A history of catapults
Bringing ancient warfare to life
Mar 29th 2007
From The Economist print edition
The Catapult: A History
By Tracey Rihll
Westholme; 380 pages; $29.95 and £19.95
ANYONE who has fired a rubber band across the office or classroom will know the joy of storing and releasing kinetic energy. The ancients had to make do with twisted ropes and sinews. But with trial, error and some handy mathematics, they created the most sophisticated war machines the world had ever seen—terrifying contraptions capable of hurling rocks weighing as much as 75 kilograms (170lb).
That is the story told by Tracey Rihll, a British classics lecturer, in her history of the catapult over ten centuries, from the earliest slingshots to the technological collapse of the dark ages.
It is much more than tales of boys' toys from long ago. In telling the story of the advance and decline in military technology between the rise of Macedon and the fall of Rome, she gives the reader a commendably approachable and lively tour of classical history. Her dryly humorous asides, such as the appallingly dangerous business of learning to use a sling, are a treat. So are the linguistic twiddles. Darts known by the Greek word for mice became confused with a similar-sounding word that means flies. That became musca in Latin, then the diminutive muschetta and ultimately—by now a weapon, not a projectile—musket.
The predecessors of the big catapults were the sling and the bow. Combining their characteristics amplified the effect of human muscle: instead of harnessing the energy of one man's arm to a wooden bow, the power of several men could be stored in twisted animal sinews and then released. The result could batter fortifications, sink ships, set cities on fire and kill enemies in hitherto unimagined numbers.
But such spectacular siege engines (seen, loosely reconstructed, in faux-medieval films such as “The Lord of the Rings”) are only part of the story. The typical catapult was not a monster, but an easily portable affair, more powerful than the bow and requiring less skill.
Ms Rihll mixes delight at the ancients' ingenuity with contempt for the way their work was obscured by vague and ignorant contemporary chroniclers, as well as by later scholars keen to peddle pet theories rather than look at the evidence. She scrupulously reworks translations of ancient texts to make them comprehensible, spotting mistranslations and misapprehensions galore. The combination of textual analysis, military history and understanding of the underlying science is a fine example of how modern classical scholarship can still surpass the efforts of past centuries, when the subject commanded far greater attention and resources.
It is a pity, then, that her scholarship is let down by feeble illustrations. Ms Rihll's own sketches are valiant but quite inadequate; what is needed are pictures or better diagrams. A fuller index and glossary are badly missed too. Crucial terms such as the catapult “washer” occur throughout the text but are not explained properly.
A revised edition would be a compelling addition to a good school library. It might even send some pupils to explore those dusty and neglected books that were once regarded as the foundation of a proper education.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
A history of catapults
Mar 29th 2007
From The Economist print edition
AMERICANS do it guiltily, Russians casually, Africans lethally and the French habitually. Stereotypes about adultery are as common as research about it is flaky. So Pamela Druckerman's thoughtful and myth-busting study of infidelity deserves to be widely translated and read.
A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Ms Druckerman likes hard facts. So before getting into the tricky questions of guilt and complicity she tries to find an international adultery league table. That proves amazingly difficult. There are bogus surveys galore—she takes commendable swipes at Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite—but very little based on proper, probability-weighted samples, and even fewer international comparisons.
Ms Druckerman finally unearths some unpublished data collected as part of AIDS research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The most adulterous countries in the world are African. In Togo 37% of married or cohabiting men say they have had another sexual partner in the past 12 months. The most uxorious are probably Switzerland (3%) and Australia (2.5%).
In Japan she, like many outsiders, is baffled by the contrast between a gooey sentimentality about romance, and the sexlessness and distance of many Japanese marriages. It has its drawbacks, especially for women, but doesn't do much harm, she concludes. Her finely calibrated moral compass is matched by a reporter's knack for deft, understated description. She dryly recounts a visit to a sex club that is done up like a crowded subway train, where the customers pay for the privilege of being able to grope the female “commuters”.
Americans, she reckons, are a bit neurotic about adultery; in other countries it counts as a regrettable lapse, but not necessarily an unforgivable act of heinous betrayal. By contrast, in France, where she lives, people find it reprehensible that Americans actually discuss the point when dating turns monogamous; until then they casually juggle several suitors at once. The French are faithful during courtship; their marriages and liaisons last longer than Americans' do. Fidelity is rated as the top quality that Frenchwomen look for in a man; for men it comes second after “tenderness”. On the whole, though, they are tolerant of infidelity when it happens.
Her conclusion: people in rich countries value monogamy and tend not to stray often. In America, however, “adultery crises last longer, cost more, and seem to inflict more emotional torture.” Americans are so guilt-ridden, she writes, that they don't even enjoy what should be the pleasurable bit. Better, she reckons, to take a lesson from the French, who believe that monogamy is optimal, enjoy the lapses when they happen but try not to escalate them, and never, ever, confront a spouse for cheating.
Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee
By Pamela Druckerman
Penguin Press; 291 pages; $24.95
Mar 29th 2007 | BUCHAREST
From The Economist print edition
The Romanian government splinters. The new one will be even less sturdy
MAKING Romania a credible candidate to join the European Union was a remarkable achievement. But keeping it a credible member may prove even harder. That is the depressing lesson from the death throes this week of the three-year-old coalition that brought Romania, with its 22m people, into the EU in January.
Weeks of acrid public infighting since then have paralysed the government, which unites the Liberals, led by the prime minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, the Democrats (the party of the president, Traian Basescu) and a group representing the Hungarian minority which has been a fixture of every government for a decade. In February Mr Basescu and Mr Tariceanu argued furiously on a live television programme, during which the president accused the prime minister of lying.
Romania has been without a foreign minister for over a month. Mr Tariceanu's candidate, a member of the European Parliament, was vetoed by Mr Basescu on grounds of “insufficient diplomatic experience”. Mr Tariceanu has appealed to the constitutional court and is now acting as foreign minister himself. He seems to have been egged on in his tactics by two hard-bitten (and foreign) political consultants, Arthur Finkelstein and Tal Silberstein.
The breaking point came this week when the Liberals said they would stay in the coalition only if the government pulled troops out of Iraq, and dumped three ministers, including the non-party justice minister, Monica Macovei. When the Democrats refused to agree, Mr Tariceanu pronounced the government “dead” and started work on forming a new minority administration with the Hungarians. He is hoping for tacit backing from the ex-communist Social Democrats.
The outcome is unlikely to be a government burning with reforming zeal. It was only by sidelining the sleazy Social Democrats that Romania managed to get its EU membership application back on track. The likely successor for Ms Macovei in the new government is a senator from the Hungarian party, Gyorgy Frunda. He will have a job persuading outsiders and the political bosses at home that he brings the same moral fervour and determination to the task as his predecessor.
Ms Macovei's efforts to reform the legal system, reduce political interference and end corruption were vital in persuading Brussels that Romania was serious about modernising its state bureaucracy. But her intolerance of local political habits, although admired by the public, won her few friends in the elite. She had already lost a no-confidence vote in the Senate. Her reforms are incomplete, though many are too far advanced to stop.
The government crisis has come just before Romania reports to the EU on its progress. The European Commission will publish its own assessment in June. It is unlikely to trigger the safeguard clauses that allow Brussels to cut aid and stop co-operation with Bulgaria and Romania if either starts backsliding. But it will make uncomfortable reading. A report by Romania's magistrates' council highlights the continuing problem of incoherent and onerous legislation, understaffing in the judicial system and the small number of big corruption cases resolved. It notes that Romania has the worst record, after Russia, at the European Court of Human Rights. Cases lost typically involve infringement of property rights or maladministration.
The Democrats, Romania's most popular political party, hope that Mr Tariceanu's efforts to form and sustain a minority government will end in failure. They (and Mr Basescu) want an early general election, which might even be held at the same time as the (postponed) European election this summer.
Ordinary Romanians treat the whole political circus, fought out with scandalous allegations and screeching headlines in the highly partisan media, with disdain. The economy is growing at a cracking 7.7%; unemployment and inflation are falling; EU membership is highly popular even before much cash flows in.
In that sense, indeed, Romania's story is a familiar one. All across ex-communist eastern Europe, economies are growing fast, even as the politicians supposedly running them squabble and dither. That may be fine for now. But how these still-fragile countries would fare in an era of currency wobbles or tight money may be another story.
Gordon Brown's Polish streak
Let Warsaw reach out to Westminster
HERE are two big puzzles for Europe: how to deal with a Britain run, as it probably soon will be, by Gordon Brown (see picture below right); and how to deal with Poland run, as it is now, by the Kaczynski twins—Lech (see picture below left) as president and Jaroslaw as prime minister. There are striking similarities. Both the putative British leader and the current Polish ones are brooding, mistrustful figures, prone to obsessions, and with notable blind spots about Europe.
Mr Brown’s distaste for meetings with his European Union counterparts is famous. Asked once by his officials, “Would you like to meet the new German finance minister?” he replied with plangent honesty, “No”.
He rarely turns up to EU conclaves, preferring to send a deputy. On occasions when he has steeled himself to go—for example, when Britain was president of the EU—he would read a prepared statement larded with pungent criticism of other countries and then sit fidgeting until the earliest possible moment when he could decently depart.
That sounds pretty much like the Kaczynskis’ approach to foreign affairs: identify the areas of disagreement, make a strong speech, and hurry home. Both they and Mr Brown dislike the fudge and mudge of multilateral negotiation, with its cynical exchange of favours and endless horse-trading. They detest professional diplomats.
