Category Archives: Russia

Once Upon a Time in Russia

Once Upon a Time in Russia is Ben Mezrich’s highly entertaining and informative account of the rise of the so-called Russian oligarchs who accumulated power after the collapse of the USSR. The allusion to the American Wild West is intentional since the period chronicled was nothing short of a seismic shift in Russian society. The story centers around the ascent of two of Russia’s most ambitious oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, and the complex web of power they wove in order to attain their respective positions. Within this sticky mass are dueling loyalties, inverted moral expectations, and internecine turf wars within and without the government. The book is refreshing because it opens a window of insight into the rise of private industrialists in a country which was (is) highly secretive and outlawed private industry for decades. Though it was certainly not as bloody and repressive as the Bolshevik regime, it was a period filled with plenty of violence and political intrigue in its own right.  Like Mezrich’s other novels, Once Upon a Time in Russia was culled from exclusive firsthand accounts of events, but it reads like a hardboiled political thriller/gangland novel.   

Imagine being an entrepreneur attempting to obtain some semblance of security for commerce and property rights after living under the bootheel of a corrupt kleptocracy which terrorized its own population for 70 years and you get a small sense of the challenges these men faced. Some people are likely to view the oligarchs as the corrupt gangsters who destabilized and terrorized, but in my estimation, this book paints a more nuanced picture. The new, quasi-liberal order in Russia was very fragile, and the only way they could push back against the resurgent Communist Party was buy patronage from the the Yeltsin government. 

You know you’re in for a juicy tale right off the bat. The book opens with a meeting of the oligarchs hosted by Vladimir Putin at none other than Joseph Stalin’s Moscow dacha.  Dashing all hopes that they had just bought themselves a yes-man, freshly installed president, Vladimir Putin, chose an appropriate venue to send the message that the oligarchs were subordinate to the Russian government. Not vice versa.

The story kicks into gear by taking us back to the beginning of Berezovsky’s story.  An assassination attempt on Berezovsky leaves him badly burned, his driver dead and his car a bombed out slag heap. Since he couldn’t get any business done without security, he enlisted the services of FSB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, and became what’s known in Russia as a krysha or “roof”. Taking private money under the table for security work was considered illegal, but given the porous nature of the state institutions in the early days of the newly liberalized Russian Republic, people were often willing to look the other way.

With Abramovich’s partnership and protection from Litvinenko, the two oligarchs set out to consolidate ownership of aluminum, oil, and most importantly, television. The remainder of the story weaves its way through the Yeltsin and Putin regimes as the oligarchs compete for political influence in the new and very tenuous capitalist order. It’s a race for survival and economic power, but the fate of the recently freed Russian economy hangs in the balance.  

As Berezovsky’s influence grew, his ties to Litvinenko came under scrutiny of the bureaucrats in the FSB who had ties to his political enemies and commercial rivals.  Litvinenko was ultimately given an order to execute Berezovsky, but couldn’t betray his trust or patronage.  Berezovsky used his growing influence to unseat the director of the FSB and replace him with an individual he believed to be a reliable yes-man: Vladimir Putin.  How much they had to learn about this former KGB administrator.

After Putin’s election, Berezovsky grew frustrated by his betrayal, and used his own influence in the Russian television station, ORT, to undermine public confidence in Putin. Berezovsky shamelessly exploited the Kursk submarine incident and attempted to make a random military accident a referendum on Putin’s leadership. This overt act of vindictiveness and dissidence forced Putin’s hand resulting in Berezovsky selling his shares in ORT and being exiled from his home country.   

Berezovsky’s antagonism towards the Putin regime threatened the stability of Abramovich’s active interests in oil and aluminum in Russia which sets the former krysha/protege relationship on a collision course.  The escalating tensions between these former business associates culminates in a civil suit over Berezovsky’s claim on assets accumulated during the active years of their partnership. 

