Monday, August 28, 2017

“Nothing is true and everything is possible”. Indeed. A review of Peter Pomerantsev’s book

It is a strange book. It does not  pretend to be written by a deep thinker but has interesting insights. It is written very well and engagingly, in parts; and in parts it reads like a bad cliché.

The first insight by Pomerantsev (discussed only very briefly) is how Communism created a deep hypocrisy among individuals such that they lived one part of their lives not only pretending, but believing, in the official values, and the other by questioning them, or believing the very opposite. The two parts existed in each individual, in a symbiotic and mutually sustaining relationship. This made all attempts to live and behave in a consistent fashion, where one’s actions reaffirm one’s beliefs, impossible. The duality has numerous implications: hypocrisy, divided individual, simultaneous acceptance and rejection of hierarchy, sudden, and outwardly inexplicable, political and social disruption.  The phenomenon of simulacry under Communism was long noted including by Czeslaw Milosz and Meša Selimović, a Serbian/Bosnian writer. They related it to the similar simulacra maintained in all oppressive societies with double moralities, so much so that it has its specifically Farsi  term of “ketman”.

The second insight, unlike the first discussed at length, is that Putin’s regime has created in the media an alternative reality (that to some extend plays on the noted individual duality) where the reality of corruption, demographic decline, inability to develop new sectors of the economy, and a general decline of Russia as a world power, is masked by xenophobia, “fake news”, stories of economic and military prowess etc. This is an alternative reality approach that, according to its inventors and ideologues, is much superior to the old-fashioned Communist propaganda because it opens many more topics to free discussion but mixes truth, fantasy and lies in about equal proportions to blunt all desire for political engagement. Pomerantsev, according to what he tells us in the book, has participated, by writing and directing more or less true shows on several Russian TV channels, in the production of this alternative reality.  

Thus, he has become a professional in obfuscation, and confabulation, or to quote the Rolling Stones “was practicedin the art of deception”.  But this is not a book of repentance. Pomerantsev nowhere takes a critical look at himself as he was during a decade when he lived and worked in Russia. Rather he prefers to present himself as having been a practioner of deceit but not its fervent believer, and even an opponent at heart (but not at wallet)—thus displaying the same attitude that he criticizes in others.

Pomerantsev, it could be said in his defense, is not in a self-reflective mood. But there is another strange duality in the book. By presenting the picture of Russia of the Putin era (and conflating it often mistakenly, but not accidentally, when negative things are mentioned, with Yeltsin’s Russia) as a stereotype of stories that Western readers expect to find in Russia: vulgar display of wealth, extensive corruption, extortion, false court rulings, omnipresence of the mafia, and omnipotence of the Kremlin--Pomerantsev is employing the same procedure that he has learned in Moscow: creation of an alternative reality, but now selling it to a different, Western, audience.

The book thus acquires an extraordinary dimension: it aims to expose falsehood, but participates in it and perpetuates it. Moreover, it appears to be an extension of falsehood to a new audience and a tacit compliment to the authors of Putinesque “engineering of human souls” as it shows that the same techniques can be with equal ease applied and sold to Western audiences.

The book is littered with errors of fact that even not an expert in Russian affairs cannot but notice. Arguably, Pomerantsev, born of Russian “dissident” parents who emigrated to England, is not, as he acknowledges, particularly conversant with Soviet and Russian Tsarist history. But still not to know that there could not have existed in 1971 a radio station called “the Comintern Radio”, or to claim that one-third of Russian male population is in jail, or that Khrushchev-era neighborhood spying was worse than Stalinist purges, are weird mistakes. To discuss the fake political parties created by Putin’s regime as something new and unheard of without reference to the well-honed Russian tradition from the Tsarist era of creating and funding opposition parties and trade unions, or to discuss the bizarre social influence of Siberian mystics as a new phenomenon without recalling Rasputin, is superficiality beyond the acceptable level.

Or is it just ignorance and typos? Once the reader realizes that he may be participating in the application of the technology Pomerantsev learned in Russia, even some (possibly) innocuous mistakes acquire a different meaning. Thus, in an otherwise nice story of a woman-entrepreneur who is (Pomerantsev takes her position fully) falsely accused of selling an addictive substance on the alternative market (beyond the quantity that her company was allowed to import and sell to the authorized users), Pomerantsev mentions, ostensibly quoting her, that she imported 150kg of the opiate and sold 100kg: “what’s special there? Just ordinary trade”. But while the entire piece is written as an exculpation of the entrepreneur, that sentence is, strictly speaking, the admission of precisely what she is accused of having done. One thus wonders if the art of deception has been pushed by Pomerantsev ever further—so that even in the text of the book what is being explicitly said is then undermined within the text itself. We thus enter the world of possibly multi-layered obfuscations.