The Kaczynskis, like Mr Brown, prefer a tight circle of close advisers. They have a weakness for micro-management, but are willing to delegate in matters that don’t interest them. Naturally shy, they are much nicer in private than in public.
The differences are in the areas of interest. The Kaczynskis are economic illiterates; Mr Brown thinks of little else (though they share a dislike for the euro). The Kaczynskis are minutely interested in security, intelligence and the criminal justice system. Mr Brown has little time for soldiers, spooks or lawyers. Nobody knows what he thinks about Russia.
So far Mr Brown’s foibles have not especially damaged Britain’s standing in Europe. But the Kaczynskis have damaged Poland’s. The wholesale sackings of experienced but supposedly compromised senior officials, a series of cancelled meetings, unnecessary snubs and rows initiated by the Kaczynskis have all had regrettable effects.
A meeting of the EU’s “big six” countries was called off at less than 24 hours notice and with the Italian and Spanish officials already in Warsaw. When a German newspaper insulted him, President Lech Kaczynski regarded it as a matter of state, and sulked when no German official phoned to commiserate.
From being a diplomatic power-house under the rule of sleazy but effective ex-communists, Poland has come close to being seen as a joke, and a bad one at that.
That’s unfair. The Kaczynskis’ basic interests in foreign policy are sound: they distrust Russia, they are disappointed with Germany, and they see America as the ultimate basis for Poland’s security. They believe that energy supplies are not a matter of commerce alone, but of national defence.
The problem has been turning principles into policies and actions. Little has been done, and poorly even then. At the end of 2005 Germany suggested that Poland should join in a planned Russian-German gas pipeline under the Baltic sea. The response was immediate: Poland wanted not a cubic metre more of Russian gas, thank you very much.
That was a bold move, but, in retrospect, a bad mistake. As a partner in the pipeline Poland could have gained (and even leaked) information about the project’s financial arrangements: historically, wherever Russian oil and gas has gone, slush funds have tended to follow. It could have asked for a share of the construction contracts.
The Kaczynskis do seem to realise now that they have some catching up to do. They could do worse than try striking up a friendship with Mr Brown. They could fill him in about Russia; he could explain to them how to run a finance ministry. And all three would have someone else to talk to at those uncongenial European summits.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Chechnya: the case for independence
Russia's bloody wars
Small state seeks new history
From The Economist print edition
CHECHNYA is a rebellious part of Russia that was run by gangsters and Islamic fundamentalists, closely linked to al-Qaeda. After a bloody but necessary war, it has become largely peaceful though occasional terrorist attacks continue.
Washing away history
That, roughly, is what the Kremlin would like the world to believe. Tony Wood's new book takes issue with every part of that argument and puts the case, in a simplistic if passionate manner, for the other side. The truth, he maintains, is that the outside world's “credulousness and cowardice” has enabled a “chilling conjuring trick”, in which the Chechens' aspirations to self-determination have disappeared behind a “cloud of euphemisms and falsifications”.
For a start, Chechnya is not legally part of Russia. It was part of the Soviet Union, true, but it gained the rights of a “republic”, including the right to determine its own future, from the Soviet parliament in 1990. That put it, Mr Wood argues, on broadly the same legal footing as other “Soviet republics” such as Estonia or Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya did not vote to join its successor state, the Russian Federation. The agreements that ended the first Chechen war in 1996 explicitly recognised the republic as a subject of international law.
Mr Wood, assistant editor of New Left Review, a British periodical, concedes that the period of semi-independence that followed was a grisly mess, where kidnapping and slave-trading became big business. But he blames Russia for that, for having ruined the Chechen economy and for the Kremlin's persistent attempts to undermine the Chechen authorities.
He argues strongly against the idea that Chechnya was or is an outpost of international Islamic terrorism. Saudi-financed extremism was alien to the Sufi and nationalist traditions of Chechen Islam, he says, and the ties that have arisen are opportunistic, not ideological. Reports of Chechens fighting abroad have been grossly exaggerated; so have the numbers of foreign fighters in Chechnya.
The wars in Chechnya have been atrocious on both sides. While condemning the “degeneration” of Chechen resistance tactics into terrorism, Mr Wood tries hard to depict them as reactions to the systematic and continuing use of illegal detention, torture, rape and murder by the Russian side. Far from pacifying the republic and restoring normal life, the Kremlin has installed a “vicious client regime” that rules by “larcenous brutality”.
Chechnya has often been a pawn in Russia's internal power-struggles and related swindles, and Mr Wood is right to highlight the Kremlin's cynicism, incompetence and casual brutality. But the book is too slim, simplistic and one-sided to do full justice to the issue. Russians come across as cardboard villains, with no hint of the agonised debates and dilemmas the war has prompted. Equally, he depicts the Chechens as cardboard martyrs, not real people with spectacular virtues and failings. The reader gets little flavour of Chechnya's steamy clan politics, or the rebel leadership's often bizarre and batty notions, nor of the murky deals in which all sides are engaged.
Poland and Europe
A foreign affair?
Mar 22nd 2007 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
The Polish government realises it needs a foreign policy, but doesn't yet have one
A FLURRY of interest in the outside world might not seem odd in one of the European Union's bigger members. But when it comes from Poland's president and prime minister, the twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it is a pleasant surprise. The prime minister, Jaroslaw, visited the Netherlands and Denmark last week. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, visited Poland, meeting the prime minister, speaking at Warsaw University and spending a day at President Lech's house on the Baltic coast.
This almost counts as a love-in. Polish foreign policy has been introverted, incompetent and marked by hostility to Germany since the Kaczynskis came to power in late 2005. Ms Merkel showed the value she places on improving German-Polish relations by bringing her husband, who rarely accompanies her abroad. Her main aim was to persuade the Poles to drop their resistance to this weekend's Berlin declaration celebrating the EU's 50th birthday, and to be more open to reviving the EU constitution. Poland had held out for a mention of God and the Christian tradition, but it has given up—though it will still be awkward on the constitution.
Ms Merkel seems to have persuaded the Poles that she is a sympathetic friend, not a revanchist and bullying neighbour. Her experience under totalitarian rule in communist East Germany helps. But she has also showed sensitivity to Polish concerns. The anti-ballistic missiles that America wants to base in Poland did not spoil her talks and her seaside stroll. The Polish president also avoided the knee-jerk issues of German atrocities against Poland. He made no mention of plans by a group of Germans deported from Poland after the war to open a museum. Nor did he whinge on about the planned pipeline that will pump Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea.
Closer ties with Germany are welcome, but not enough. The Polish government's foreign-policy woes stem largely from prejudice and ignorance. Not only are the Kaczynskis untravelled and monoglot; they distrust cosmopolitans. They have sacked or intimidated any advisers or colleagues who showed too much knowledge of, or interest in, the abroad. One result is more clashes with the EU, some unnecessary, others badly managed.
The Kaczynskis are sceptical about the euro, and so of the reforms needed to join it. Their method of communication has annoyed the EU: the economics commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, recently complained that the Polish government simply didn't inform him of its economic policy. One reason is that finance ministers change with alarming frequency (the incumbent is the fourth in 18 months). The foreign minister is a close Kaczynski chum, who sees her job as relaying his views bluntly, not building diplomatic alliances.
Poland's image is worsened by the antics of the League of Polish Families, a minority coalition partner. One of its leading lights is campaigning against the teaching of evolution in schools. The party wants to ban abortion in Europe. This week the European Court of Human Rights awarded a Polish woman damages of €25,000 ($33,250) for being refused an abortion that could have saved her eyesight. The party leader, Roman Giertych, who is education minister and deputy prime minister, wants to restrict what he terms the “promotion” of homosexuality in Polish schools. To secular liberals in the rest of Europe, all this makes Poland seem a bastion of medieval barbarism.
Other issues are more substantive. The Poles are being taken to the European Court for building a motorway through a conservation area. Their insistence on sticking to the voting system agreed in the Nice treaty in 2001, rather than the new one in the draft EU constitution, grates in Brussels—and Berlin. But Poland's leaders seem to have realised that a country wishing to have any influence needs a functioning foreign policy. All they must do now is formulate one.
Many rights, some wrong
From The Economist print edition
The world's biggest human-rights organisation stretches its brand
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL is the biggest human-rights organisation in the world, with 70 national chapters and 1.8m-plus members. Its battle honours glitter. It has defended moral giants among prisoners of conscience such as Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov.
Amnesty still champions such causes, rattling dictatorial governments (and governments with dictatorial tendencies). But its mission has also become broader and more ambitious, calling for political and economic improvement as well as freedom from judicial persecution. “Working on individuals is important, but if we don't work on systemic change we just exchange one group of sufferers for another,” says Irene Khan, its secretary-general.
Many of the movement's most vocal supporters strongly support this stance, increasingly entrenched in Amnesty's thinking; it also chimes well with the visceral opposition to American foreign policy, and to globalisation, that exists in many parts of the world. All that has made Amnesty more popular in some quarters—but also, perhaps, less effective overall.
Amnesty's website—admittedly not the same as the organisation, but still a shop window for its main concerns—can certainly be disconcerting for those who have not followed the changes of past years. Instead of named individuals locked up by their governments, it highlights a dozen campaigns. Top comes “stop violence against women”, including discrimination by the “state, the community and the family”. The second asserts: “The arms trade is out of control. Worldwide arms are fuelling conflict, poverty, and human rights abuses.” The third—closer to a traditional Amnesty campaign—is “stop torture”; this focuses mainly on abuses in the “war on terror”, and links to a campaign to close the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay.
