31 January 2008

Edward Lucas' The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West

I think of Edward Lucas and Vladimir Socor as the best major journalists writing about Eastern Europe in English (my apologies to those who would wish the term away; though Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have dragged themselves out of the swamp in most respects, and though I think Larry Wolff's book -- Edward Said sent to l'Europe orientale -- is a must read for anyone interested in this part of the world... I still find the fading division of the old Cold War meaningful much of the time).

Another book with Lucas' title, by a different journalist, came out last year -- Mark MacKinnon's The New Cold War. It has a different subtitle: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union. Unless my attention drifted, I don't think Lucas mentions MacKinnon's book in his. I haven't read MacKinnon's, but it seems to me that Bloomsbury and Lucas could have noticed this (the earlier book was released last April) and found a different title. From the reviews, one can gather that they cover some of the same ground, albeit with a somewhat different focus.

Mart Laar, the former Prime Minister of Estonia (and a historian), hopes that Lucas' book "will be a wakeup call for Western civilisation." Richard Pipes, David Satter, Anne Applebaum, and Vladimir Bukovsky offer blurbs on the dust-jacket of the UK edition -- stellar endorsements from a constellation that would tell even the most bewildered navigator which political waters Lucas sails in.

This is, unfortunately, a choppy book. Don't get me wrong -- I do recommend the book, and I do hope Western civili[s/z]ation wakes up.

Many Latvians, like our brethren to the south and cousins to the north, are well nigh obsessive Russia watchers. Many a brother and sister in the mammoth country to the east would replace "Russia watchers" with a heavily loaded and often perversely bent, catchall term -- "Russophobes." The first definition of "phobia" in American Heritage is of a "persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous."

Baltic "Russophobia" might be persistent, but it is neither abnormal nor irrational -- it is, in short, not a phobia but a rational wariness that is sometimes suffused with fear and can often include irrational elements, as simply as a little girl left alone with known serial rapists might sometimes get the willies. Being neighbors, we can't avoid Russia, and Lucas makes it quite clear in this book that our willies are misunderstood. We live next to a country that tortured us and does not recognize that fact.

Someone I debate with stridently on a regular basis, in his zeal to paint the Russification of occupied Latvia and its residue in bright colors, observed that we are well poised to know Russia; as it is, Russian is still spoken as a first or second language by more people in Latvia than Latvian is, though there are freshly encouraging signs of language shift.

Latvians know Russians because about a third of Latvia's inhabitants are more or less Russian, most Latvians speak Russian, Russian media space is actually contiguous, and the sense and sensibilities of even "truly" Russophobic Letts often resound with Russo-Soviet echoes.

The gentleman I invoke above might praise the possible value of this intimacy (which is, in essence, healthy -- though politics as some alien imaginal animal might insert many a verst between us, Letts and Russkies actually get along so well that inter-ethnic marriage may eventually do what screwed-up, belated, and essentially superficial integration programs cannot), but whenever Latvians sound the warning... it falls upon deaf ears.

At 342 pages (including the copious footnotes and index), Lucas' book seems to be an extension onto paper of what many have read of him and the like-minded online; not a few of the footnotes actually refer to websites, and those of us into Russia-watching are familiar with a lot of the material. As a result, the book came off as more polemical than informative, to me. Anybody not worried about Russia should order this immediately.

I call it choppy because I just don't understand, in places, why and where the weight is placed. I assume that Estonia receives extraordinary emphasis because Lucas knows more about Estonia, as he does. But in the context of the Baltic states -- a skin many an Estonian would wish to shed -- Estonia is actually an aberration, whether as a suburb of Finland or a radiant example of the possible beauties of neoliberalism. Lucas' determination to place it at the front of a front line in a new Cold War does not make sense to me -- Estonia is essentially healthy and therefore ready for this "war," whilst Lithuania and Latvia (especially Latvia!) are not.

The last chapter is the thinnest and, to my mind, weakest: "How to Win the New Cold War: Why the West Must Believe in Itself." Sadly, that nearly religious chapter title reflects the substance of what seems to be part of the marketing strategy for this book, and I'm not sure that the marketing didn't infect the form.

I don't in the least agree with the Exile, (okay okay, eXile or whatever) which ran a typically twisted review of Lucas' work sight unseen... but even I don't find the final concentrated platitudes convincing.

The West should be something we can believe in before we believe in it, and one of the worst things about this book is that Lucas just doesn't seem to see the failures of the ideologies that have been presented as salvation. Correction -- he sees them, and he mentions them, and though Russophiles (grin) can try to accost him tu quoque (which tactics he analyzes most beautifully)... Lucas certainly does not merit the "Russophobe" epithet.

Neither Chechens nor the reign of Borya receive Lucas' blessings, Berezovsky is slammed, and the book is eminently sane. Lucas doesn't even like the idea of moving the Bronze Soldier. Scurrilous attacks published in the Exile and reprinted in the partly non-existent Tiraspol Times make no sense.

I've been more critical than I meant to be, I suppose -- I stayed up into the night to read The New Cold War and marveled at the timing; though this book gets as close as it can to the present, events are unfolding at such a pace that Lucas needs no plug. The latest gas deal with Serbia, the spy scandal in Latvia, the newest episode anent the British Council in Russia, Energy Commissioner Piebalgs' latest remarks on Nord Stream, the obsequies for Nabucco, etc. -- the roots of all of these burning issues are discussed, predicted, and underscored in this book. People who aren't obsessive Russia-watchers will find Lucas' framework useful.