It is a book worth reading with some parts interesting and true and seemingly sincerely written and other parts stereotypical, probably imagined and often inconsistent. The problem is that we never know which is which. As indeed, to give him credit, Pomerantsev frankly told us so in the beginning.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Ibn Khaldoun and Nikolay Trubetskoy: nomads vs. sedentary populations

I recently read the translation of “The Legacy of Genghis Khan” by Nikolay Trubetskoy, famous Russian linguist, who is considered the founder of Euroasianism, an ideology currently experiencing a revival in some quasi-official circles in Russia. Alexander Dugin, an influential thinker, is a well-known admirer of Trubetskoy.

            I will not discuss here the ideology of Euroasianism which I do not know well, nor the entirety of Trubetskoy small, interesting, but in my opinion fundamentally misleading “Legacy…”  but will focus on  a contrast, that I am not aware has been made before, between Ibn Khaldoun and Trubetskoy. In fact, both Ibn Khaldoun and Trubetskoy address the relationship between nomadic and sedentary peoples but come to different conclusions where (to give my opinion away) Trubetskoy’s are vastly inferior to Ibn Khaldoun’s.

In Ibn Khaldoun’s “Prolegomena…” (published in 1377), the opposition was between the nomadic population of the desert, among which those that have so successfully conquered most of the Middle East and parts of Europe within a couple of centuries of Islam’s rise in the Arabian peninsula, and the sedentary populations.  As is well-known, Ibn Khaldoun’s view was that nomads, by their very way of life, are unable to create durable nomadic civilizations until they themselves get reabsorbed and “re-educated” by the sedentary peoples they have conquered. (Note that even the term “civilization” used in European languages comes from civitas, city, which of course is a feature of sedentary populations.)  It is only the  sedentary populations that are creators of arts, commerce and stable legal rules. The danger however is that nomadic populations are often militarily stronger since their way of life predisposes them to be braver and better warriors. Hence a danger permanently looms over the rather fragile fruits of human civilization.

Trubetskoy draws on the same contrast  in “Legacy…”, there made between Genghis  Khan’s Mongols and the sedentary and old civilizations of Persia, India and China that Genghis conquered before his descendants got reabsorbed into these culturally superior Asian civilizations. But for the Eurasian landmass (vaguely, from the center of today’s Ukraine to China), Trubetsoy’s conclusion is different. There he believes that Pax Mongolica created a superior form of governance, characterized by two key  features. First, reliance on the warrior class fully obedient to the hierarchical principles and not on the “inferior” human type of opportunistic and calculating servants. The former type is, according to Trubetskoy, characteristic of nomadic tribes and the latter of “civilized” sedentary cultures. Second, religious tolerance or religious syncretism that in many respects looks like the one practiced by Romans where religion as such was indispensable but the type of religion practiced was irrelevant. (In Gibbon’s famous words, different religions “were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful")

While Trubetskoy agrees with Ibn Khaldoun (only implicitly so since not a single author is mentioned in Trubetskoy’s small volume) that historical Asia was set back by Genghis Khan’s conquest, namely that “…Asia suffered damage because Mongol conquest, by taking some parts of Asia from their 'splendid isolation' and by breaking in from the outside into their historic way of life, arrested for a long time their cultural development”, he sharply disagrees that it was the case for the Eurasian space. There, the previous limited conflicts that existed between the sedentary states (the Kievan Rus, Khazar Kingdom and Khorezm are mentioned by Trubetskoy) and various nomadic peoples of the steppes were brought to an end with Genghis Khan’s unification of all these nomadic peoples under one rule and the formation of a huge, yet mobile, empire of Eurasia.

Genghis Khan is criticized for his ultimately unsuccessful and unnecessary forays into India and China, but is praised as the founder of a single political space of Eurasia (“a historical necessity” as Trubetskoy writes). The Russian state is then seen by Trubetskoy as the rightful historical heir of that single Eurasian political entity created in the 12th century. All Russian problems, from Peter the Great to Lenin, are explained away by Russia’s failure to live up to that mission and wrong-headed desire to get “Europeanized”.   

As I wrote in the beginning I will leave aside this noxious and rather implausible narrative of Trubetsoy’s (which is not devoid of some interesting insights) to underline the sheer implausibility of regarding a nomadic empire as capable of creating sustainable commercial, artistic and law-abiding state. Trubetskoy agrees with Ibn Khaldoun that such a role could not be fulfilled by nomads in regards to ancient Asian civilizations, but then turns around and suggests that it was with regard to Eurasian steppes.  

The implausibility of Trubetsoy’s argument is not shown only by this duality but also by the absence of any discussion of a way in which the Golden Horde was presumably able to advance progress. We are not given any realistic description of its modus operandi, nor any clam to its superiority in the matters of governmental, nor bizarrely, even in the matters of military organization. One gets the impression that the whole edifice was built on random use of force that eventually had to peter out since there was neither technological development nor cultural or ideological superiority to sustain it.

Trubetskoy’s encomium of a nomadic empire appears empty and the suggestion that Russia should find its world role as inheritor of such an empire makes sense only in a geographical sense since the Russia of the past two centuries is contained within the area circumscribed by the Mongol empire, but is substantively meaningless. Nothing shows better how meaningless it is than lack of encouragement to economic and political advancement that, as Ibn Khaldoun pointed out more than seven centuries ago, is immanent to all nomadic empires.