by the Honorable Rodric Braithwaite
April 1, 2007
Andrei Piontkovsky is not only a penetrating analyst of the Russian scene. He is also a pleasure to read. He writes with a compressed elegance, a penetrating irony that combines wit with a rapier-like brutality. He makes you laugh even as you wonder at the audacity with which he goes after the actors on the Russian political and economic scene. The criticisms of the Russian scene in this book of occasional writings are sometimes exaggerated, even intemperate. But they are always stimulating, always illuminating, and often prescient.
Piontkovsky is a mathematician, a strategic and political analyst, and a member of Yabloko, the nearest thing to a genuine political party the liberal reformers in Russia have been able to put together. He starts this collection of essays as he means to go on. His opening barrage is directed against the President. The first two essays – published immediately after Putin was anointed by Yeltsin at the end of 1999 – are entitled “Stasi – our President” and “Putinism as the highest and culminating stage of bandit capitalism in Russia”. They treat of the return of authoritarianism and the secret police, and of the cynical capture and plundering of the economic process by opportunists among the politicians and bureaucrats as well as the new businessmen and oligarchs. Russia is not corrupt, says Piontkovski. Corruption is what happens in all countries when businessmen offer officials large bribes for favours. Today’s Russia is unique. The businessmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats are the same people. They have privatised the country’s wealth and taken control of its financial flows: L’état, c’est eux.
Piontkovsky then turns his fire on the war in Chechnya. Here the tone of his voice turns from biting sarcasm to passionate moral denunciation. He has a special scorn for the intellectuals who have found one excuse after another to justify a cruel and unjust war. He has one hero, the ordinary Russian worker in Grozny who chose to stick with his Chechen fellow workers when they were selected for interrogation – and was never seen again: the one just man whose sacrifice could perhaps save the city, the just man God never found in Sodom or Gomorrah.
The later essays deal primarily with Russia’s place in the world. In 2005 Russia faced crises that ranged from fiasco to tragedy, from bungled attempts to manage the “coloured revolution” in Ukraine, to the demonstrations against changes in welfare benefits, to the terrible events in Beslan. Behind these crises, Russia’s leaders claimed, lay the hand of an ever conspiratorial and ever hostile West. Then the West suffered its own fiascos and tragedies – the bloody failure of coalition policy in Iraq, Paris rent by riots, London bombed by terrorists, the American South swept by Hurricane Katrina. Behind proper expressions of concern, the “Energy Superpower” and its prophets among Russia’s nationalistic journalists and intellectuals, exulted. They proclaimed that Russia must be neutral in the growing “clash of civilisations”, but in practice they gave support to the loonies in the Islamic world. The age old Russian curse is still at large: the manic depression, the passionate, incoherent ambiguity in Russian attitudes to the power and values of Europe and the West; the attitudes captured by Blok in his poem “The Scythians”, a poem which Piontkovsky cites repeatedly.
One day, Piontkovsky believes, the chickens will come home to roost. During Putin’s first term, most people – including many Russian liberals but not, even then, Piontkovsky – picked hopefully on Putin’s repeated public statements in favour of democracy, liberal economic reform, the rule of law, and cooperation with the West. In “Phallus or chaos”, Piontkovsky describes what will happen after the presidential election in the spring of 2008. Putin will leave behind a “scorched wilderness”. There will be a renewed division of the spoils among his successor’s cronies; or the engorged “vertical of power” – the authoritarianism which he fostered – will collapse into chaos and nationalism. Elsewhere Piontkovsky sets out a prophetic, or a fantastic, vision of a world once again bipolar, but dominated now by America and China. A comfortable Europe will have been transformed by its increasingly numerous and confident Moslem citizens. And Russia, shorn of its Islamic southern provinces, much of Siberia firmly under the influence of China, will have shrunk back to the marginal status of Muscovy before Peter the Great.
The title of the book “Another Look at Putin’s Soul” is, of course, deliberately provocative, a mischievous reminder of the moment in 2001 when George Bush looked into Putin’s eyes in Ljubljana and was seduced. Now, rightly or wrongly, the West has changed its mind about Putin’s Russia. But Piontkovsky got there first.
From the Great Britain-Russia Association magazine.
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