Reading for Putin

While he won’t have time at the moment, Russia’s Vladimir Putin might profit from flicking through ‘The Day Will Pass Away: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard 1935-1936’ by Ivan Chistyakov and published by Pegasus Books.

He might pause on the passage on page 38:

“27 December 1935. Commissioner Morozov [Frost in Russian] from the Third Section: what can he actually do, what guidance is he supposed to offer, when he doesn’t have a clue about the situation or the measures we have already taken, when he doesn’t know that we have already tried everything, we’re not our own enemies, and we’re not trying to get ourselves awarded fatigue details or arrested.  All they do is swear at us, punish us: the commissioner, the political adviser, the company commander, the head of the Third Section. That’s all any of them can do. Who is there to advise, support and explain? Nobody. Just get on with your job!”

The ring is familiar to anyone who has been in a bureaucratic hierarchy under impossible pressures.

Which brings out the importance of the degree of choice in any system.

Not that there was very much of that in Chistyakov’s case.  In the summer, he was a Muscovite technician, unconscripted, catching the tram to work and going to concerts.

By Christmas time, he was working in 50 degrees of frost, sleeping in all his clothes and dreaming that the bathhouse might get fixed.  As a prison guard officer, he was well up the hierarchy.

His diary entries suggest that his incentive to do his job (or be seen to do it) was the implicit threat that he might drop down to join the zeks.  Their incentive – also effective – was a sliding scale of daily bread ration, from 2 kg to 100 grams.

You might suspect that keeping a diary was a sign that he wasn’t cut out for the job.  In any event he was ‘repressed’ a year later and presumably joined the prison population.  In 1941, he died at the front near the town of Tula, not far from his beloved Moscow.

Now Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s version of the system has come a long way in the last eighty years and we can comfortably assure ourselves that its brutality is substantially mitigated.  It is unquestionably less bad.

But strip away the material improvements and the essentials look pretty similar.

That is important for understanding what is happening in Ukraine right now.

Putin acquired power by offering Russians more attractive choices than others.  But they look less attractive now – particularly for the soldiers called upon to fight and perhaps die on Chistyakov’s battlefields of eighty years ago.

The choices for military age Ukrainian men might not seem terribly good to us, but they have better and more honourable choices than Russians.  And so far that seems to march with a greater willingness to fight.

The latest reports from well-informed observers like the Institute for the Study of War suggest that the Russian military is regrouping and using its weight of materiel to grind out a solution in the east.  Enough to avoid toppling the structure of choices which Putin has been erecting since his presidential inauguration on 7 May 2000.

An embarrassment of choices too for us in the west.  Many of them hard. Whether to give Ukrainian fighting men the equipment they need to win – or just to survive? Whether to continue to pay record prices for Russian carbon? Whether it is realistic to tell voters that the costs are all going to be carried by multinational companies? Whether it is in our interests to aim for a stalemate that minimises our own short-term financial damage?

Or even whether to try to help change the choices available to today’s Ivan Chistyakovs.

We are all Ukrainians now – for now anyway

It’s not as easy to sympathise with Donald Trump, as it is (or perhaps used to be) with Jacinda Ardern.  But sometimes it’s worth pushing yourself.

Take for example the coverage of his exclusive appearance on the – wait for it – Clay and Buck show.  

It was reported in the Daily Beast as:

“This time, the twice-impeached ex-president lauded the authoritarian leader’s “genius” invasion of Ukraine as “very savvy.””

You probably need to listen to Clay and Buck to pick up the sarcasm.

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The day it all changed

 As Russian forces raise their horizons and start killing more Ukrainians in what seems to be a full-on invasion, Britain’s PM, Boris Johnson, got the stakes right when he said “this mission must end in failure”.

That covers a multiplicity of outcomes of varying bloodiness – but the logic is that conflict continues until the goal is reached.  It may take quite a while then.

The phrase game changing is overused, but – in the sense of recognition of a profound change in direction – it might well be applicable in this case.

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Why these men die

Whether and/or when Vladimir Putin will attack Ukraine is the story of the moment. But perhaps it’s better to regard the war as already started: say in Georgia in 2008, or Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.

And despite knowing the most likely ending – namely the termination of the Putin regime – the extent of death and damage and the social and political ramifications are deeply uncertain.

But there is reason to hope that Russia’s dictator (in the Roman sense) has made two significant misjudgments.

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Late Frost in Brexit Britain

Another sharp take on the resignation of Lord Frost – Boris Johnson’s chief European sherpa – from the folk at Eurointelligence.

Wonk-in-chief Wolfgang Munchau argues Lord Frost was one of the few (perhaps the only one?) of Boris’s close advisers that really understood the needs of a post-Brexit strategy:

“What Brexit requires, first and foremost, is a post-Brexit economic model.”

What model?

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Isn’t it good, Norwegian soot

Just keep reminding yourself that things need to get worse before they get better.

Norway – a grand profiteer from blood carbon, according to the puritanical wing of the climate church – has come up with a very old and very bad answer to Europe’s energy price crisis.

According to the Times, the government is going to help pay Norwegians’ electricity bills:

“Each household is expected to save hundreds of pounds through state subsidies to cover half of power costs above a price floor over the coming months.”

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There is an alternative to Trump. It looks like this

Wolfgang Munchau is a favourite European political commentator.  You have to love a guy who ran the argument that Germany and Britain should team up to run the European Union.

Naturally you’d like to know his views on the new German governing coalition, which has just published its 178-page policy agreement.

The most interesting thing about the coalition is that it brings together the enviro-statist Green party with the right-liberal Free Democrats, who, as Munchau says can’t stand the sight of each other”.

Continue reading “There is an alternative to Trump. It looks like this”

And trouble in the East as well …

Tyrants prefer to move when their enemies are weak, divided or both.  So no surprise to see Russia’s Vladimir Putin fresh from his triumph in coercing Moldova, to stirring up trouble in the Balkans, supporting Belarus’s migrant-based diplomacy, blackmailing the EU over energy supplies this winter, and ratcheting up the threat of military action against Ukraine.

Well, that’s the view from the London-based Daily Telegraph, which points out that Putin has been sending clear and consistent messages, (punctuated by use of force in Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine):

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History with many zeros

In some places they measure the past in millennia.  In Athens, history emerges every time you dig a hole.

This year Greece marks the 2,500th anniversary of the battle of Plataea.  Less celebrated than the engagements a year earlier at Thermopylae and Salamis but more decisive in its outcome, it marks the end of the Persian attempt at dominance and the beginning of fifty immortal years for Athens, before the death of Pericles and the hubris of the Peloponnesian war.  

The funerary dedication to the Persian wars endures in marble fragments in the agora:

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Poland and Germany agreeing is always a good thing, isn’t it?

The second leg of the post-Brexit stakes is taking place on the tank-friendly North German plain.

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal has overruled some aspects of EU law that it deems incompatible with the country’s constitution.  This has brought down the execration of the EU establishment on the grounds that EU law has primacy over all national law.

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