Ms Khan infuriated both the American government and some Amnesty supporters in 2005 when she described Guantánamo as the “gulag of our times”. She stands by her statement: like the gulag, Guantánamo “puts people outside the rule of law”, she says. Yet the comparison seems odd in scale and in principle: the gulag embodied the Soviet system; Guantánamo is a blot on the American one.
Not that old-style Amnesty was soft on the West. Using the moral authority it had won by confronting both apartheid and communism, it challenged Western governments whenever they seemed to be cutting legal corners; in that spirit, it opposed Britain's policy of internment in Northern Ireland.
But these days America does seem to have a strangely high priority, given the enormity of human-rights scandals elsewhere. One of the four “worldwide appeals” launched in March urges the public to press the American government to grant visas to the wives of two Cubans jailed for acting as “unregistered agents of a foreign power” (in effect, spying). Zimbabwe, scene of bloody repression in past weeks, comes fourth—but the appeal deals not with current events but with the persecution of a movement called “Women of Zimbabwe Arise”, an admirable but narrower cause.
Another of Amnesty's 12 campaigns is on “Poverty and Human Rights” which asserts: “Everyone, everywhere has the right to live with dignity. That means that no one should be denied their rights to adequate housing, food, water and sanitation, and to education and health care.” A similar theme is struck by the “Economic Globalisation and Human Rights” campaign—reflecting Amnesty's enthusiastic support for the World Social Forum, a movement which holds annual anti-capitalism shindigs. Sometimes there seems to be a desire to be even-handed between pariahs and paragons: Amnesty recently surprised observers of the ex-communist world by producing a critique of the language law in Estonia—a country usually seen as the best example of good government in the region.
The big question in all this is priorities. Cases do exist where violations of political rights and of economic ones are hard to separate; one such case is Zimbabwe, whose government has engaged in politicised food distribution and slum clearance at the same time as judicial repression.
But the new Amnesty is surely open to the charges both that it is campaigning on too many fronts, and that the latest focus comes at the cost of the old one.
Amnesty's website is, insiders acknowledge, a campaigning tool; it does not fully reflect the depth of the organisation's expertise, or its internal priorities. Ms Khan admits a tension in the organisation's “business mix” between high profile and less immediately rewarding work.
But she insists that there is no drift towards America-bashing for the sake of popularity, and that the emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights does not reflect a preference for any particular system of government.
Perhaps unavoidably, the stance taken by Amnesty's increasingly autonomous national chapters in the domestic affairs of their countries is decidedly political. In Colombia, for example, the movement opposes a law that offers reduced sentences to right-wing paramilitaries but made no objections to past proposals for amnesties for left-wing guerrillas.
Amnesty may to some extent be the captive of its need to keep a mass membership enthused with new and compelling causes, even at the cost of narrowing its appeal to those with unfashionably positive views about America or global capitalism. Its expert researchers and analysts still continue in their work, but sometimes feel let down by what the leadership chooses to showcase. Amnesty has to compete for attention and funds with other human-rights organisations: its “unique selling proposition”, says Ms Khan, is that it gives ordinary people a chance to participate. Yet the best means of ensuring that—writing letters to, and about, prisoners of conscience—has shrunk.
The collapse of the Soviet empire and of apartheid rule in South Africa cut the number of visible prisoners of conscience. Countless tens of thousands may languish in China's laogai forced labour camps (a system that truly deserves to be called a gulag), and many are incarcerated in places such as North Korea and Myanmar (Burma). But even getting the names of the inmates is hard, let alone embarrassing the governments. Writing letters on behalf of a Havel or Sakharov sparks members' enthusiasm far more than a few blurred pictures of a remote camp with anonymous inmates.
Amnesty's American-based counterpart, Human Rights Watch, has also changed its emphasis, but less controversially. It keeps classic human-rights questions at the centre of its activities and gives only modest attention to other concerns. On weapons, for example, it campaigns to limit the use of cluster bombs, but not against the arms trade in general. It sticks to situations where its fastidious, legalistic approach will work, “namely, the ability to identify a rights violation, a violator, and a remedy to address the violation.” That covers arbitrary government conduct that leads to a violation of economic rights (such as the right to emigrate), but steers clear of general hand-wringing about poverty or poor public services.
Current and former Amnesty insiders worry that an increasingly grandstanding and unfocused approach makes it ineffective. Sigrid Rausing, a top British donor to human-rights causes, says she regrets the “blurring” of the original mission: “There are so few organisations that focus on individual prisoners of conscience.” Her husband, Eric Abraham, was supported by Amnesty while under a five-year sentence of house arrest in South Africa in 1976.
Some wonder if Ms Khan has been too keen to impress constituencies in what NGO-niks call the “global south”: code for developing countries, where opinion—at least among the elite—supposedly favours economic development over a “northern” concern for individual rights. She vigorously contests that. But an organisation which devotes more pages in its annual report to human-rights abuses in Britain and America than those in Belarus and Saudi Arabia cannot expect to escape doubters' scrutiny.
Stand up for your rights
From The Economist print edition
The old stuffy ones, that is: newer ones are distractions
THE past few years have been busy ones for human-rights organisations. In prosecuting the so-called war on terror, many governments in Western countries where freedoms seemed secure have been tempted to nibble away at them. Just as well, you might suppose, that doughty campaigners such as Amnesty International exist to leap to the defence. Yet Amnesty no longer makes the splash it used to in the rich world (see article). This is not for want of speaking out. The organisation is as vocal as it ever was. But some years ago it decided to follow intellectual fashion and dilute a traditional focus on political rights by mixing in a new category of what people now call social and economic rights.
Rights being good things, you might suppose that the more of them you campaign for the better. Why not add pressing social and economic concerns to stuffy old political rights such as free speech, free elections and due process of law? What use is a vote if you are starving? Are not access to jobs, housing, health care and food basic rights too? No: few rights are truly universal, and letting them multiply weakens them.
Food, jobs and housing are certainly necessities. But no useful purpose is served by calling them “rights”. When a government locks someone up without a fair trial, the victim, perpetrator and remedy are pretty clear. This clarity seldom applies to social and economic “rights”. It is hard enough to determine whether such a right has been infringed, let alone who should provide a remedy, or how. Who should be educated in which subjects for how long at what cost in taxpayers' money is a political question best settled at the ballot box. So is how much to spend on what kind of health care. And no economic system known to man guarantees a proper job for everyone all the time: even the Soviet Union's much-boasted full employment was based on the principle “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”.
It is hardly an accident that the countries keenest to use the language of social and economic rights tend to be those that show least respect for rights of the traditional sort. The rulers of Cuba and China habitually depict campaigns concentrating on individual freedoms as a conspiracy by the rich northern hemisphere to do down poor countries. It is mightily convenient, if you deprive your citizens of political liberties, to portray these as a bourgeois luxury.
And it could not be further from the truth. For people in the poor world, as for people everywhere, the most reliable method yet invented to ensure that governments provide people with social and economic necessities is called politics. That is why the rights that make open politics possible—free speech, due process, protection from arbitrary punishment—are so precious. Insisting on their enforcement is worth more than any number of grandiloquent but unenforceable declarations demanding jobs, education and housing for all.
Many do-gooding outfits suffer from having too broad a focus and too narrow a base. Amnesty used to be the other way round, appealing to people of all political persuasions and none, and concentrating on a hard core of well-defined basic liberties. No longer. By trying in recent years to borrow moral authority from the campaigns and leaders of the past and lend it to the woollier cause of social reform, Amnesty has succeeded only in muffling what was once its central message, at the very moment when governments in the West need to hear it again.
Romance and revolution
Mar 22nd 2007
The future is no longer orange
IF YOU joined or even just watched the revolutions in eastern Europe in 1989-91, life may have started to look pretty dull soon afterwards. The prospect of recapturing the heady spirit of those days a decade or so later was bound to seem tempting—but trying to relive your youth can be as disappointing in politics as it is in romance.
The “colour revolutions” of 2000-2005 in Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, Lebanon and (not much mentioned these days) Kyrgyzstan did indeed promise more of that same collective shudder of joy that had made the earth move from Berlin to Vladivostok.
Here were more hopeful, patriotic, idealistic and photogenic youngsters trying to topple more cruel, deceitful, incompetent and unphotogenic oldies. They had everything going for them. And yet, somehow, these later revolutions guttered or failed.
Ivan Krastev, a sharp-witted Sofia-based analyst, argues now that the colour revolutions, though inspiring, were based on a poor model for political change. People power can sometimes change history: think Boris Yeltsin on a tank. But, especially when inspired and financed from abroad, it is not the same thing as democracy, and may not even ensure it.
For a start, the foreign-funded non-governmental organisations that prepared and organised the colour revolutions now face big obstacles in the ex-Soviet countries where they would most like to work. Society’s appetite for economic and political liberalism and for Euro-Atlanticism has waned over the past decade. Taking money, however innocently, from the American government or even from the European Union, may be a taboo.
Iraq has weakened America’s soft-power appeal and stoked anti-Americanism. So has the perception of double standards. Dick Cheney may see logic in bashing the Kremlin for authoritarianism and then praising Kazakhstan for its progress towards democracy, as he did during a trip round the region last year. But for most audiences the argument is eccentric or repugnant.
The bottled-up anger with the petty humiliations of daily life that fuelled past protest movements in ex-communist countries has weakened, partly because life has improved and partly because of the opportunities offered by migration. The EU—to put it mildly—no longer looks like a lighthouse beckoning new members towards peace and prosperity. As Mr Krastev says, the clearer the EU’s borders become, the less attractive it is to outsiders, and the weaker its promise that “if you are like us, you could become one of us”.