Mezrich’s narrative seems to stick to the facts, but he compromises his own objectivity when describing the failing Communist regime as “right-wing”.  Communism is an ideology long associated with the political Left, and the Soviet Republic was, in fact, Marxist doctrine taken to its logical conclusion.  Throughout the book, he refers to Communist hardliners as “conservatives” while describing capitalist reformers as being for “democracy”.  Besides the fact that it distorts the historical legacy of European classical liberalism (and American constitutional conservatism by extension), he’s feeding the standard Right/Left false dichotomy of American politics which places the Left on the side of virtue, reason and decency and the Right on the side of authoritarianism, thuggery and resistance to change. Lenin believed in democracy, too, and it ultimately amounted to nothing. Democracy and economic freedom do not necessarily go hand in hand, and the American Left have more and more in common with the Bolsheviks with each passing election cycle as Bernie Sanders’ campaign amply attests.

Though it’s a minor detail, Mezrich also betrays his bias in his passing mention of Litvinenko’s conversion to Islam and apparent sympathy towards the Chechen Muslim separatists.  Litvinenko’s story certainly wasn’t the focus of the novel, but given the ever increasing prevalence of Islamic terrorism as well as the intensified focus on the connection between Islamic belief and acts of terror, Mezrich missed an opportunity to anchor this story more firmly into the debates of the present.  

Minor flaws notwithstanding, Once Upon a Time in Russia is an entertaining read which shines a light on a slice of history which, like Russian Communism itself, remains largely unknown to America and the West. Highly recommended.

The State and Revolution

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I’ve been listening to the rhetoric and propaganda emanating from the Bernie Sanders campaign and the media bootlickers who cover him, and found myself increasingly disturbed by the tenor. It sounded remarkably familiar to the rhetoric from socialism’s tragic past. I took a dive into Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary tract, State and Revolution, to see how much common ground there is between these two self-aggrandizing, power hungry sociopaths.  To my dismay, I discovered more than a few parallels between Sanders’ pugilistic bluster and Lenin’s.

Tragic similarities notwithstanding, I have to give Lenin credit where credit is due. He doesn’t mince words. State and Revolution is completely blunt about the totalitarian ambitions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. You can learn a lot about totalitarianism by reading the words of totalitarians. He is remarkably forthright about his communist ambitions and the role of the state in this book. It’s also infinitely more readable than pretentious wanks like Das  Kapital. In this regard, State and Revolution is a useful document by which to compare Sanders’ rhetoric and agenda. Sanders is an elected official seeking the highest office in the land.  He has a reputation as a truth speaking contrarian and certainly demonstrates an ability to be blunt in his own right. The book reveals where Sanders’ rhetoric and ambition are similar to Lenin.  It also reveals his tendency to dispense deceptive platitudes in order to shade and distort the nature of state power and the cold truth about his agenda. 

State and Revolution has truth value as a statement of intention, but it is also batshit crazy with delusion and sophistry.  Lenin expounds upon his insane notions about the withering away of the state and the era of classless emancipation that will somehow magically materialize from the proletarian “smashing of the state”. These lunatic ravings mirror the gauzy weasel words and unattainable promises Sanders deploys in his own rhetorical grifts.

Since Marx’ predictions of widespread socialist revolution never came to fruition in the revolutions of 1848 or the failed Paris Commune of 1871, Lenin published this tract in order to bridge the divide between Marx’ unfulfilled predictions and the Bolshevik revolution he’d been actively cultivating. Subsequently, State and Revolution has become the cornerstone of what has become known as Leninist Marxism. 

According to classical Marxist theory and its Hegelian view of historical inevitability, the forces of production would reach a sufficient level of maturity that when the revolutionary proletariat would take their rightful place at the helm of society, the era of classless emancipation would naturally unfold.  However, in 1917, Russia was hardly a developed industrial economy ripe for a proletarian revolution. Not a problem, according to Lenin. What the proletariat need is a revolutionary vanguard to lead a violent revolution and hasten things along a bit. 

In State and Revolution, Lenin opens with what he argues is the correct role of the state and that his thesis is, in fact, grounded in Marxist canon. 

Lenin and by extension, Engels and Marx, are completely correct about the nature of state power. The state is an agency of violence.

