According to Khomyakov, Putin’s successor should be OK


September 19, 2014 by AK

More from S.M. Soloviev’s Notes, this time from the text not included in the truncated online version. The “war” refers to an advanced stage of the Crimean War, probably 1854-55.

At that very time when it began to thunder above Nebuchadnezzar’s [Nicholas I's] head, when Russia began to suffer an unfamiliar disgrace of military failures, when its enemies appeared by Sevastopol, we found ourselves in a difficult predicament. On the one hand, our patriotic feeling was terribly offended by Russia’s humiliation, but on the other, we were convinced that nothing but affliction, namely an ill-fated war, could accomplish a salvific upheaval — could stop the rot; we were convinced that the war’s success would make our bonds more restrictive and decisively establish a barrack-like system; we tormented ourselves with news of defeats, knowing that news of the opposite kind would have made us tremble. One could see indifference among the people at large…

Nicholas I died in February 1855:

After February 15, rumors began that the emperor had been ill. Feb. 19 was a Sunday; I went to Mass to my parish church (St. Nicholas on the Sands in Arbat [in Moscow]) where Khomyakov was also a parishioner. He walked up to me and said: “They must be taking the oath in the Senate now: he’s dead”… Of course I was not saddened by the death of Nicholas but I felt ill at ease. There was anxiety and apprehension: what if it gets even worse?! A man has been taken out of prison – it’s good to breathe fresh air but where are they taking him? Could it be another prison, an even worse one? He would be lucky to be set free. Back home, I found an order to report to the University church in a uniform [professors, as civil servants, had their own] to take the oath of allegiance [to the new emperor]. Arriving at the church, I met Granovsky on the porch; my first word to him was, “Dead!” He replied: “It’s no wonder he is dead; it’s a wonder how we’re alive.” Our anxious, abnormal predicament made us susceptible to superstition. It was Sunday and, as was my custom, I went to dine at my old father’s house and then news came that during the ringing of bells at the Ivan the Great tower part of it collapsed and killed some people. [Wikipedia says it was a bell that came off and crashed through five stories.] The accident, sad by itself, on that day made a particularly adverse impression. People were hoping for the best, and at once there was such a dark premonition! But that impression, needless to say, did not last long; [we] started living by hope.

Once [apparently, shortly afterwards] I stopped by Khomyakov’s house. He was hopeful in his own way. “It’s going to get better,” he said, “note how tsars alternate from Peter on: a good reign is followed by a bad one; a bad reign is unfailingly followed by a good one: after Peter I, Catherine I, a bad reign… [I have omitted six emperors here] Alexander I, a good one; after Alexander I, Nicholas, a wretched one; now, therefore, it must be good. At that,” continued Khomyakov, “our current sire is a passionate hunter, and hunters are always good people – recall Alexey Mikhailovich.” In conversations with Khomyakov, my habit was to smile and be silent. Khomyakov likewise smiled, and prattled on. “But Chaadayev never agrees with me – he says of Alexander II: ‘What good can come of a man with eyes like these!'” and Khomyakov burst into his ringing laughter. This is how the heads of Moscow’s two opposing camps spoke of Russia’s new head.

I’m not sure Chaadayev and Khomiakov were exactly the chief of the Westernizers and the Slavophiles respectively (nor am I sure that Khomyakov quoted Chaadayev faithfully), but they were senior, or possibly the most senior members of the two Moscow circles.

The price of classics


September 17, 2014 by AK

Count Sergey S. Uvarov, the inventor of the official triad, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”, was a renowned classicist and the founder of the classics-based gymnasium system in Russia. For more than twenty years Uvarov corresponded with Goethe, who predictably influenced the younger man’s thinking. But here’s what the prominent historian Sergey M. Soloviev says in his Notes for My Children (and If Possible, For Others) [incomplete text]:

Uvarov was a brilliantly gifted man, no doubt; and those gifts, together with his education and liberal mode of thinking… made him capable for the position of a minister of education, a president of the academy of sciences, etc. etc., but there was a great discrepancy between the talents of his heart and of his mind. Playing the part of a patrician landowner, Uvarov had nothing truly aristocratic in himself: on the contrary, he was a servant who had adopted decent manners in the house of a decent master (Alexander I) but remained a servant at heart. He spared no means, no flattery to please the new master (emperor Nicholas), inculcating in him the thought that he, Nicholas, was the originator of a new kind of education based on new elements; Uvarov actually invented these elements, i.e., the words Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality — Orthodoxy, although an atheist, not believing in Christ even in a Protestant way; autocracy, being a liberal; nationality, not having read a single Russian book in his life, always writing in French or German.

