The Monthly Digest - Edition 3
Updates, links and recommendations
Welcome to our third monthly update and recommendations post. Hopefully you’ve noticed some visual improvements this month, which is thanks to Substack taking pity on us and helping us out with some branding and access to a photo archive. As this site shifts from being a fun side project into something a bit bigger we’re thinking about other improvements we can make, like whether we can use audio or threads more.
We’ve seen another big jump in sign-ups – and in particular international ones – due to the focus on Ukraine. In our first month or so most sign-ups were from the UK, often from those of you who followed one or both of us on twitter, so it was pretty easy to guess what you’d find interesting. But Substack give almost no info about your audience, leaving us in the dark about more recent joiners. So, for those of you who want to, it would great to hear a little bit about who you are in the comments; where you’re from and what you do etc...? And in particular what would you be interested in reading about, beyond Ukraine?
Next month Dad will continue his series on the Russo-Ukraine War, and start considering some of the consequences beyond Ukraine itself. I will be doing some pieces focusing on UK politics; including a local election preview and something on Partygate, if and when the Met police let us know if they’re fining Boris Johnson. But I’ll also do some pieces with a broader lens, including on whether policy making has become too risk averse; and the state of the far right in Europe (prompted by the Hungarian election today and Marine Le Pen’s likely appearance in the upcoming French election).
My reading has been dominated by Ukraine this month. Some of my favourite pieces have been written, unsurprisingly, by some of my favourite authors on Russia. So I thought I’d connect the links to book recommendations.
1. Maria Stepanova – “The War of Putin’s Imagination”
I read Stepanova unclassifiable “In Memory of Memory” last year. It's partly history, partly memoir, partly life writing, partly fiction. But incredibly beautiful. A lengthy meditation of what memory means sounds dull and worthy but it's anything but. And I discovered a load of other writers/artists through it, including the incredible Charlotte Salomon, a young German Jewish artist killed at Auschwitz, whose extraordinary book “Life? Or Theatre?” is a sort of early graphic novel.
Stepanova gave her literary take on the war in the FT, and it’s unlike any other piece I’ve read on the conflict. A sample:
“The events of today are occurring in a symbolic space, just as irrevocably as they are occurring physically in the fields and bomb shelters of Ukraine. Ukraine today is the arena of an ancient battle between good and evil, however grandiose that might sound; its outcome affects every one of us, not just Ukraine and Russia.
Evil is an old-fashioned concept. The postwar decades have taught us see things automatically from the perspective of our opponent in order to establish understanding, compromise and dialogue. But sometimes there is no one to speak with – in the place of an interlocuter there is only impenetrable darkness, and it insists on its own outcome at any cost.”
Do read it. The FT coverage has been excellent across the board – both journalism and commentary. They also published this piece by Anatol Lieven, on Putin’s inner circle, which is well worth a read.
I mentioned Alexievich’s “Second-Hand Time” last month but I’m going to talk about her again because it’s one my life’s missions to get everyone to read her work. She is a Belarusian Nobel Prize winner whose books tell stories through the testimony of her interviewees in a way that no other author I’ve read can match. I think she’s the greatest contemporary non-fiction writer anywhere in the world. Apart from “Second-Hand Time”, her other major works include “Boys in Zinc” on the Soviet war in Afghanistan (the coffins sent back to Russia were lined with zinc); and “The Unwomanly Face of War” on the experience of women who fought for the USSR during World War Two.
In this interview for Israel Hayom she gave her views on the current war and linked it to her work. For instance:
"In the 1990s I worked on my book Secondhand Time and I travelled across Russia to interview people…On my return to Moscow I told friends and acquaintances: There is no connection between what's happening among the educated elites of Moscow and what's bubbling in the depths of Russia. My interlocutors didn't want to be convinced. They preferred to think that in Belarus the grip of the past of the Soviet tradition is maybe really strong, but in Russia the processes of change in the direction of democratization are irreversible. What a mistake this was. It's become clear that it's possible to turn the wheel backwards."
Alexievich had to flee Belarus in autumn 2020 following the suppression of the attempted pro-democracy revolution. She now lives in Germany and has embarked on a new project:
"I am working on a book that focuses on Belarus's failed attempt to free itself from Lukashenko and the processes that led to the Russian attack on Ukraine, but life writes the story quicker than any writer."
3. Ivan Krastev – "Putin Lives in Historic Analogies and Metaphors"
Krastev’s book “The Light That Failed”, co-authored with Stephen Holmes, links the crisis of liberalism in the Anglo-Saxon world, to the failed attempts to inculcate liberalism in post-89 Eastern Europe. It is probably the most interesting of all the many books on liberalism’s struggles published in the years after Trump’s election win. I know Dad agrees as he was on the jury that awarded it the Gelber Prize.