Plus, there is serious competition. Russia has learned the importance of the people-power game, and is going to play it with increasing skill. The Kremlin looks set to invest more money, more time and more expertise in winning over wobbly post-Soviet countries than the West ever will. It can call now on sinister pro-Putin groups, such as Nashi (Ours), which know how to mobilise a crowd. If you applaud orange-clad activists making history on the streets of Kiev, it is hard to explain why those trying to do the same in the Kremlin's red white and blue are inherently more objectionable.
Nor, even if a revolution comes and goes, is that alone going to be decisive, especially when democracy is its aim. The real struggle to build a well functioning democracy starts afterwards, and can get horribly bogged down, as Ukraine's experience has shown. In 1989-91 the West was itching to help, and its help made all the difference. Now it is not. It is divided, demoralised and inattentive.
Indeed, the West seems to have lost the stomach for promoting democracy in post-Soviet Europe almost entirely. And if it ever regains it, it will have to reach further back than 1989 for its inspiration. With Russia getting stronger again, though perhaps not sustainably so, the more relevant precedent may be the long hard slog of the cold-war decades.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
The churches in the ex-communist world have swapped persecution for the periphery PERSECUTED, valiant and victorious. That was how the churches of eastern Europe seemed in 1989. It was a flattering picture. In truth, totalitarianism spawned heroism, treachery and corruption in the church, as in other parts of life. It also stunted thinking on ecumenism and tolerance. Now secularism is shrivelling some churches, especially mainstream Protestant ones. Others have retreated into steamy nationalist ghettos, sometimes in cahoots with the new authorities. Everywhere disturbing, long-hidden questions are emerging about collaboration with the communists. It is not an uplifting picture. Religious freedom is still an issue. Nothing matches the persecution of believers in such totalitarian places as Belarus or Turkmenistan. But minority denominations face tiresome legal obstacles, especially in countries with big traditional churches. Romania's new religion law, rushed through parliament last year, requires 12 years' existence and 22,000 members for full registration. Churches with fewer than 300 members are not allowed to own property or have paid employees. The law bolsters the majority Romanian Orthodox Church, freeing it from legal challenges over communist-era property seizures from rival churches (when, as now, it worked closely with the state). Opponents plan to challenge the law in the European Court of Human Rights. Elsewhere in the Balkans the story is similar, especially in places where (as in England, Denmark and Norway) a “national church” enjoys power underpinned by the state. Macedonia's authorities protect the local Orthodox church from its Serbian neighbour, whose priests, seen by patriotic Macedonians as agents of Serbia, may not cross the border wearing clerical garb. “The sort of thing you would expect in Turkey,” sniffs Felix Corley of Forum 18, a religious-freedom watchdog. The Serbian Orthodox archbishop in Macedonia has been jailed twice: once for publishing a calendar that challenged the Macedonian hierarchy's view of church affairs and “causing national, racial and religious hatred and intolerance”; the second time for embezzlement of church funds. Meanwhile the Serbian Orthodox monasteries of Kosovo—where a couple of dozen churches were wrecked or damaged by ethnic Albanians in 2004—are watching talks on the province's political future nervously. This week monks at the medieval monastery of Decani were urging NATO's supreme commander, General John Craddock, to continue protecting them if and when Kosovo becomes an independent, Albanian-dominated state. Then there is politics. In some places, the church hits a resonant, non-partisan note. A Lithuanian archbishop, Sigitas Tamkevicius, who spent five years in the Soviet gulag, is an ardent and widely admired proponent of reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of communist crimes. Elsewhere, the church's involvement is more controversial. In Poland, where 90% of the population say they are Catholic, the ruling coalition displays ostentatious religiosity. The speaker of parliament crosses himself before taking his seat. Government supporters depict the opposition, ex-communists and liberal conservatives, as heathen secular liberals—by implication, not proper Poles. Yet all is not what it seems. The church in Poland is divided between Vatican loyalists, who often oppose close involvement in politics, and energetic dissidents linked to Radio Maryja, a hardline broadcaster. This once had huge clout, articulating the feelings of Poles alienated by the country's brisk, materialist business culture and the decay in moral norms. But Radio Maryja's audience has shrunk in the past decade to no more than 2% of all current listeners. Voters who wanted a clean sweep and a new moral order have found that, although their favourite parties are in power, disappointingly little has changed. Faith in the church's integrity has also been damaged by allegations that Stanislaw Wielgus, who stepped down as archbishop-designate of Warsaw, once co-operated with the communist secret services. Some sense a witch-hunt. Others welcome the breaking of a taboo. A new book based on secret-police records in Cracow claims 30 clergy and four bishops collaborated; some of those named deny it. There are similar worries for the Catholic church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Czech primate, has called for clergy to be screened for co-operation with the secret police. But in most places involvement in politics is waning. On the burning moral issues of today, such as integrity in politics, public-spiritedness, honesty about history and compassion for the unfortunate, the churches seem to have little to say.
Churches in eastern Europe
From The Economist print edition
Religion in central and eastern Europe is waning—and plagued by scandal
PERSECUTED, valiant and victorious. That was how the churches of eastern Europe seemed in 1989. It was a flattering picture. In truth, totalitarianism spawned heroism, treachery and corruption in the church, as in other parts of life. It also stunted thinking on ecumenism and tolerance. Now secularism is shrivelling some churches, especially mainstream Protestant ones. Others have retreated into steamy nationalist ghettos, sometimes in cahoots with the new authorities. Everywhere disturbing, long-hidden questions are emerging about collaboration with the communists. It is not an uplifting picture.
Religious freedom is still an issue. Nothing matches the persecution of believers in such totalitarian places as Belarus or Turkmenistan. But minority denominations face tiresome legal obstacles, especially in countries with big traditional churches. Romania's new religion law, rushed through parliament last year, requires 12 years' existence and 22,000 members for full registration. Churches with fewer than 300 members are not allowed to own property or have paid employees. The law bolsters the majority Romanian Orthodox Church, freeing it from legal challenges over communist-era property seizures from rival churches (when, as now, it worked closely with the state). Opponents plan to challenge the law in the European Court of Human Rights.
Elsewhere in the Balkans the story is similar, especially in places where (as in England, Denmark and Norway) a “national church” enjoys power underpinned by the state. Macedonia's authorities protect the local Orthodox church from its Serbian neighbour, whose priests, seen by patriotic Macedonians as agents of Serbia, may not cross the border wearing clerical garb. “The sort of thing you would expect in Turkey,” sniffs Felix Corley of Forum 18, a religious-freedom watchdog. The Serbian Orthodox archbishop in Macedonia has been jailed twice: once for publishing a calendar that challenged the Macedonian hierarchy's view of church affairs and “causing national, racial and religious hatred and intolerance”; the second time for embezzlement of church funds.
Meanwhile the Serbian Orthodox monasteries of Kosovo—where a couple of dozen churches were wrecked or damaged by ethnic Albanians in 2004—are watching talks on the province's political future nervously. This week monks at the medieval monastery of Decani were urging NATO's supreme commander, General John Craddock, to continue protecting them if and when Kosovo becomes an independent, Albanian-dominated state.
Then there is politics. In some places, the church hits a resonant, non-partisan note. A Lithuanian archbishop, Sigitas Tamkevicius, who spent five years in the Soviet gulag, is an ardent and widely admired proponent of reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of communist crimes. Elsewhere, the church's involvement is more controversial. In Poland, where 90% of the population say they are Catholic, the ruling coalition displays ostentatious religiosity. The speaker of parliament crosses himself before taking his seat. Government supporters depict the opposition, ex-communists and liberal conservatives, as heathen secular liberals—by implication, not proper Poles.
Yet all is not what it seems. The church in Poland is divided between Vatican loyalists, who often oppose close involvement in politics, and energetic dissidents linked to Radio Maryja, a hardline broadcaster. This once had huge clout, articulating the feelings of Poles alienated by the country's brisk, materialist business culture and the decay in moral norms. But Radio Maryja's audience has shrunk in the past decade to no more than 2% of all current listeners. Voters who wanted a clean sweep and a new moral order have found that, although their favourite parties are in power, disappointingly little has changed.
Faith in the church's integrity has also been damaged by allegations that Stanislaw Wielgus, who stepped down as archbishop-designate of Warsaw, once co-operated with the communist secret services. Some sense a witch-hunt. Others welcome the breaking of a taboo. A new book based on secret-police records in Cracow claims 30 clergy and four bishops collaborated; some of those named deny it.
There are similar worries for the Catholic church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Czech primate, has called for clergy to be screened for co-operation with the secret police. But in most places involvement in politics is waning. On the burning moral issues of today, such as integrity in politics, public-spiritedness, honesty about history and compassion for the unfortunate, the churches seem to have little to say.
If a new book about Britain's wartime SOE is true, most of what we know is wrong. But if it is true, why are the footnotes so puzzlingly flimsy?
Secrets and spies
Mar 15th 2007
From The Economist print edition
A spymistress and a mystery
BELIEVE the blurb, and Vera Atkins is a wartime heroine rescued from obscurity by an old pal. Believe her family and her story is being hijacked. “Spymistress”, by William Stevenson, a Canada-based author of books about espionage, claims she was “the greatest female agent of World War II”; Mr Stevenson is described as “her close friend...an author she greatly admired...the only person she would trust to record her life”.
