his ability to avoid such bloodshed is one achievement history will remember him for.

The question is, will Mr. Putin be able to follow in his footsteps?  

Slithering into War

As the centennial of the outbreak of World War I approaches, a deluge of new publications seeks to commemorate it and to re-interpret it. Among the best of the lot is Christopher  Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York, Harper, 2014). That is why I have chosen to discuss it here.

The war itself broke out on 31 July. As one would imagine, the search for its origins began right away. Assuming, of course, that the accusations which the various future belligerent started throwing at each other during the preceding weeks should not be seen as part of that search or, at any rate, as preparation for it. At first it was a question of pointing fingers at personalities, be it Serb Prime Minister Nikola Pasič, or Austrian Chief of Staff Konrad von Hoeztendorf, or the Russian Tsar, or French prime minister René Viviani, or British foreign minister Edward Grey, or the German Kaiser, or whoever. Very quickly, however, the hunt expanded to include not only persons but entire peoples. Not just Pasič but all, or at any rate most, Serbs were bad people always ready to throw bombs so to undermine the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the name of irredentism. Not just Hoetzendorf, but many of the ruling circles in Vienna demanded war in the hope of saving the empire from disintegration. Not just the Tsar but many of his people entertained pan-Slavic dreams of expansion, mostly at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Not just Viviani, but the entire French people formed an arrogant nation used to exercise hegemony over the continent and unable to resign itself to its loss. Not just Grey, but the British people as a whole were hypocritical warmongers determined to hold on to their commercial superiority. Not just the Kaiser, but all Germans were power-drunk militarists. The list goes on and on.

It was this version of events, directed against the losers, which underlay the famous decision postwar decision to saddle Germany with “war guilt,” an innovation in international law that had few predecessors during the previous quarter millennium or so. As one would expect, time caused the debate to change its shape. It was not this or that country but their commons scourge, arms-manufacturers and capitalists in general, who were to blame, claimed Marxists. It was not this or that ruler or people but all those bad Europeans, claimed some American historians. It was not this or that country but the treaty-system as a whole others said. It was not so much the treaties as the railway timetables of the various general staffs, which forced them to act precipitously so as to avoid defeat, claimed other historians still.

The outbreak of World War II, and Germany’s role in it, caused some historians to go back to blaming the Kaiser and his associates. Nobody more so than Fritz Fischer in World Power or Decline, the original German version of which was first published in 1961. Clark’s work is not specifically directed against any of these interpretations. Nevertheless, in passing he makes short shrift of them. The railway system is barely mentioned. The treaties, he shows, were not automatic but left their signatories with plenty of room for maneuver. Those who allowed the continent to slither into war were rulers, diplomats, and top-ranking soldiers, not the owners of large industrial corporations. The last-named were never even asked for their opinions. Given that economics only came to be considered as part of war during the interwar era, that is not surprising.

More significant still, none of those who ruled the most important powers wanted war—at any rate a general war among the great powers. His occasional bellicose talk notwithstanding, that even applied to the Kaiser. As one of his courtiers was to write later on: His Imperial Majesty liked wargames much better than he liked war itself. What really happened was quite different. Though decision-makers might not be interested in a general war, quite a few of them were prepared to risk a more limited one. In doing so, the model they had in front of their eyes was, naturally enough, the limited “cabinet wars” of the nineteenth century. Serbia, provided only it could obtain Russian and perhaps French support, was quite ready to fight Austria. Certain governing circles in Austria were quite ready, indeed eager, to go to war against Serbia if only they could be certain that Germany would support them and thereby neutralize the Russians. The Russians were ready to support Serbia against Austria but hoped to do so without causing Germany to join the fray against them. The French hoped for a chance to recover Alsace-Lorraine but looked forward to doing so without setting off a general conflagration. More than one leading German thought Russia’s growing power called for a preemptive war. However, and as Austrian foreign minister Berchtold saw clearly enough, almost to the end people in Berlin hoped to wage it without dragging in France, let alone Britain.