In this interview with Der Spiegel, Krastev gives a fascinating assessment of Putin’s character and obsessions:
“It should also be mentioned that the Western media has contributed to creating a false image of Putin. First, they say that Putin is corrupt. That is true. But does it explain his politics? Putin has been the leader of a nuclear power for 20 years. He thinks in terms of history, betrayal and malice. For such a person, corruption is merely an instrument of power. Money may have been important to Putin when he was younger, but it isn’t any longer.
Second, they say that Putin is a cynical gambler, a trickster. In 2011, Putin said that the protests against him had been organized by the American Embassy. Western analysts said that was propaganda, because he knew that wasn’t true. During that dinner, it became clear to me: He really believes it. In his understanding of history, things never happen spontaneously. If people demonstrate, he doesn’t ask: Why are they out on the streets? He asks: Who sent them? When we take him at his word, he won’t surprise us anymore. If you read his essay from July of last year, in which he wrote that Ukrainians and Russians are a single people and he would never accept an anti-Russian Ukraine, you find out exactly what his intentions are.”
4. Stephen Kotkin – “The Weakness of a Despot”
I’m not going to lie, Kotkin’s Stalin biography is long and very detailed, we’ve had two volumes and around 2,000 pages and we’re only up to 1941. But it’s also exceptional. Like Caro on LBJ but with a lot more murder and ideology. I’m very much looking forward to volume 3; and will reserve a lengthy beach holiday for it.
In this interview with David Remnick he applies his vast knowledge of Russian history to the current War and how we’ve ended up with this mess.
“One of the arguments I made in my Stalin book was that being the dictator, being in charge of Russian power in the world in those circumstances and in that time period, made Stalin who he was and not the other way around.
Russia is a remarkable civilization: in the arts, music, literature, dance, film. In every sphere, it’s a profound, remarkable place—a whole civilization, more than just a country. At the same time, Russia feels that it has a “special place” in the world, a special mission. It’s Eastern Orthodox, not Western. And it wants to stand out as a great power. Its problem has always been not this sense of self or identity but the fact that its capabilities have never matched its aspirations. It’s always in a struggle to live up to these aspirations, but it can’t, because the West has always been more powerful.”
Ian Leslie cites the Kotkin interview in his excellent piece on Putin’s “Westernphobia” – an obsession that links all of the pieces I’ve cited above and one that has provided the foundation for his genuine popularity, as I discussed in my piece on his polling earlier in the month.
Book of the Month
Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid
Given the systematic use of disinformation in the Russo-Ukraine War I got round to reading this 2020 history by Thomas Rid, a Professor at John Hopkins, but formerly a colleague of Dad’s in the King’s College War Studies Department.
It’s a fascinating overview split into four sections. The first looks at the early Bolshevik attempts at disinformation in their early decades in power. Then the postwar section focuses on the battles between the CIA and Warsaw Pact intelligence agencies in divided Germany. This ratcheted up in the final decades of Soviet power as new technologies allowed for the production of more convincing forgeries. Finally in the last section he looks at the internet age and, in compelling detail, at Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US election.
The book is full of all sorts of weird and wonderful stories and characters, from Czech agents planting forged Nazi documents at the bottom of a lake, to the CIA finding itself as the publisher of Germany’s most successful jazz magazine. But the book’s greatest strength is in its clearsighted analysis of the limitations of disinformation. As Rid says:
“[There are] two defining paradoxes of active measures: first, that justifying and running disinformation at scale against a foreign adversary requires seeing your own ideology as both stronger than the enemy’s and more vulnerable; and second, that funding and training the most talented minds for disinformation means that officers need to be…creative, questioning nonconformists who would also confirm to orders and not question the party line.”
One of the common themes of the book is how disinformation often ends up confusing one’s own side more than the enemy, given the need for secrecy even within intelligence organisations.
The final section on the internet age raises troubling questions about whether it’s possible to control disinformation at all, with a tool so perfectly suited to spreading it. Another theme is how disinformation is at its most powerful when it takes on a life beyond those who initiated it; and morphs into a narrative no one can properly control. Ultimately he concludes “It is impossible [for a government] to excel at disinformation and democracy at the same time.” Yet democratic governments are still trying to use it (and Nicole Perlroth’s “This is How They Tell Me The World Ends” takes the story of how up to date).
Ultimately we can see truth as something worth protecting at all costs or as a tool to use against our enemies, but we can’t do both. Putin’s Russia serves as a warning for what happens when your own disinformation becomes a feedback loop.
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