Hit it, Vlad:

The  state  is  a  special  organization  of  force:  it  is  an  organization  of  violence  for  the  suppression  of  some class.  What  class  must  the  proletariat  suppress?  Naturally,  only  the  exploiting  class,  i.e.,  the  bourgeoisie. The  working  people  need  the  state  only  to  suppress  the  resistance  of  the  exploiters,  and  only  the  proletariat can  direct  this  suppression,  can  carry  it  out.  For  the  proletariat  is  the  only  class  that  is  consistently revolutionary,  the  only  class  that  can  unite  all  the  working  and  exploited  people  in  the  struggle  against  the bourgeoisie,  in  completely  removing  it.

The problem, of course, is his conflation of state power with capitalist economics.  To Lenin and Marx and many progressives, they are one and the same.  Marxist doctrine posits that capitalism is inherently expropriative, but the apparatus of the state must be controlled in order to “expropriate the expropriators”. The proletarian revolution will only come about by using the suppressive, violent force of the state against the bourgeoisie.  The era of emancipation that follows is a given and a historical inevitability.

Lenin simultaneously reveals the sheer elitist contempt he holds for the oppressed class he professes to represent as well as supremacist delusions he has and ascribes solely to the proletariat class.  After all, they are the only class that is consistently revolutionary.  The proletariat are incapable of emancipating themselves, so they require a revolutionary vanguard to lead the revolution for them. 

The cultish devotion and absolutist mentality of Sanders voters and their apparently unshakable faith in his promises of bread and circuses and retribution against the bourgeois 1% is no different from Lenin.

Compare the messianic self-righteousness and megalomania of their allegedly prole-positive sentiments.  Lenin contends the following:

Only  he  is  a  Marxist  who extends  the  recognition  of  the  class  struggle  to  the  recognition  of  the  dictatorship  of  the  proletariat.

Sanders’ proclamation of the purity of his progressivism:

Lenin argues that the “withering away of the state” will ensue after the proletariat have taken control of and “smashed” the machinery of the state.  This is the exact type of rhetoric that’s deployed by socialist agitators, media sycophants and Sanders himself. 

This  course  of  events  compels the  revolution  “to  concentrate  all  its  forces  of  destruction”  against  the  state  power,  and  to  set  itself  the  aim, not  of  improving  the  state  machine,  but  of  smashing  and  destroying  it.

Compare these sentiments to those expressed by Slate toady, Jim Newell, in describing the aims of Sanders’ “political revolution”:

The Vermont senator doesn’t want to bring Republicans and Democrats together. He means to tear it all down.

Lenin was similarly dismissive of “opportunists” who tried to negotiate with the liberal bourgeoisie of the democratic state.  Sanders attitude towards the billionaire class is equally hostile and describes them as being “on the warpath” in the Newell piece. 

Opportunism  does  not  extend  recognition  of  the  class  struggle  to  the  cardinal  point,  to  the  period  of transition  from  capitalism  to  communism,  of  the  overthrow  and  the  complete  abolition  of  the  bourgeoisie.  In reality,  this  period  inevitably  is  a  period  of  an  unprecedently  violent  class  struggle  in  unprecedentedly  acute forms,  and,  consequently,  during  this  period  the  state  must  inevitably  be  a  state  that  is  democratic  in  a  new way  (for  the  proletariat  and  the  propertyless  in  general)  and  dictatorial  in  a  new  way  (against  the bourgeoisie).

Newell elaborates further on Sanders’ goals:

He campaigns on a promise to turn the whole thing upside down, to create a grassroots “political revolution” that will give him the mandate to bring working- and middle-class people together to overwhelm the “billionaire class” into submission.

Lenin’s ambitions sound pretty similar:

It  is  still  necessary  to  suppress  the  bourgeoisie  and  crush  their  resistance.  This  was  particularly  necessary  for the  Commune;  and  one  of  the  reasons  for  its  defeat  was  that  it  did  not  do  this  with  sufficient  determination. The  organ  of  suppression,  however,  is  here  the  majority  of  the  population,  and  not  a  minority,  as  was always  the  case  under  slavery,  serfdom,  and  wage  slavery.  And  since  the  majority  of  people  itself suppresses  its  oppressors,  a  ‘special  force’  for  suppression  is  no  longer  necessary!  In  this  sense,  the  state begins  to  wither  away.  Instead  of  the  special  institutions  of  a  privileged  minority  (privileged  officialdom the  chiefs  of  the  standing  army),  the  majority  itself  can  directly  fulfil  all  these  functions,  and  the  more  the functions  of  state  power  are  performed  by  the  people  as  a  whole,  the  less  need  there  is  for  the  existence  of this  power.

