By Chet Yarbrough
The Invention of Russia
By: Arkady Ostrovsky
Narrated by: Michael Page
Arkady Ostrovsky (Author, Russian-born, British journalist spent 15 years reporting for the Financial Times from Moscow.
Arkady Ostrovsky’s book offers a personal perspective on post-1917 Russian political history. Of particular interest today is in how Vladimir Putin came to power and how he may become an author of his own destruction.
Some listeners may conclude Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will doom his future as Russia’s leader. Others will conclude Putin will survive this political mistake because of Russia’s political history.
Putin’s ascension after Gorbachev/Yeltsin seems foretold by Russian history. As noted in Mark Steinberg’s lectures on Russian governance–since the 16th century, popular leaders (whether Czars or revolutionaries) prudently balanced authority and freedom.
Though Gorbachev and Yeltsin were quite different as Russian leaders, they led Russia with an emphasis on freedom. Both offered freedom without adequate economic support for Russian Citizens. In contrast, Ostrovsky argues Putin emphasizes authority with a measure of economic support that improves Russian lives.
Yeltsin fails because his reforms were largely political with little improvement in economic security for most citizens. Yeltsin’s support base came from oligarch’s economic gain rather than from policies designed to improve Russian citizens’ lives. The early years of Putin’s reign emphasize authority with the help of media to influence public perception.
Putin uses secret service personnel and media to detain and restrain public opposition to the government.
Ostrovsky notes the Chechen uprising is brutally suppressed by Putin. Chechens opt for a level of peaceful coexistence as a part of greater Russia.
Russian government control of media coverage emphasizes Chechen brutality while lauding Russian soldiers’ success in abating Chechen independence. Ostrovsky suggests the reality of Chechen brutality is real but Russian soldier’s success in abating brutality is exaggerated by government-controlled media. Ostrovsky reports many Russian’ innocents are murdered in the process of rescuing children and teachers from a school attacked by Chechen rebels.
Ostrovsky explains the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, personally endorses Putin as his successor. Yeltsin is nearing the end of his life after a fifth heart attack. He views Putin as the best hope of Russia to return to national prominence because of Putin’s relative youth and experience as a former KGB officer. Putin has political experience as an aid to the former Mayor of Moscow.
However, Ostrovsky notes Yeltsin discounts the paranoia of Putin and how his experience as a KGB officer makes him suspicious of any activity over which he has no control. Ostrovsky suggests KGB training gives Putin the ability to hide behind a persona adopted to sooth the concerns of whomever he meets. That ability disguises Putin’s personal thoughts when dealing with controversial issues.
(The KGB is dismantled in 1991 but its apparatchiks remain in Putin’s government.)
The media during the Gorbachev/Yeltsin years grows as an independent oligarchic organization. The two edges of power in media are telling convincing truths as easily as lies. Yeltsin owes his electoral success to media according to Ostrovsky. Yeltsin, before his last election as President, has a single digit approval rating from the Russian public. With the help of a media oligarch and Yeltsin’s populist skill, he wins the election. On election day, Ostrovsky notes Yeltsin is nearly dead from a fifth heart attack.
Ostrovsky explains the growth of oligarchs begins with Gorbachev and gains momentum with Yeltsin. The communist party leaders are losing their hold on governance, but they are well positioned to understand how things get done and can be controlled with acquired individual wealth. Some of these former communist party leaders use their position to start personal companies with the financing of government money over which they have control. They become behind-the-scenes movers and shakers for the Russian economy. Their personal wealth grows, and the general economy begins to improve.
In the short term, these new barons of wealth improve the lives of many Russian citizens. However, this unrestrained capitalist revolution begins to rot at its core. Political power follows money. Money supports political leaders that kowtow to oligarchic demand. An oligarch’s demand may or may not benefit the general public.
When political leaders act in ways that support oligarchic demand, they improve their prospect for re-election. In some cases, dynamic political leaders gain some independence based on their popular appeal. Putin seems to have achieved some level of that power. With the help of popular appeal, public support can become a source of power to challenge oligarchic demand. It seems Putin may have achieved both power bases, but invasion of Ukraine may change that support.
Robert Kagan finely reveals the fundamental mistake made by Putin in a May-June 2022 “Foreign Affairs” article. History reveals the mistakes of great nations like France, Great Britain, Germany and Japan in thinking they could become world hegemons by force.
Robert Kagan (A neoconservative Republican scholar and member of the Council on Foreign Relations of the Brookings Institute.)
Kagan notes America became a world force by virtue of economic growth which led to a choice by other nations to recognize American hegemony. Rather than capitalizing on the natural resources of Russia, Putin chooses to waste his country’s wealth on a war Russia will lose. It is a lesson one hopes China realizes in its pursuit of its sphere of influence. Sphere of influence is determined by economic growth, not military power.
Ostrovsky argues media is reality in Russia. World media is not the same as the Russian media that is tightly controlled by government leadership. Further Ukraine invasion is not a Chechnian rebellion. Chechnya is a small area within Russia–with an estimated 1.2 million people. Ukraine is an independent country of 44.3 million.
Russian media might be controlled within Russia, but the world’s news will seep into Russian citizen’s knowledge, either by the internet or other means.
Russia may be an invention as Ostrovsky suggests but all nation-states in the course of history are inventions. History changes with information. Dissemination of information is increasingly uncontrollable.
In time of war, Nagasaki and Hiroshima show what uncontrolled fission can do in the event of a nuclear bomb. Fukushima shows what uncontrolled fission can do in time of peace.
Invading Ukraine may lead to loss of Putin’s power and influence in Russia. The tragic consequence of Putin’s decision is the unnecessary death of many Ukrainians and Russians. The decision to invade Ukraine may lead to Putin’s dismissal, imprisonment, or execution. It has certainly changed his reputation in the world.