Vera Atkins, who died in 2000, is certainly a fascinating figure. A meticulous authorised biography published in 2005 by Sarah Helm, a British writer, explains how she recruited and trained female agents for the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE). Botched security—not her fault—meant many were captured and killed by the Gestapo. After the war, Miss Atkins (she never married) trekked round the ruins of post-war Europe to chronicle their fate.
But Mr Stevenson depicts Miss Atkins as far more senior: a key figure in Anglo-American intelligence co-ordination, a champion of efforts to disrupt Nazi genocide, and much more besides. These are big claims; if true, they would require the rewriting of much of the history of wartime intelligence.
That puts Mr Stevenson's sources under close scrutiny. Long-ago conversations—such as his purported meeting with Miss Atkins as a teenage messenger boy in London during the Blitz—are rendered verbatim; not a normal practice in history books. Equally puzzling is that the book's footnotes give no references for its most startling contentions. They do not detail what he says were many meetings and phone calls with Miss Atkins. He has no letters from her, he says, and wrote none; her executor (and niece), Zenna Atkins, says her aunt's papers make no mention of him; she says she heard Miss Atkins refer to Mr Stevenson only once, describing a previous book of his as “utter bilge”.
Mr Stevenson, blaming a muddle with his publisher, says he now regrets leaving out the details of his interviews with Miss Atkins from the footnotes. He is in Toronto; many of his notebooks are elsewhere. He blames the publisher also for overstating both Miss Atkins's wartime role and his friendship with her. The publisher, New York-based Arcade, blames a “concerted effort” by the Atkins family to undermine the book because of their “vested interest” in supporting Ms Helm's work.
Leaving all this aside, Mr Stevenson's book raises other issues. “Someone I knew for 40 years with blonde and then grey hair has black hair,” says M.R.D. Foot, Britain's top historian of SOE. (Mr Stevenson says Miss Atkins perhaps dyed her hair.) His book gives her middle name as Maria and her birthplace as Bucharest. Her family says her middle name was May; she was born in another town. Mr Stevenson says he was misinformed by a source, now deceased.
Amazon.com: “A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII”, by Sarah Helm (Amazon.co.uk); “Spymistress: The Secret Life of Vera Atkins, the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II”, by William Stevenson (Amazon.co.uk).
Arcade describes Mr Stevenson's book.
The Economist's reviewof the Helm book Second-world-war spies
This week's Europe.view column
is about the Bulgarian nurses
Shame Qaddafi, free the nurses
Mar 15th 2007
Bulgarians can use democracy to counter blackmail
LIBYA'S long imprisonment of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor is scandalous both for the arbitrary suffering imposed on the six victims and for the feebleness of the outside world’s response. The charges are preposterous, the conditions of detention have been hideous, the whole affair is a piece of Libyan political blackmail. Yet the European Union says it “respect[s] the independence of the Libyan courts”—literally, an incredible statement.
The six were arrested on March 7th 1999 on the charge of deliberately infecting 426 children in a Benghazi hospital with HIV, a virus which causes AIDS. Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, said that the infections were part of a plot by the CIA or Mossad. The story was pushed hard by the state propaganda machine and is still widely believed in Libya.
A report by two outside scientists, Luc Montagnier (a discoverer of HIV) and Vittorio Colizzi, has overturned the deliberate infection theory. By far the most likely explanation for the AIDS outbreak was poor hospital hygiene.
In their eight years of detention the “Benghazi six” have been abominably treated, with both psychological and physical torture. They were sentenced to death by firing squad on May 6th 2004. The sentence has not yet been carried out.
Bulgaria has tried hard to make the scandal an international issue, and has also raised money to help the AIDS-infected children. But Libya appears to want to do a deal, involving freedom for the Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, convicted of organising the Lockerbie bombing, and payment of $2.7 billion in compensation—the exact amount paid by Libya to the victims of that outrage. The argument amounts to: “You release a justly convicted Libyan, and we will free six unjustly convicted foreigners.”
Amazingly, much of the rest of the world, including many African and Arab countries—and even some European politicians—seems to agree with Libya’s attempt to link the issues. The African Union and Arab League have called for the issue not to be “politicised”. And in that shameful impasse, the nurses are stuck.
Bulgarian public opinion, and the country’s politicians, are solidly behind them. But what more can be done to raise the political pressure for their freedom? An ingenious and commendable suggestion comes from Georgi Gotev, a Bulgarian journalist.
On May 20th Bulgaria votes for 18 members of the European Parliament. The likely outcome is that six or seven will be elected from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, five or six from “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria” (a new centrist party), two or three from the Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and two or three from the far-right Ataka party.
Mr Gotev suggests that the big parties each adopt two nurses as their top candidates, and the Turkish party takes the fifth. The choice would be random. The nurses’ freedom, not their politics, is the issue.
This will demand a modest sacrifice on the part of five Bulgarian political insiders who would otherwise have boarded the gravy train that shuttles between Brussels and Strasbourg. But it will catapult the scandal of the imprisoned nurses into the heart of Europe’s political institutions, and demonstrate an excellent non-partisan spirit in Bulgarian politics (not always known for its sober pursuit of the national interest).
Bulgarian politicians, and voters, should co-operate.
The nurses' names are Kristiyana Valtcheva, Nasya Nenova, Valentina Siropulo, Valya Chervenyashka, and Snezhana Dimitrova. The Palestinian doctor is Ashraf al-Hajuj. They can be forgiven for knowing and caring little about the European Parliament after eight years of in prison. But it is high time the parliament started knowing and caring a great deal more about them.
I have posted an entry at the new economist.com blog on Europe about Solzhenitsyn. you can find it here While praising Solzhenitsyn's bravery, and the role that the Gulag Archipelago and other books played in exploding Western illusions about the evil empire, Zinik makes some trenchant criticisms of Solzhenitsyn's style and substance. Gradually Solzhenitsyn became convinced of his God-given powers to bring down the Soviet regime and secure the renaissance of a Russian nation that would renew its commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church. His open “Letter to the Soviet Leaders” was followed by addresses and encyclicals to the Russian people (sometimes beginning in a Stalinist fashion with “Dear Compatriots . . .”) on a variety of subjects: from urging people to boycott the mendacious Soviet state institutions to reviving obsolete and archaic Slavic vocabulary uncontaminated by the influence of the Latin world. He cannot comprehend the political value of the right to disagree, of agreeing to disagree, an attempt (quite successful) at cohabitation of those with opposing views. He didn’t learn in the West that political ideas have no spiritual value without practical application. And in practice, his views on patriotism, morality and religion attracted the most reactionary elements of Russian society – from top to bottom. He continues Solzhenitsyn used to be a good listener; he is evidently a great writer when he records other people’s voices; the trouble starts when he assumes his own voice. It is not just Solzhenitsyn's public stance that Zinik criticises, but also his treatment of those close to him ...incurring Solzhenitsyn’s disapproval made people act against their better judgement and those who had fallen foul of him were ostracized. He banished from his life everyone whom he suspected of disloyalty, including the most insightful and trustworthy of his biographers, Michael Scammell. For Solzhenitsyn and his defenders it was the only way to preserve the memory of the horrors of Stalinism for future generations; for his detractors, his civic zeal was just a cover for megalomaniacal vanity. As a result After his involuntary move to the West in 1974, his influence on the ranks of the exiled Russian intelligentsia was catastrophic. One of his first political actions was an attempt to disseminate through the Western mass media the list of those dissident figures who in his opinion could, in one way or an other, be suspected of collaboration with the KGB. The libellous and whimsical character of such allegations prevented newspapers from publishing this absurd list. But the damage had been done. He unsuccessfully tried to tarnish the reputation of the most prophetic literary thinker and novelist of the epoch, Andrei Sinyavsky, because Sinyavsky had ridiculed Solzhenitsyn’s simplistic view of Russian history and the patriotic role of literature. Since the collapse of Communism, things haven't improved. Solzhenitsyn’s status in Russia today would have been deemed peculiar if it were not almost tragic. Solzhenitsyn's qualified support for Putin attracts Zinik's particular scorn Solzhenitsyn once dedicated his life to the fight against the regime in which the state security machine made everyone feel an accomplice in turning the country into a prison camp. He has now become part of a society where the mass media are reduced to self-censoring impotence, Soviet style; dissident artists and writers are regularly beaten up; journalists who expose corruption and the abuses of centralized political power are murdered. And yet Solzhenitsyn is silent He concludes Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago as a cautionary tale for the West. Perhaps it is the time for the Russians to reread it from their own historical perspective. The response from Daniel Mahoney is scathing. Zinik, he says recycles all the same tired charges of “stale traditionalism” in literature and politics, authoritarianism, and neo-Stalinist rhetoric—as if the old fights have to be re-fought one more bloody time. The truth is Solzhenitsyn remains—as he has been for decades now—a thoughtful and passionate advocate of “repentance and self-limitation,” a critic of the “lie” in all its forms, an advocate of what he calls a “clean, loving, constructive Patriotism” as opposed to a radically nationalist bent” that “elevates one’s nationality above a humble stance toward heaven.” In contrast to the consensus that increasingly dominates in both liberal and conservative circles in the West, Solzhenitsyn saw Russia in the 1990s—with its criminal corruption, unholy alliance of oligarchs and unrepentant communists, its betrayal of the rule of law and a genuine market economy in the name of a misguided “market ideology”—as a new “Time of Troubles” for his beloved homeland. He has a balanced view of Russia today in no small part because he does not identify the 1990s as a period of true democratic reforms as so many people mistakenly do in the West. And that is the rub. So much of the argument about what is happening in Russia now is really about what happened in the 1990s. For some, it was a period when misguided reformers ruined "the state", creating a period of chaos from which Russia is only now recovering. For others, it was a forlorn but almost heroic attempt to create a democratic state and market economy on the rubble of an evil empire. It may be useful to call the former category Gosudarstvennik, an almost untranslatable Russian word usually but inadequately rendered as "statist". For them, order counts more than law, respect more than popularity. The latter category are often (but equally adequately) called "reformers". They are often pro-western, self-consciously middle-class, eager (at least in theory) to have the rule of law, especially where protection of private property is concerned. Such categories are crude and incomplete, of course. For the gosudarstvenniky Solzhenitsyn's anti-Soviet past may make him unacceptable. And for the reformers, his conservatism and religiosity may be unpalatable. What can be said safely is that unless you have read such classics such as Ivan Denisovich, Gulag, and the First Circle recently, it might be good to take another look and see what relation if any you can see to Russia now. And it might also be an idea to read the new book--if only to see how Solzhenitsyn's views have evolved over time.
or in full below
An excellent TLS review by Zinovy Zinik of the new Solzhenitsyn compendium has sparked a furious response from one of the volume's authors.