Sanders routinely inveighs against the corrupt political system which favors the billionaire class over the poor and middle-class.  Lenin engaged in an identical form of demagoguery. 

But  from  this  capitalist  democracy that  is  inevitably  narrow  and  stealthily  pushes  aside  the  poor,  and  is therefore  hypocritical  and  false  through  and  throughforward  development  does  not  proceed  simply, directly  and  smoothly,  towards  “greater  and  greater  democracy”,  as  the  liberal  professors  and  petty bourgeois  opportunists  would  have  us  believe.  No,  forward  development,  i.e.,  development  towards communism,  proceeds  through  the  dictatorship  of  the  proletariat,  and  cannot  do  otherwise,  for  the  resistance of  the  capitalist  exploiters  cannot  be  broken  by  anyone  else  or  in  any  other  way. And  the  dictatorship  of  the  proletariat,  i.e.,  the  organization  of  the  vanguard  of  the  oppress.

One of the more striking resemblances between the rhetoric of Sanders and Lenin is their mutual obsession with forcibly imposing a theoretically equalized bureaucratic order modeled after the postal service. 

Lenin proposes the following:

To  organize  the  whole  economy  on  the  lines  of  the  postal  service  so  that  the  technicians,  foremen  and accountants,  as  well  as  all  officials,  shall  receive  salaries  no  higher  than  “a  workman’s  wage”,  all  under  the control  and  leadership  of  the  armed  proletariat that  is  our  immediate  aim.  This  is  what  will  bring  about  the abolition  of  parliamentarism  and  the  preservation  of  representative  institutions.  This  is  what  will  rid  the laboring  classes  of  the  bourgeoisie’s  prostitution  of  these  institutions.

Contrast these proposals with those proffered by Comrade Sanders:

We need to stop payday lenders from ripping off millions of Americans. Post offices exist in almost every community in our country. One important way to provide decent banking opportunities for low income communities is to allow the U.S. postal Service to engage in basic banking services, and that’s what I will fight for.

How do they differ?  I’m not convinced they do.

Sanders makes a very big deal out of the inclusion of the word “democratic” when he speaks of “democratic socialism”, but Lenin is much more forthright about the nature of democracy.

No,  democracy  is  not  identical  with  the  subordination  of  the  minority  to  the  majority.  Democracy  is  a  state which  recognizes  the  subordination  of  the  minority  to  the  majority,  i.e.,  an  organization  for  the  systematic use  of  force  by  one  class  against  another,  by  one  section  of  the  population  against  another.

Sanders has been garnering enthusiasm for his calls for “political revolution”, but this excerpt of Engels referenced by Lenin sheds a brighter light on what that means. 

Have  these  gentlemen  ever  seen  a  revolution?  A  revolution  is  certainly  the  most  authoritarian thing  there  is;  it  is  an  act  whereby  one  part  of  the  population  imposes  its  will  upon  the  other part  by  means  of  rifles,  bayonets  and  cannon,  all  of  which  are  highly  authoritarian  means.  And the  victorious  party  must  maintain  its  rule  by  means  of  the  terror  which  its  arms  inspire  in  the reactionaries.

Fundamentally, Bernie Sanders is promoting an agenda which has few differences from Lenin.  The rhetoric is softer and the platitudes are attuned to American sensibilities, but the agenda is forcible confiscation, redistribution, unlimited monetary expansion, arbitrary equalization and bureaucratization of economic life.  

Karl Marx was recently cited as the most assigned “economist” in colleges.  After decades of leftist policy including central banking, regulation, price and wage controls, progressive taxation, public education and the entire welfare state apparatus, the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is a sad consequence of the indoctrination of statist economic orthodoxy and the phony pretense of Marxism’s Fight the Power pugilism. Marxist doctrine offers several  convenient advantages for the power hungry politician. Not only does it provide a ready made analytical lens with which to diagnose society’s ills and lay blame at the feet of an omnipresent capitalist boogeyman, it’s an agenda of greed, vengeance and spite painted over with a fig leaf of moral righteousness.