In other words, in almost all capitals it was a question, not of unchaining a general conflict but of taking what was seen as a calculated risk. In the event, the calculations failed. A European war, later known as the Great War, later still as World War I, was the result. Needless to say, such calculations have always formed the very stuff of which power-politics are made. In many cases they continue to do so still. Are we, then, to conclude that sooner or later they are certain to fail again? One of those who thought so was the noted English historian A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990). Having spent much of his career studying the numerous diplomatic “crises” that dotted the decades before 1914, almost to the end of his life he remained convinced that, sooner or later, another such crisis would lead to World War III. A quarter-century after Taylor’s death, there is no point in trying to deny the logic of his argument. Among those who echo it is Christopher Coker in his forthcoming book, The Improbable War.

However, there is one critical difference: the world which Taylor, Clark, and so many others describe was a pre-nuclear one. In such a world, whatever fate might await the defeated, there would no question of annihilating most, or even a great part, of the population of the loser. The winner, on his part, might expect to prosper. The introduction and proliferation of nuclear weapons has changed the equation. As a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin kindly reminded us just a few weeks ago, with those monsters about another war might very well turn the countries involved, both winners and losers, into radioactive deserts. Judging by the fact that no two nuclear countries have fought each other directly and in earnest since 1945, there is some reason to believe that rulers and commanders are aware of the Damocles’ sword hanging over their collective heads. It seems to have made them much more cautious than they used to be.

It may or may not be true, as some believe, that “the better angels of our nature” are taking over and are responsible for what is sometimes known as “the long peace” which, among the great powers at any rate, has prevailed from 1945 on. Supposing it is, it would represent very good news indeed. Yet even so I propose that a considerable number of H-bombs be kept in reserve ready to deliver a second strike, as nuclear strategists say. Just to make sure that, should the better angels in our dear leaders’ nature fall asleep or go on strike, there will still be fear to keep them from each other’s throats.

Witch-hunts

There used to be a time when inquisitors and others hunted for witches—incidentally, by no means female ones only. In some countries, and at some times, as many men were caught in the dragnet as women.

To contemporaries, men and women, witches were real. Both the learned and the unlearned firmly believed in their existence. Those who tried witches were invariably men; however, women could and did participated in the hunts. Motivated by the desire to settle accounts with their neighbors, at some times and places they formed the majority of the accusers. Midwives and other women who assisted during or after child delivery were particularly at risk. And no wonder, given how prevalent the death of children and mothers was. More witches were executed in England under Queen Elizabeth I, and in France during the regency of Catherine dei Medici, than at any other time.

Many of the witches’ alleged crimes were strange indeed. They mounted broomsticks and flew out at night to meet the devil, it was said. They associated with him, danced with him, worshiped him, kissed his ass, and had sex with him, it was said. Some “experts”—then as now, there were many such, some official, others self-appointed—maintained that the devil had a forked penis. This enabled him to commit fornication and sodomy at the same time. In return for selling their souls and bodies witches of both sexes received powers ordinary humans did not possess. They used them to kill or maim people and livestock, destroy crops, bring on draughts, and much more. From lightning to plague, hardly any natural phenomenon that could not be, and occasionally was, attributed to witchcraft.

How tolerably normal, tolerably sane people could believe such things is a mystery. Worse still, when confronted with facts that might have undermined their beliefs, they clung to them with all their might. Witches were supposed to leave their home at night. When a husband, to protect his wife, claimed that she had never left their bed, he was told that it was only her image, placed there by the devil, which had stayed whereas her real essence had flown away. Judges who acquitted witches were regarded with suspicion as having been influenced by them and might be accused of being witches themselves. Those, and there were always some, who did not believe in witchcraft stood in grave danger of being accused themselves. Perhaps a clue of sorts may be found in the fact that those who prosecuted and condemned witches were entitled to a share of their victims’ property. The entire episode, which peaked between about 1500 and 1700, remains as a monument to human folly, credulity, cruelty, and, in not a few cases, greed.