It was clearly a shock for Solzhenitsyn to discover that his role had ceased to be regarded as that of a spiritual leader of his people. Initially, his well-publicized comeback to the motherland was clouded by his admirers’ disappointment with their prophet’s outdated political wisdoms and Solzhenitsyn’s own disapproval of the way the country had liberated itself from the shackles of Communism. For a short time, he had a weekly fifteen-minute television programme called Meetings with Solzhenitsyn. It was dropped after a few months owing to a lack of audience response, to be replaced by a programme featuring the Italian parliamentarian and porn queen, La Cicciolina.
While praising Solzhenitsyn's bravery, and the role that the Gulag Archipelago and other books played in exploding Western illusions about the evil empire, Zinik makes some trenchant criticisms of Solzhenitsyn's style and substance.
Gradually Solzhenitsyn became convinced of his God-given powers to bring down the Soviet regime and secure the renaissance of a Russian nation that would renew its commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church. His open “Letter to the Soviet Leaders” was followed by addresses and encyclicals to the Russian people (sometimes beginning in a Stalinist fashion with “Dear Compatriots . . .”) on a variety of subjects: from urging people to boycott the mendacious Soviet state institutions to reviving obsolete and archaic Slavic vocabulary uncontaminated by the influence of the Latin world.
He cannot comprehend the political value of the right to disagree, of agreeing to disagree, an attempt (quite successful) at cohabitation of those with opposing views. He didn’t learn in the West that political ideas have no spiritual value without practical application. And in practice, his views on patriotism, morality and religion attracted the most reactionary elements of Russian society – from top to bottom.
Solzhenitsyn used to be a good listener; he is evidently a great writer when he records other people’s voices; the trouble starts when he assumes his own voice.
It is not just Solzhenitsyn's public stance that Zinik criticises, but also his treatment of those close to him
...incurring Solzhenitsyn’s disapproval made people act against their better judgement and those who had fallen foul of him were ostracized. He banished from his life everyone whom he suspected of disloyalty, including the most insightful and trustworthy of his biographers, Michael Scammell. For Solzhenitsyn and his defenders it was the only way to preserve the memory of the horrors of Stalinism for future generations; for his detractors, his civic zeal was just a cover for megalomaniacal vanity.
As a result
After his involuntary move to the West in 1974, his influence on the ranks of the exiled Russian intelligentsia was catastrophic. One of his first political actions was an attempt to disseminate through the Western mass media the list of those dissident figures who in his opinion could, in one way or an other, be suspected of collaboration with the KGB. The libellous and whimsical character of such allegations prevented newspapers from publishing this absurd list. But the damage had been done. He unsuccessfully tried to tarnish the reputation of the most prophetic literary thinker and novelist of the epoch, Andrei Sinyavsky, because Sinyavsky had ridiculed Solzhenitsyn’s simplistic view of Russian history and the patriotic role of literature.
Since the collapse of Communism, things haven't improved.
Solzhenitsyn’s status in Russia today would have been deemed peculiar if it were not almost tragic.
Solzhenitsyn's qualified support for Putin attracts Zinik's particular scorn
Solzhenitsyn once dedicated his life to the fight against the regime in which the state security machine made everyone feel an accomplice in turning the country into a prison camp. He has now become part of a society where the mass media are reduced to self-censoring impotence, Soviet style; dissident artists and writers are regularly beaten up; journalists who expose corruption and the abuses of centralized political power are murdered. And yet Solzhenitsyn is silent
Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago as a cautionary tale for the West. Perhaps it is the time for the Russians to reread it from their own historical perspective.
The response from Daniel Mahoney is scathing. Zinik, he says
recycles all the same tired charges of “stale traditionalism” in literature and politics, authoritarianism, and neo-Stalinist rhetoric—as if the old fights have to be re-fought one more bloody time.
The truth is
Solzhenitsyn remains—as he has been for decades now—a thoughtful and passionate advocate of “repentance and self-limitation,” a critic of the “lie” in all its forms, an advocate of what he calls a “clean, loving, constructive Patriotism” as opposed to a radically nationalist bent” that “elevates one’s nationality above a humble stance toward heaven.” In contrast to the consensus that increasingly dominates in both liberal and conservative circles in the West, Solzhenitsyn saw Russia in the 1990s—with its criminal corruption, unholy alliance of oligarchs and unrepentant communists, its betrayal of the rule of law and a genuine market economy in the name of a misguided “market ideology”—as a new “Time of Troubles” for his beloved homeland. He has a balanced view of Russia today in no small part because he does not identify the 1990s as a period of true democratic reforms as so many people mistakenly do in the West.
And that is the rub. So much of the argument about what is happening in Russia now is really about what happened in the 1990s. For some, it was a period when misguided reformers ruined "the state", creating a period of chaos from which Russia is only now recovering. For others, it was a forlorn but almost heroic attempt to create a democratic state and market economy on the rubble of an evil empire.
It may be useful to call the former category Gosudarstvennik, an almost untranslatable Russian word usually but inadequately rendered as "statist". For them, order counts more than law, respect more than popularity. The latter category are often (but equally adequately) called "reformers". They are often pro-western, self-consciously middle-class, eager (at least in theory) to have the rule of law, especially where protection of private property is concerned.
Such categories are crude and incomplete, of course. For the gosudarstvenniky Solzhenitsyn's anti-Soviet past may make him unacceptable. And for the reformers, his conservatism and religiosity may be unpalatable.
What can be said safely is that unless you have read such classics such as Ivan Denisovich, Gulag, and the First Circle recently, it might be good to take another look and see what relation if any you can see to Russia now. And it might also be an idea to read the new book--if only to see how Solzhenitsyn's views have evolved over time.
This is another unpublished and polemical draft piece on what may be a systematic Kremlin campaign of murder and intimidation--but of course may just be groundless paranoia.
In a spy novel, the plot would be getting boring by now. A journalist is shot in Moscow. Then a defector is poisoned in London. Then a top American critic of the Kremlin is mysteriously shot in Washington. And another brave investigative journalist commits an unlikely 'suicide' in Moscow. Surely, all these clues point in the same direction?
But this is real life, and the result is a scary page-turner. Any of three theories could be true. Maybe the Kremlin is indeed systematically killing and intimidating its critics. Or these four casualties could be victims of a deeper plot (or plots) in Russia’s brutal, murky politics. Or it may just be a string of random events, which only the paranoid should try to hook together.
When my colleague and acquaintance Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the stairwell of her Moscow home on October 7 last year, many were quick to blame Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. After all, Anna had been one of the Russian authorities fiercest critics: a rare independent voice that highlighted the brutality and greed of the war in Chechnya. That was rare in Russia’s media, for the most part cowed and sycophantic.
Even rarer: she was one of very few Russian journalists with a world reputation, able to place an article in a big international newspaper. Shooting her would not only silence her, but warn off any other Russians tempted to ‘defame’ their country abroad. The Kremlin’s defenders were quick to point out that the shooting was a PR disaster for Russia— hardly a sensible tactic given Mr Putin’s repeated desire to see his country treated as ‘normal’.
Perhaps Ms Politkovskaya had fallen out with one of her Chechen friends, they suggested. Mr Putin kindly described her influence in Russia as 'marginal'. Russian diplomats even said that she had been killed by enemies of Russia abroad—an unsubtly coded reference to Boris Berezovsky, a billionaire tycoon who helped Mr Putin to power, but now flits in armoured £200,000 Maybach limousines between a hi-tech Mayfair eyrie and a well-guarded Surrey mansion.
Then Mr Berezovsky’s protégé Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from Russia’s feared internal security service, the FSB, was poisoned in London. He, his family and his friends blamed the Kremlin. The fantastically expensive and sophisticated murder weapon—the rare radioactive element Polonium—meant that the assassination must have been sanctioned at the highest level by the Kremlin. The suspects fled to Russia; British detectives’ inquiries have bogged down in the infamous bureaucracy there.
But again, Russia’s defenders were quick to put the contrary view. Mr Litvinenko’s dodgy business dealings had gone sour. Maybe Mr Berezovsky had had him murdered to cast Mr Putin in a bad light.
More subtle theories surfaced too: hardliners in the Kremlin trying to provoke a crisis in relations with the West, in order that Mr Putin would give up his relatively moderate stance, and perhaps agree to suspend the constitution and stay in power when his term of office ends in 2008. By the standards of modern Kremlinology, that counted as a reasonably sane hypothesis. But for the Kremlin critics, the explanation was clear. “The Politkovskaya murder was a warning to Putin’s critics at home. The Litvinenko murder was a warning to defectors everywhere. The next casualty will be a foreigner,” explained one of my oldest friends in Moscow (nervously insisting that she should not be quoted).