Ironically, when you strip away the delusions of the “withering away of the state”, Lenin had some keen observations about the democratic republic.

To  decide  once  every  few  years  which  members  of  the  ruling  class  is  to  repress  and  crush  the  people through  parliament. This  is  the  real  essence  of  bourgeois  parliamentarism,  not  only  in  parliamentary constitutional  monarchies,  but  also  in  the  most  democratic  republics.

Based on the policy initiatives being championed by Sanders, we can predict what will come to pass if he were to be elected and his policies enacted.  Somehow, socialism manages to escape all criticism and its current champions are always able to promote the idea that It’s Going to Be Different When We Do It.

Sadly, Sanders is also driven by the same repressive desire to centralize, command and dictate from on high that drove Lenin, but Lenin was far more blunt about his ultimate goals of “Equality.”

The  whole  of  society  will  have  become  a  single  office  and  a  single  factory,  with  equality  of  labor  and  pay.

If only Sanders could be that honest.

Reds

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I admit it.  It’s not the Marxist lovefest I expected.  

I went into Warren Beatty’s 1981 opus expecting it to be another Hollywood love letter to socialism.  Instead, what I witnessed was a remarkably honest portrait of a doomed love affair between two seminal American communist radicals. Their ideals pitted them against one another and drove them apart despite their deep devotion to one another. 

Reds is a sweeping historical political drama which encompasses the roots of the American socialist Left, World War 1, and the Bolshevik Revolution.  The film is built around the tempestuous love affair between John Reed and Louise Bryant played by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton respectively.  Its major achievement is how it manages to expose the limitations of Marxism by showing how the central characters’ allegedly revolutionary ideals undermined their ability to simply be with one another. 

As expected, the film spells out some of the facile appeal of socialism at the outset.  Beatty takes a very classical approach to filmmaking and the themes of the film are embedded in the characters. Louise Bryant is the aspiring writer and avowed feminist with libertine sexual mores who scandalizes Portland’s high society.  John Reed leaves jaws agape at the Liberal Society when he openly opines that the motivation behind the war is the capitalistic profit motive.  Louise is enthralled by Reed and asks him for an interview. They spend an evening together in which Reed bores the shit out of her regales her with his passionate desire to foment a socialist revolution.   Socialist feminist and Marxist revolutionary meet and the seeds of a deep love affair at a momentous time in history are sown. 

All of the touchstones of leftist bohemian ideals and political activism are present. The couple shared a permissive attitude towards sexual promiscuity and polyamory. Their disdain for capitalism, anti-war sentiment, artistic idealism, and initial refusal to submit to traditional bourgeois values are attitudes that would define the Left for decades. Most importantly, they shared a naïve hope in the promise of a worker’s revolution.  

Reed and Bryant eventually travel to Greenwich Village and we’re introduced to the seminal figures of America’s socialist Left including Emma Goldman and Max Eastman. The atmosphere is ripe with revolutionary spirit. Reed’s attempts to cover labor organizing efforts for his socialist magazine take him away from Bryant and drive an emotional wedge between them.  Meanwhile, Bryant tries to peddle her writing, but fails because her writing sucks. Bryant tries to assert her independence, but can’t confront how much she ultimately wants and needs Reed.  The couple resolve to remain together and set out to Provincetown, MA with Eugene O’Neill to live as artists in a quasi-communistic manner. 

Reed’s activism leads him away from the idyll of Provincetown, and on to the campaign trail to canvass for Woodrow Wilson.  Bryant has an affair with O’Neill, and Beatty draws out the conflict between monogamy and the bohemian spirit of free love.

Bryant and Reed separate again, but are reunited when Reed follows her to France. He asks her to join him on his journey to Petrograd to cover the imminent Bolshevik Revolution.  Though their love is rekindled in the fires of the Revolution, their activity is not viewed favorably by US federal authorities.  Reed is given a platform at a Bolshevik rally and stirs up the proles with some good old fashioned demagoguery.  It’s impeccably staged and plays like an Occupy Wall Street protest if it weren’t run by a bunch of pussies. 