And today? All over the “advanced” world, not a day passes without many cases of “sexual child abuse” being “discovered.” Informers, some official, others self-appointed, put on disguises and spend days and nights exposing “pedophiles.” The latter are supposed to form entire societies—“rings” is the current term for this—using all kinds of secret methods to communicate with each other. Once discovered they are denounced, brought to trial, condemned, and punished. If and when released from prison they are treated like wild beasts unfit for human society.

Some—nobody knows how many—of the cases are probably genuine in the sense that they involve physical attacks by adults against children too small to understand, say no, and resist. That they should be punished with the full rigor of the law hardly requires saying. But a great many others are much less clear cut. They were created by society which, in a strange return to supposedly out of date, Victorian values, insists that sex is the most dangerous thing in the world. So dangerous that people under such and such an age “cannot handle it” and are faced with all kinds of terrible consequences if they engage in it, or witness it, even out of their own free will.

Never mind that, from the recently deceased writer Garcia Marquez down, the world is full of lads who were initiated into sex at an early age and, decades later, still look at the experience as a blessing. Never mind that, at a time when many countries are raising or thinking of raising the age of consent, the age at which owing to improved nutrition, young women start menstruating as well as wearing push-up bras and lipstick is steadily declining.

Never mind, too, that cyberspace, the media, the movies, and society in general are all so saturated with sex as to make it impossible even for the most unknowing child to avoid it and, in many cases, see what it is all about. Not seldom it is the most “liberated” people who are most opposed to children, their own and others, learning about sex at “too early” an age.

As during the period of the great witch hunts, some denunciations are motivated by greed and anger. I personally have heard urchins, perhaps 9-10 years old, threatening an adult who was trying to prevent them from committing some mischief that, if he persisted, they would accuse him of sexual child abuse.

Nor does persecution, official and unofficial, cease at this point. Anyone who dares look at an image of a naked child, let alone draw one and show it in public, is in danger. By that standard countless artists of all ages should have been proscribed; luckily for Leonardo and Michelangelo, they died before the onset of our “enlightened” age. Fathers during or after divorce proceedings are in danger, given that mothers sometimes use “sexual abuse” as a way to prevent them from seeing their offspring and, if possible, punish them. Those who try to instruct children any number of fields that involve physical contact—swimming, say, or wrestling—are in danger, given that any accidental touch may and sometimes is interpreted as “sexual abuse.” But that is not all; I know a case when a mother, a photographer by trade, took pictures of her children in their bath. The shop which developed the film called in the police, which in turn called in the “social services” which promptly took the children away. Recovering them took months as well as a small fortune in lawyers’ fees—to say nothing about the traumatic effect on the children themselves.  

To repeat, many of those involved in witch-hunting were able to derive financial advantage from their work. This may not be the case in the same form today. Nevertheless, it remains true that lawyers, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who work on these cases before or after they come to trial benefit from them in all kinds of ways. Furthermore, those found guilty of sexual child abuse are often required to pay compensation. Would it be rash to say that, since the victims are too young to control their own finances, often those who benefit are their adult guardians?

Worst of all, the witch-hunt may very well be counterproductive. Throughout history, young people often had sex with each other or with adults without, as far as can be seen, suffering any negative consequences. The same is true in many present-day “developing” countries where the age of consent is low. I have yet to see a study which shows that mental disease is more prevalent among their citizens than elsewhere; judging by the number of mental health workers per capita, indeed, the opposite may be the case. Presenting sex as a dangerous thing with incalculable psychological consequences from which it is hard if not impossible to recover, society may do the young more harm than good. In some cases it may turn them into mental cripples.

At all times and ages, the need to “protect” the young has often served to cover some of the worst crimes of all. Ask Socrates who was executed for “corrupting” the youth of Athens. Could history be repeating itself?