Many in the west saw it the same way. Paul Joyal, an old friend of mine with a long background in American intelligence, is one of the most hawkish Putin-watchers in Washington DC. A wily, sometimes conspiratorial figure, he told an American television programme last month: “A message has been communicated to anyone who wants to speak out against the Kremlin: ‘If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you, and we will silence you -- in the most horrible way possible’.”
Four days after giving the interview, he was shot in the stomach and critically injured near his home in Maryland. American law-enforcement officials initially reckoned it was just street crime, saying that Mr Joyal’s wallet and briefcase had been stolen in what might have been a bungled car-jacking. But now it turns out that his wallet was untouched.
Merely sinister coincidence? Or something worse? Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian intelligence and organised crime at Keele University, says it is entirely plausible that Russian agents could arrange through criminal contacts to use local hoodlums to warn someone off in this way, especially for an unsophisticated job where no murder was involved.
Mr Joyal’s friends, colleagues and family are all steering away from any conspiracy theory for the shooting at this stage. But the latest death, in Moscow, is much harder to dismiss as mere happenstance. Ivan Safronov, 51, a retired colonel turned journalist for the Kommersant daily, was an authority on the failings of the Russian military. He had excellent sources, and wrote unsparing critiques of the technological and other failures of Russia’s military. He highlighted, for example, failure of the new Bulava submarine-launched intercontinental missile to work properly.
That infuriated the Kremlin, and the ex-KGB men who now infest every important institution in Russia. In their eyes, criticism is disloyalty; disloyalty is treachery, and the penalty for treachery is death. Mr Safronov was reported dead the day after apparently falling from a fourth floor window of his apartment. Those who knew him find the idea of suicide utterly unlikely.
It is all too easy to stitch these events together. The Soviet Union had no compunction in bumping its enemies off. Sometimes it was brutal, such as the ice-pick that smashed the head of Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s revolutionary rival, in 1936. Sometimes it was high-tech, such as the poisoned umbrella on Waterloo Bridge that ended the life of brave Georgi Markov, an émigré Bulgarian broadcaster, in 1976. Sometimes enemies of the evil empire, or their loved ones, succumbed to mysterious deaths from rare forms of cancer.
Today, it’s not just that the KGB’s old habits of disinformation and mischief-making are still with us, but that the organisation's tentacles reach as far and formidably as ever. And who better to supervise this than the taciturn, foulmouthed KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (retd.)? Whereas during the days of the Cold War the KGB was an arm of the Soviet state, with Putin's ascent to power the KGB effectively took over the state.
The result is ‘Kremlin, Inc’, which combines the greed of business with the ruthlessness of espionage and the bluster of a superpower. Even in supposedly democratic Russia, the government has recently gained the legal right to order the death of ‘terrorists’ anywhere in the world, as Chechen émigré figures have found to their cost.
Russian officialdom habitually uses legal means to hassle opposition figures as ‘extremists’; it is easy to imagine them similarly stretching the definition to turn their critics into enemies of Russia, deserving only death.
Assume, then, that the Kremlin wants to silence its critics, but keep its reputation at home and abroad. What better way than to mix mayhem and muddle in this way? Each of the four attacks sends a powerful signal to those whom it wants to intimidate, but none of them points directly back to the Kremlin. Each can be explained some other way: as a business grudge, a stunt pulled by Russia’s mysterious enemies, a random bit of street crime, a personal tragedy, terrorism.
Whatever the explanation, there is enough ambiguity that most outsiders, their vision perhaps blurred by ignorance and wishful thinking, would be slow to draw the terrifying conclusion: that the worlds largest country is in the hands of people who murder anyone that stands in their way. Maddeningly, the facts do not, yet, paint a clear enough pattern to support it. People acting with Mr Putins blessing are certainly the likely culprits in Ms Politkovskaya’s and Mr Litvinenko’s death, although their exact motives can only be guessed at.
But, sadly, it is easy enough to have journalists killed in Russia for Mr Safronov’s death to have other explanations. And as a former correspondent in Washington, I well remember the level of street crime, and the number of hawkish ex-spooks. The two phenomena were bound to coincide sometime.
One thing is clear: critics of the Kremlin, in Russia and outside, are nervous as never before. If Mr Joyal’s shooting turns out to be more than a mere mugging, the alarm bells ringing in their ears will be deafening—not just in America, but here in London too. But who else will hear them?
Monday, March 12, 2007
The rights and wrongs of wikipedia--a slender piece published over the weekend on economist.com
Fact or fiction?
Mar 10th 2007
Wikipedia's variety of contributors is not only a strength
The idea of an encyclopedia—a compendium of all the best available knowledge—is as tempting as it is flawed. Truth does not always come in bite-sized chunks. And the notion of an infinitely elastic internet encyclopedia, always up to date and distilling the collective wisdom of the wired is even more tempting. When open to all comers, anonymously, the problems are even more glaring.
This week a senior Wikipedia editor, who used the pseudonym Essjay, turned out not to be a professor of religious studies as he claimed, but in fact a 24-year-old college drop-out. That has highlighted both the strengths and the failings of the world’s biggest online encyclopedia, which now boasts well over 1.5m articles. The “Encyclopedia Britannica”, by contrast, has a mere 120,000.
Essjay (or Ryan Jordan in real life), got away with his pretence because Wikipedians jealously preserve their anonymity. With most entries, anyone can edit without even logging in; or they can create an entirely fictitious online identity before doing so. The effect is rather like an online role-playing game. Indeed, it is easy to imagine some sad fellow spending the morning pretending to be a polyglot professor on Wikipedia, and then becoming a buxom red-head on “Second Life”, a virtual online world, in the afternoon.
That anonymity creates a phoney equality, which puts cranks and experts on the same footing. The same egalitarian approach starts off by regarding all sources as equal, regardless of merit. If a peer-reviewed journal says one thing and a non-specialist newspaper report another, the Wikipedia entry is likely solemnly to cite them both, saying that the truth is disputed. If the cranky believe the latter and the experts the former, the result will be wearisome online editing wars before something approaching the academic mainstream consensus gains the weight it should.
Wikipedia has strengths too, chiefly the resilient power of collective common sense. It benefits from the volunteer efforts of many thousands of outside contributors and editors. If one drops out, another fills his place. People are vigilant on issues that interest them. When mistakes happen, they are usually resolved quickly. This correspondent’s modest Wikipedia entry was edited this week by an anonymous contributor who posted a series of entertaining but defamatory remarks; a mere four minutes later, another user had removed them.
Constant scrutiny and editing means even the worst articles are gradually getting better, while the best ones are kept nicely polished and up to date. Someone, eventually, will spot even the tiniest error, or tighten a patch of sloppy prose. Mr Jordan, for all his bragging, seems to have been a scrupulous and effective editor.
The most tiresome contributors do get banned eventually, though they can always log in under a new identity. Other shortcomings are the subject of earnest internal debate too, such as Wikipedia’s inherent bias towards trivial recent events rather than important historical ones. That is already changing, slowly, though subjects of interest to northern white computer-literate males are over-covered, while others are laughably neglected.
Wikipedia is the biggest collaborative online encyclopedia, but not the only one. Citizendium, supposedly launching soon, aims to be like Wikipedia but without anonymity, and with more weight given to recognised experts. Conservapedia aims to offer a version of the truth untainted by Wikipedia’s liberal secular bias on issues such as evolution.
So how useful is Wikipedia? Entries on uncontentious issues—logarithms, for example—are often admirable. The quality of writing is often a good guide to an entry’s usefulness: inelegant or ranting prose usually reflects muddled thoughts and incomplete information. A regular user soon gets a feel for what to trust.
Those on contentious issues are useful in a different way. The information may be only roughly balanced. But the furiously contested entries on, say, “Armenian genocide” or “Scientology”, and their attached discussion pages, do give the reader an useful idea about the contours of the arguments, and the conflicting sources and approaches. In short: it would be unwise to rely on Wikipedia as the final word, but it can be an excellent jumping off point.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
This is a long rant written last month about Putin and Russian foreign policy which was never published and is now slightly out of date. It is not a considered view and is certainly not a reflection of The Economist's stance. I post it here mainly because I would be interested in comments on how it could be improved
Putin goes ballistic
PINCH yourself. You are not dreaming of 1976, when Abba’s Mamma Mia was top of the charts, Prince Charles was a bearded bachelor and Noel Edmonds was presenting a daring new programme called the “Multi-coloured Swap Shop”.
You are not dreaming because the cold war, supposedly is over. The evil empire has collapsed. And the west and Russia are friends. Or are they? For one thing in recent days has been startlingly reminiscent of the nightmarish world of superpower confrontation in the 1970s—the intimidating, duplicitous rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin. This week General Nikolai Solovtsov, the commander of Russia’s strategic missile forces, warned Poland and the Czech Republic that if they dared to accept new American bases, they should reckon with becoming the targets of Russian nuclear missiles.
President Vladimir Putin said in a harshly worded speech in Munich earlier this month that America’s plans could upset the international balance of power. He also accused the United States of having “overstepped its national borders in every way”.
