Sunday, July 23, 2017

Flipping Russia

When the school bell rang, we knew what to do. File out into the hallway, crouch down, head to the wall, and wait for the all clear. It was the Cold War and we were preparing for a nuclear attack. Our century old brick building would probably not have fared well against a modest nuke to downtown Bangor, Maine (or "Bangah"), but the real strategic target was Dow Air Force Base on the outskirts of town just three miles away. A large thermonuclear strike there would probably have swept our school away. Dow Air Force Base is long closed, leaving as a legacy an 11,000 foot runway that can handle literally anything that flies. It was even designated an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. Bangor International Airport does quite nicely as a stopover and refueling point for trans-Atlantic aviation, as well as an emergency airport when Boston and New York are choked up.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for selling secrets to Russia (but not for treason, which is very narrowly defined under the Constitution and very rarely invoked. Espionage, on the other hand, can land you in a world of hurt.) Hollywood was in dire danger of being subverted by Communist propaganda. Russia was pictured as infiltrating America on every front, undermining traditional values with rock'n'roll, comic books, left-leaning movies, sex and liberal college professors.

Now Donald Trump is a fan of Vladimir Putin and conservatives seem scarcely perturbed at the possibility that Russia tried to influence the 2016 Presidential election. Admittedly, Russia's efforts were mostly aimed at people already favorably disposed toward Trump and against Clinton, making the propaganda mission as hard as selling vodka in Siberia in the winter. But how is it that conservatives went from utter loathing of Russia in the 1950's to acceptance, and even seeing them as allies, 60 years later?

Why not Communism?

First and foremost, Communism was a threat to private property and social order. In the late 19th Century it was abhorred for its calls for worker control of industry. After the Bolshevik Revolution, with its wholesale purges of the wealthy and middle class, Communism's place as a mortal threat to Western society was secured. The fact that Communism styled itself as "socialist" contributed to widespread conflation of the two, aided in no small part by the craven failure of socialists to reject Communism's appropriation of their name. For every modern liberal who objects when conservatives equate socialism and communism, you had your chance to object every time the Soviet Union called itself "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."

Communism's attempt to unite workers and marginalized groups was part of the threat. They also sought to champion minority groups. The threat level of that effort is best gauged by the darkly humorous story of the abortive Soviet film "Black and White" [1] whose climactic scene had hordes of white factory workers descending from the North to aid oppressed Southern black workers. It betrayed a level of understanding of American racial politics that can best be described as "unhinged."

The view of property widely held at the time was that freedom implied absolute liberty to use private property without restrictions. So labor unions were seen as criminal conspiracies to usurp control of private property, and socialism and communism, as broad political movements, were even worse. To a political theorist there are important differences between socialism and communism. To someone who sees them as assaults on absolute private property, the differences are merely pedantic. They amount to the difference between being robbed by a suave highwayman with a cape and rapier, versus being bludgeoned in a dark alley. And if you're on the losing end, it makes little difference whether Robin Hood gives to the poor, or spends it on drugs and hookers.

Almost equally important was Communism's assault on religion. Pre-Bolshevik communism was hostile to religion, seeing it as a diversion from secular social activism, but under Bolshevism, churches were closed and clergy imprisoned or executed. The Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to function, politically neutered and muzzled. Religion wasn't banned outright - it would take Enver Hoxha's lunatic regime in Albania to do that - but it was ostracized and subject to discrimination. Cardinal J√≥zsef Mindszenty of Hungary became a symbol of Communist oppression of religion during his imprisonment and later asylum in the U.S. Embassy. Mindszenty achieved the impressive feat of being imprisoned by both fascists and Communists.

But probably the most sinister threat from Communism was its pervasive secret police and informant apparatus. Merely keeping silent about Communism wasn't sufficient; it was a crime to fail to inform on others who criticized it. Ultimately the version of Marxism practiced in the USSR was one of the grandest crackpot conspiracy theories ever put into action. Having assured themselves that history followed invariable deterministic paths, Marxist theorists felt wholly justified in silencing all meaningful criticism. Like fundamentalists, the fact that an idea conflicted with the accepted view made it ipso facto wrong. No doubt Josef Stalin was happy to have intellectuals who might otherwise cause trouble frittering away their energies on trivial debates about Marxist minutiae, "mental masturbation" of the purest sort. (In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn relates the tale of one Party secretary who was arrested by the KGB while typing up the minutes for the most recent Party meeting. She was so preoccupied with transcribing pointless bickering over policy that the KGB men finally had to tell her to go say goodbye to her children. I had one acquaintance who visited Russia frequently and who was convinced that much of the endless round of Party meetings and other political activities served the very prosaic end of keeping the populace sleep-deprived.)

Mikhail Gorbachev, a former KGB officer, was in a position to know just how serious the decay had become and attempted to launch reforms through his "perestroika" (rebuilding) program. But events followed the all too familiar pattern of Russian history where reforms were delayed too long for fear of losing control, and when the pressure became overwhelming, events spiraled out of control and control was lost anyway. (Russian wags dubbed the aftermath of Gorbachev's reforms "perestrelka" - crossfire.)