They return to the US with a renewed hope in revolution, but with the Feds hot on their tail.  Adding to their travails is their renewed tensions with the American Socialist Party.  Reed is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and tries to persuade them toward a Bolshevik spirit. His views are at odds with the leadership of the party. Reed breaks with the main party and forms his own more “pure” Socialist Party and is voted as the leader to seek the sanction of the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Here, the film turns a corner and starts to show how the revolution and Marxist dogma ultimately implodes and pits socialists against one another.  The bickering and tests of purity which the party members apply to one another translates perfectly to modern day purges carried out by social justice progressives today.  

After enduring imprisonment for improper paperwork, Reed travels back to Moscow is ultimately conscripted by the party elites to be a propagandist.  The consequences of his choice hit hard as he is denied return to the United States. He finds his appeals to the Party squashed by crushing authoritarianism. Reed is crushed to discover that he is unable to get a simple communication to his wife due to the palsied bureaucratization, incompetence and backwardness of life in Soviet Russia.

He is ultimately reunited with the recently deported Emma Goldman and he ponders his fate in her squalid apartment.  In a devastating monologue, Goldman tries to appeal to his sense of reason by pointing out the tragic failure of the revolution.  Instead of emancipating the proletariat, the Bolshevik regime has metastasized into a brutal and repressive police state. Not only is the dictatorship of the proletariat intolerant of dissent, it has driven the economy into deep contraction and dysfunction.  Blinded by his idealism, Reed brushes it off and says that you just can’t have a revolution without cracking a few skulls.  

Reed is sent on a fateful mission to Azerbaijan to bring the gospel of Bolshevist Socialism to the Muslims.  To his dismay, he discovers that his propaganda speech was mistranslated by Party kommissar, Zinoviev.  Drawing an excellent and accurate parallel between Marxism and Islam, Zinoviev replaced “class war” with “Holy war”.  Reed gets upset that his voice and intent was subordinated by the will of the Party and launches into a screed against the tyranny of the collective.  It’s good stuff. 

The train is sacked by counter-revolutionaries and a stunning battle scene involving cavalry, muskets and cannons ensues.  

Meanwhile, Bryant travels to Russia to try and find Reed.  They are ultimately reunited, but Reed contracts typhus and he spends his last days in a Soviet hospital.   

Despite the patina of revolutionary politics, Reds is a traditional romance which ultimately affirms monogamous bourgeois values.  Reed and Bryant were variously portrayed as marginal talents and busybodies who were trying to reconcile their artistic ambitions with their political sensibilities and libertine sexual desires. These values worked at cross purposes more often than not and each paid an emotional price.  

Reds is an impeccably produced film which tackles a lot of pithy material while succeeding at being a solid dramatic romance.  It reveals the roots of socialism’s enduring appeal while also showing where it went off the rails.  Socialist ideals still hold a lot of appeal with the Hollywood set, but Beatty deserves a little credit for tackling it head on and with a higher than expected level of intellectual honesty.  

Stalingrad

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Communists versus Nazis!
   
The bloodiest battle in human history!

I was interested in seeing this from the moment I heard about it.  Besides it being the story of an historic Russian victory and the first film from Russia in IMAX, it is by default, a story of life under Stalin told from the Russian perspective.  
 
How were they going to handle all of that? 
 
By keeping the film centered around a fictitious set of Russian soldiers who heroically defend a random building in the center of town where a lone civilian woman lives, that’s how.
   
Needless to say, the carnage portrayed is nowhere near the historical record, but that’s not really what the filmmakers were after.  The character drama allows the film to put the dubious record of the revolutionary peasant workers in more human and small scale dimensions. The film is basically saying, “Yeah, we put up with that dickhead Stalin, but we had dignity and we defeated the Nazis because we were able to find more humanity in ourselves than those dirtbags.”
   
They let the nationalism surface, but they don’t overplay it.  This is film is about feeling proud of being Russian, but it wants you to remember the huge price that was paid.  So I don’t begrudge the film for reaching for the brass ring of the Heroic Struggle of the Revolutionary Soldiers.  Hell, in comparison to most American WWII films, the emotions of this film feel pretty muted and grim.  

The visuals are stunning and there is one scene in particular which portrays the feeling of Armageddon that this battle most certainly embodied.
   
If this sounds like your thing, do it.