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.

Continue reading “We are all Ukrainians now – for now anyway”

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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The limits of compassion are clearer at a distance

As the PM’s staff start drafting her Harvard commencement address, they might want to allow for a more critical reception from the overseas media than say 18 months earlier.   The questions are getting more pointed.

Douglas Murray, writing in London’s Daily Telegraph for example, comparing the paths taken by Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau, asks:

Who knew that empathy wasn’t enough?”

And follows with:

Continue reading “The limits of compassion are clearer at a distance”

China’s rise – delayed again

The unstoppable march of China continues, according to Insider.com (and in turn according to Chinese scientists).  China’s latest satellite can take pictures at a resolution which eludes US satellites. 

Subtext: start learning Mandarin – now!

But you might be better employed seeking out stuff like the latest from George Magnus, a quirky former financier, writing in the Guardian – no less.

Continue reading “China’s rise – delayed again”

Covid divide in 2022: you ain’t seen nothing yet

As the Omicron wave washes through, it’s hard, even with the seasonal perspective, to reckon what things might be like in say a year’s time.

But perhaps necessary.

Because the day-to-day measures seem less and less meaningful – except where they provide a pointer to the direction of long-term policy.

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Transitory inflation retires but does not recede

His reappointment as conductor of the world’s monetary orchestra safely in the bag, US Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell let us know that the current bout of “transitory” inflation was a little more than that.

“It is probably a good time to retire that word”, he told the world.

As euphemisms go, it may not acquire the notoriety of the Nixon White House’s description of a previous statement as “inoperative”.

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South Korea as the global exemplar? Think about it

Self criticism is a Good Thing.  It’s usually kinder than the external version, and you get a chance to revise your argument.

So what to make of the mea culpa in the Financial Times from Jim O’Neill – the man self-credited with coining the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) acronym back in 2001.  Does he succeed in his mea recta?

Back then he argued that:

“since these countries were likely to continue their striking gross domestic product growth over the next decade, we urgently needed them to play a bigger role in global governance.”

Continue reading “South Korea as the global exemplar? Think about it”