From Communism to Kleptocracy

In theory, Communism should have been a class-less society free of crime. So where did Russian organized crime come from? While there is a huge amount of material on the growth of Russian organized crime since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, organized crime did not appear suddenly like mushrooms after a rain, and there is much less on the history of organized crime under theoretically clean and honest Marxism. It seems certain that organized crime must have been far more pervasive than anyone suspected during the Soviet era, and the Russian security apparatus must have been deeply involved. The KGB could have shielded criminals from prosecution in return for bribes, or quite possibly employed them for other -services.

One interesting summary [2] says:
Russia's historical cycle runs roughly as follows: Catastrophe strikes the centralized state and the social order is shattered; a "white rider" comes along to pick up the pieces and restore power to the state, only to come up short and yield to a "dark rider" willing to do whatever is necessary regardless of moral implications; and an era of decline follows until the next catastrophe strikes and the cycle begins anew. 
Organized crime is just as beholden to Russia's historical cycle, with its power inversely related to the power of the state. When the Russian state is in a crisis, organized crime spreads and becomes the functioning arbiter of state affairs. Once power is restored to the state, organized crime never fully disappears but recedes into the background, usually cooperating to some degree with the state, until another catastrophe hits and allows it to expand again.
The analysts point out that one seminal event was Stalin's death and the abrupt release of millions of prisoners from the Soviet Gulag. While many of these were hapless political dissidents or people sentenced on the flimsiest of pretexts, many others were criminals. Since criminals were essentially allowed free rein over the camps [3] the Gulag served as a finishing school for Russian crime. Russian criminals dominated the black market (the only free market), set up supply chains to bring smuggled goodies into Russia, which they made available to favored Party officials in return for protection. Other criminal affiliates gained political office to shield the mob from prosecution and to advance their own enterprises.

The collapse of the Soviet Union not only created a vacuum for criminals to exploit, it left a lot of KGB agents and police without paychecks. Many of them either joined the mob or shielded it from prosecution. Many other highly educated Russians joined the mob because of the almost nonexistent prospects for prosperity, let alone advancement, in the impoverished Russia of the 1990's.

The Right Flips for Russia

For some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was, and continues to be, a school of thought that holds that the end of Communism was a fake, engineered to lull the West into a false sense of security. It attributes to Russia the typical suite of super-villain powers common to fringe conspiracy thinkers: the ability to engineer a vast coordinated plan with no leaks whatsoever, the deliberate unleashing of forces otherwise deadly to the conspiracy, which the conspiracy will seamlessly co-opt and roll back, again with no leaks whatsoever. It's like arguing that the Civil Rights Movement was really a secret plan by the KKK to fool blacks into thinking they had rights, while the KKK hid in its secret volcano lair engineering a secret resurgence of white rule. Keep an eye on your white Persian cats.

Nevertheless, a little study of Russian history reveals long-term themes in Russian strategy that are unlikely to disappear for good:
  • Russia will continue to see itself as the "Third Rome," the bulwark of righteousness against the corrupt and decadent West.
  • Russia will continue to see itself as hegemon and protector of the Slavs.
  • Russia will continue to try to assert control over Central Asia,
  • Meaning that Russia will try to rebuild the Soviet Union either in fact, or de facto by means of alliances, puppet regimes, and control behind the scenes.
  • Russia will seek to secure its approaches. It will covet the Baltic States in particular, maybe a bit more of Finland.
  • That dream of warm-water access will not go away. 
These are Russian goals, not Communist, Orthodox, democratic, or tsarist. Russia will aspire to them regardless of who, or what system, is in power.

Once Russia abandoned its overt war on private property and religion, it became effectively a right-wing dictatorship. It's a sign of how completely hollow Marxism had become in Russia that there was almost no meaningful Marxist protest over the abandonment of two central Marxist ideals. But once Russia launched its privatization programs (doesn't it make you wonder where people in an egalitarian and classless society got all the money to buy large State businesses?) and opened up to religion, it became far more palatable to the American Right.

Tsar Peter the Great neutered the Church in Russia by refusing to name a successor to the Patriarch when he died in 1700. The post remained vacant for two decades and was finally replaced by a Synod. The tsar had the power to appoint bishops.  Ironically, the post of Patriarch was re-established after the Bolshevik Revolution, though religion was almost exterminated under Bolshevik rule.  But effectively, the Church in Russia is subservient to the State. American religious conservatives are aghast at the idea of the Church being subservient to the State on liberal issues, but are perfectly comfortable with Church and State working hand in glove to advance conservative issues, like restricting abortion and gay rights. So the relationship between the Russian Church and the government, where the Church takes a strong line on traditional morality but stays out of social morality, is not especially different from the role of Church and State in, say, Texas or North Carolina. Meanwhile the Russian government either actively or passively permits the persecution of gays.

So Russia has morphed into a kleptocracy where every State function is up for bid, and religion is a tame and toothless tiger that growls about personal morality but is silent on social and governmental morality. What's not to like?


  1. Jack El-Hai, "Black And White And Red;" American Heritage, 1991, Volume 42, Issue 3.
  2. Stratfor Worldview; "Organized Crime in Russia; April 16, 2008.
  3. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn; The Gulag Archipelago. ISBN  0-06-013914-5