Another echo of the cold war is Russia’s return to the police-state habits rooted in its darkest history. Democracy, always flimsy, has become an outright sham, with hand-picked parties taking part in choreographed contests that recall the bogus multi-party systems of communist-run eastern Europe. The mass media is muzzled. Freedom House, an American think tank, in its newly published survey “Freedom in the World 2007” put Russia in its bottom, “not free” category. That is not just western scaremongering. The guest speaker at the launch was none other than Andrei Illarionov, the brilliant free-market economist who until 2005 was Mr Putin’s adviser.
“The outside world does not know what is going on,” he warned the assembled dignitaries in Washington DC, where he is now based. Too right. Many of those whose freedoms are being curtailed are too scared to speak up. Russians themselves have noone to turn to. Westerners prefer not to cause more trouble. When Britain’s ambassador, Anthony Brenton, was hounded for months by the thugs of “Nashi”, a pro-Putin youth movement, neither Downing St nor the Foreign Office saw fit to complain publicly. That, officials said privately, was because they did not want to jeopardise BP’s already imperilled investments in Russia.
Repression and corruption go hand in hand. As Anders Aslund, the top Swedish Russia-watcher, noted recently, it is astonishing that Russia’s communications minister Leonid Reiman, a close personal friend of Mr Putin’s, has been shown by a Swiss court to be the owner of telecommunications assets in Russia worth more than a billion dollars—yet this has not been reported by any significant media inside Russia, and Mr Reiman remains at his post without having offered any explanation or apology, beyond an implausible blanket denial.
Yet at first sight, Russia’s fight with America is an odd one. The planned Czech radar and Polish rocket base aim to counter not Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but attacks from Iran and North Korea—rogue states whose nuclear ambitions the Kremlin, supposedly, is helping us to check. This is not the “star wars” plan conceived by Ronald Reagan, which aimed to block a Soviet nuclear strike on the West. This is a far more modest scheme, originally launched under Bill Clinton, which aims to deter rogue states from even thinking of using nuclear weapons against the west.
A moment’s thought shows that this scheme cannot be used to block Russia’s arsenal of thousands of nuclear warheads, launchable from anywhere on the planet by air and submarine, as well as from nuclear silos all over that country’s vast landmass. The planned rocket base in Poland will have just 10 interceptor rockets. But to deter a country such as Iran, likely to have even in a decade’s time only a handful of long-range missiles, America’s “son of Star Wars” is a sensible approach.
So why is Russia behaving so neurotically? First, because it loathes the pro-western orientation of the once-captive nations of eastern Europe. Whether it is Estonian soldiers fighting alongside British squaddies in Afghanistan, or Polish special forces training with the SAS, the new enthusiastic alliances in the cause of freedom are a constant and embarrassing contrast to the Kremlin’s current and former foreign policy—one based on black arts and brute force, not shared values and common interests. The Kremlin fails to see that its own bullying tactics and mischief-making have sent these countries queuing up to join NATO, just as its own supposed allies are wriggling frantically out of the Russian bear’s uncomfortable hug.
Just across the Polish border in Belarus, the country that was once Russia’s closest ally, the government is questioning the continued presence of Russia’s main missile-tracking radar at Baranavichy. Yet in Poland, once Russia’s satellite, the government is glad to host an American one. I recently asked Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s official spokesman, if he could name one neighbouring country which was a friendly and grateful Russian ally. He struggled for some seconds, and then mentioned Uzbekistan, a loathsome and backward Central Asian dictatorship. Had I asked the same question at the White House, I would have been answered with a list of more than 20 ex-communist countries that cherish their friendship with America, and want to deepen it further.
Secondly, America’s new bases underline Russia’s own technological backwardness. Russia’s anti-missile protection system is a crude cold-war affair that protects only Moscow—and with interceptors so clumsy that even if they worked, they would leave the Russian capital devastated. America’s programme is hugely ambitious and expensive. Like Reagan’s original star wars, it is a project that the clapped-out Russian economy cannot hope to match.
America, and its allies in “new Europe” have dealt crisply with the bullying Russian rhetoric of past weeks. Robert Gates, a veteran cold warrior who is now America’s Defence Secretary, responded to Mr Putin with a humorous put-down—by far the best way of dealing with Russian bluster. Karl Schwarzenberg, the doughty Hapsburg prince who is now the Czech Foreign Minister, responded with a silky and elegant disdain straight from the salons of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to which his country once belonged. If Russia was trying to show that it was a peace-loving country, he noted, trying to “blackmail” its neighbours was hardly the way to go about it.
The row over the rocket base and radar, though, is just a skirmish in the struggle that will determine the future of a European continent coming to terms with a resurgent Russia. The east-west relationship is antagonistic, touchy and mistrustful; it is not—yet at least—a reprise of the Cold War. But the Russian regime—in the throes of a power struggle as the end of Mr Putin’s constitutional term approaches in 2008—needs foreign enemies, and if it does not have them, it invents them. By bashing the west, Russian officials can show their patriotism, and stoke their compatriots’ sense of paranoia—and turn a handsome penny into the bargain.
Mr Illarionov—a man with intimate knowledge of the Kremlin’s inner workings—says: “Russia is engaged in the export of non-freedom. That is not stated publicly, but that is the reality”.
From a military stand-point, Russia has long seemed more like an impostor than a true superpower. Its army is a shambles, plagued by bullying and corruption; its navy and air force are crippled by cash-starvation that for more than a decade left the ships mostly at anchor, and the warplanes on the ground.
Now Mr Putin is trying to restore the armed forces’ former might. His war-chest is fuelled with billions of dollars of oil and gas revenues from Russia’s booming economy, which has grown from $200 billion in 1999 to $1 trillion (around half the size of Britain’s) last year. Three days before his speech, the government unveiled a £90 billion rearmament plan that should replace 45% of Russia’s weaponry by 2015. It includes new early-warning radars, new intercontinental ballistic missiles, a fleet of supersonic nuclear bombers, and 31 new warships including nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers. Other plans include rearming 45 tank battalions and five air defence brigades with modern missiles.
It sounds scary. But even Russia’s trillions of petro-roubles are not enough to restore a superpower arsenal. Russia’s armed forces are too clapped out, the technology too backward. Those new weapons that Russia has tried to develop in recent years have largely been hopeless failure. The new seaborne Bulava missile regularly fails during tests. Without missiles, the new submarines are useless. Pavel Felgenhauer, Russia’s top independent defence analyst, says: the “rearmament plan only pretends to be a replica of a Cold War build up, while in fact it is a modest attempt to keep even a fraction of Russia’s present Soviet-made strategic defence operational until 2015”.
What Russia really wants is something different: to scrap the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1987 by Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. That scrapped thousands of American and Russian ballistic missiles with ranges from 500 to 5500 kilometres. For years, that has been seen as the crowning arms-control achievement of the 1980s. But now Russia says the INF treaty was a terrible mistake as it prevents development of the Iskander-M missile, which has a potential range of 500km. As Mr Felgenhauer puts it “Moscow wants to deploy new missiles that cannot reach the United States, but are designed for neighbours.” That, he says, will underline the Kremlin’s new foreign policy doctrine, which he characterises as: “Keep out! Stop poking into our neighbourhood—or we may go ballistic.”
It will be years before Russia’s military build-up bears fruit. But right now, with America distracted and the European Union divided, the pickings look rich and easy for the ruthless and power-hungry spooks and crooks who run the Kremlin. One of Mr Putin’s top allies confided to a western visitor earlier this year “We have realised that there is a limit to what we can do with overt politics. From now on, we are going to use brute economic force to get what we want.”
And it is there—not in warheads or tanks—that the terrifying weakness of the west is starkly exposed. For during the cold war, the capitalists and the freedom-fighters were on the same side. Even the most cynical and amoral moneybags could see that communism would be not just bad for business: it would be bad for him. It was that alliance between idealism and self-interest that fuelled the fire of western determination and unity, until the evil empire and the Berlin wall came crashing down in ruins.
But now idealism and self-interest are pulling in different directions. Human-rights campaigners may stand up for Russian dissidents and political prisoners. Politicians with a conscience (often in faraway America, rather than nearby Europe, it must be said) still care when small countries such as Estonia and Georgia face the full blast of Russian hate campaigns and economic sanctions. But the business lobby is pulling in the other direction. The city bankers and pinstriped lawyers who launder Russia’s money and reputation abroad may know what they are doing—but it is bad for business to admit it. Inside Russia, every western businessman has a story to tell about the rampant corruption and terrifying lawlessness. But nobody speaks up.
The truth is that nobody in power in the west wants to confront the Kremlin—even when Russian officialdom shelters those who have committed an act of nuclear terrorism in the heart of London. Privately, politicians such as Tony Blair, George Bush and Germany’s Angela Merkel are deeply gloomy about Russia’s future, and detest Mr Putin. But they are hamstrung by the need to deal with Russia on issues such as the middle east, North Korea, Iran, nuclear security and the like. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, boasted recently: “Not one single significant international problem can be resolved without Russia or against Russia.”
Just as in the cold war, the Kremlin can count on what Lenin called “useful idiots”: those in the west who, whether from naivety, wrong-headedness or darker motives, are willing to defend Russia and criticise those who attack it. The predictable bleats of moral relativism form a deafening chorus. “Has Russia done wrong in its genocidal war Chechnya? Well what about Iraq?” “Is Mr Putin a thug? Well, George Bush is an idiot.” “Corruption in Russia is atrocious? Yes but at least it is stable and prosperous”. “Russia is bullying its former satellites? Just what America did for decades in Latin America”.
Those useful idiots looked pretty silly when the Soviet Union’s crimes and shortcomings were finally exposed. What will it take to embarrass them this time?