What I found disappointing was the lack of depth, and maybe that's a common affliction in a book by a working journalist (I've read a few lately, including the massive Fisk tome... I'm now reading Politkovskaya's Putin's Russia in Latvian). The New Cold War is very much worth reading, but the distribution of weight struck me as flawed -- if one is going to bring history and even national character in, one should be more careful. It just doesn't do to splice together glosses, and leaps about the nature of the Russophones in Estonia and Latvia, for example, are just too much lightning and elide.

I also couldn't help thinking that Lucas just won't accept how traumatic the 1990s were - even in parts of sainted Estonia. It's not that he evades the subject -- it's just that the demoralization of the countries he rightly calls "ill-governed, tetchy, and intolerant" is based in reality more than it is in belief. One of the very few errors in the book, for example, is in his attempt to explain the exodus to the West; it may be that wages are two or three times higher in the destination countries, as he writes, but many of the economic migrants work at minimum wage. In Ireland, that was ten times higher than in Latvia not so long ago. Costs in Latvia not rarely exceed Western European prices these days. Entire civil parishes can seem emptied out -- because they are. If independence in 1918/20 meant a national destiny, questionable as that may have been, it also meant a measure of control that included a radical land reform (upon which Lucas has elsewhere looked askance), which brought social stability -- then the "restoration" of the Republic has meant a dizzying transition from one system to another, and such credit that serfdom is being reestablished... health care is returning to the 19th C, too. Like Lucas, I would underscore individual and personal freedoms. Political freedom, however, is a lot iffier.

The Economist praises the flow of Polish bus drivers to London, etc. -- in theory, that may have sounded good to someone a while back. Some still make ridiculous claims. As a speechwriter and translator for the former President, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, I got to tell Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth about how Letts go get valuable experience in Britain and the British come en masse to savor our culture. The real truth is that most Letts go work numbing, low-wage jobs in which they learn no skills at all, some of them under gangmasters, whilst most British tourists come here for the cheap whores and the booze.

In reality, the human and social effects are not so easily quantifiable -- an empty village with "mushroom orphans" and no visible future is a dead village. A "free" market devastated by foreign eggs is a market with no local eggs, and after dumping it can get pretty eggless. Even if one can point to an Estonia to show that Milton Friedman is divine -- in most of Eastern Europe, the system is a sick sham, and there is very good reason to be tetchy. Lucas does not entirely evade these issues -- but neither does he get into them. He skirts them.

If the West fails to believe in itself -- it's at least partly 'cause the neoliberal god has failed. Dangling the Demon Russia -- and I do find it demonic, and intensely threatening -- is like waving the terrors of Islamism at the narod, in the end. This book also echoes that; I couldn't help thinking of Martin Amis' arrogance. And though it makes utter sense to separate civil liberties and politics when looking at each, and to inspect how they combine -- I suspect that the capability of winning a new Cold War will depend a lot more on what we are and do, without mirroring devils, than Lucas would like to admit. The way the Russian propaganda machine works is one thing -- but accusations of Western hypocrisy hit so many homes 'cause there's a lot of blatant Western hypocrisy, not just because Kremlin apologists have perfect training in
tu quoque.

I interviewed Edward Lucas last May -- here. I would like to thank Bloomsbury for the review copy of the book.

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Blogger Blair Sheridan said...

Nice job, PC.

01 February, 2008 10:11  
Blogger Eppppp said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

01 February, 2008 17:30  
Blogger Giustino said...

I think Lucas' reliance on Estonia is that he -- like all writers -- writes what he knows.

He was here in 1992-1994 and I am sure it left an impression on him. It's like me and Denmark.

I can compare Estonia and Denmark well because I have lived in both places.

I could, say, compare the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy with the Bronze Soldier. They are quite similar, but most wouldn't think to compare them.

01 February, 2008 17:33  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks for your comments. Giustino, I'm trying to provoke you in "The Woker and the Rose" comments...

13 February, 2008 06:22  
Blogger akarlin said...

From the kind of summaries he's been writing and reviews the book has been getting, full of omissions, red herrings, half-truths and outright lies, I thought buying the book / donating money to a person I do regard as a Russophobe hack, is quite counter-productive. The fact even you write "As a result, the book came off as more polemical *(read: propagandistic)* than informative, to me" seals it. I have no desire to pay for this overpriced junk and have it shipped here (ironically, the fact that I can probably refutes something like a third of his "thesis" at once).

Just my two kopeiki.

Btw, @giustino,

"I could, say, compare the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy with the Bronze Soldier. They are quite similar, but most wouldn't think to compare them."

Really? While I can imagine the similarities you would point to, these are superficial because the Russians were protesting for recognition of the dignity of their war dead while the Muslims were protesting against freedom of speech.

14 February, 2008 17:11  
Blogger Giustino said...

Looks like some Muslim Danish youth defend their dignity the same way some Russian Estonian youth do: by burning cars.

15 February, 2008 19:26  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

I didn't find the book to be "junk" at all, and polemics are not propaganda. "Polemical" is "of or relating to a controversy, argument, or refutation"; as I explained in the review, my description springs from my already being familiar with many of the facts Mr. Lucas cites.

Your two kopeiki aren't worth very much -- you haven't read the book.

16 February, 2008 08:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some books are already obsolete upon release:

01 March, 2008 07:54  

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