Uvarov did not invent classical gymnasia – was it Wilhelm von Humboldt? – and of course they were not based on the OAN triad at all. Perhaps it was a marketing trick that helped Uvarov sell the educational novelty to Nicholas I. That system, later complemented by comprehensive and commercial schools, worked out rather well in pre-1917 Russia. Classics in Russia 1700-1855: Between Two Bronze Horsemen by the Dutch scholar M.A. Wes appears to be an excellent source on Uvarov and his work.

What, no comment on Marianne’s breasts?


September 16, 2014 by AK

A somewhat sanitized version of an old Soviet joke: A group of students at the Soviet Academy of Foreign Relations – all male, all future diplomats – are told to draw up a note of protest to a leader of a third-world nation. The professor goes through the draft they have produced and nods approvingly:

“Good job, boys! Just one little thing – we old-school diplomats prefer to hyphenate ‘mother-f*cker’.”

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA, or MID in Russian) has put up a statement on its website condemning the acquittal by a Paris court of Femen activists accused of degrading a place of worship. Miriam Elder called it “sternly and colorfully worded”: not sure about stern, but colorful it definitely was, which could have been the reason it was not published on the MFA site in any other language but Russian.

And what else could you expect from French justice since the scandalously notorious chieftain of the provocatresses, Inna Shevchenko, was chosen in 2013 as Marianne, the symbol of republican France.

It would take a translator of Zoschenko to convey the taste and tinge of this passage. The word provokatorsha, which I rendered as “provocatress”, is not quite diplomatic. The passage reads like the Russians wanted to add an unflattering comment on that Marianne’s breasts but their fingers froze in a sudden spell of sobriety. Read Elder’s piece to get the whole picture. Also, Interfax’s report on the statement is here, in English.

When science has no chance


September 14, 2014 by AK

An enlightening piece on the 2012 conviction of Italian seismologists by David Wolman.

The prosecutor offered, and the judge accepted, the theory that Italy’s leading seismologists had conspired with the mayor’s office in l’Aquila to send a falsely reassuring message to the town’s residents, who had been warned of an impending disaster by a lay forecaster called Gianpaolo Giuliani, a charlatan by the scientists’ standards.

The scientists said the likelihood of an earthquake was “low”. That meant two things: first, even in a high-risk area like l’Aquila, a major quake was unlikely to occur on any given day; second, the likelihood of it happening within a short-term period was no higher on the day before it did than on any other day.

Unfortunately, some residents latched on to that “low” probability and believed the earthquake was “unlikely”. That’s why they did not leave their homes when the first shocks hit, even though normally they would do just that.

The scientists’ statement, in essence, was: “You should not worry today about tomorrow any more than you worried yesterday or the day before yesterday. This is not to say you should not worry at all – do not forget that you live in a high-risk area. There’s always a risk, although relatively small, but it’s the same every day. When Giuliani tells you that you should worry more today than you did yesterday because of some gases or energy escaping, that’s rubbish.” But it was never communicated properly. The people of l’Aquila were confused and disaster ensued.

At the trial, the prosecutor claimed the scientists had lied: they knew the probability was high, not low. He cited a map produced by the government research center where two of the defendants had worked showing probabilities of a major earthquake occurring within 50 years. The province of Abruzzo and l’Aquila were in a high-risk zone. Bingo! No, not really. In absolute terms the probability of an earthquake happening in l’Aquila within several days was still low, and equally low on any given day. It was only high relative to other places — but the scientists were not warning people who planned to move to l’Aquila from elsewhere. Their audience were l’Aquila residents, for whom this risk was part of everyday life.

The prosecutor also cited a paper published by one of the defendants the 1990s with a hypothetical predictive model which resulted in the probability of an earthquake in Aquila in the next year being 100%. If the model had been correct, there should have been an earthquake there within a year. But there was none. As another scientist explained on the stand, the model proved itself wrong – in a self-evident [and possibly embarrassing] way – and no reasonable scientist, including the author of the paper, would consider that model valid thereafter.

The judge, however, claimed in his written opinion that the author of the paper continued to believe in his own discredited model. That sort of idiocy, as I have learned, is typical of Italian courts. The point of the trial was, apparently, not to find justice but to provide some sort of consolation-through-retribution to the victims of the latest l’Aquila quake – and to humiliate the bespectacled.

Putin and Solzhenitsyn


September 14, 2014 by AK

Miriam Elder and Robert Coalson argue that Putin has been influenced by Solzhenitsyn’s view of Russia’s proper borders. That’s plausible, but Solzhenitsyn was a proponent of grassroots democracy of the sort he witnessed in Vermont. He probably had in mind an honest plebiscite in post-Soviet Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, hardly a hybrid war.

In addition, Solzhenitsyn’s essay known as Rebuilding Russia in English was written in the late 1980s and published in 1990, when redrawing internal Soviet border lines was at least thinkable.

That train has left. Russia has recognized its neighbors’ boundaries. No, Soviet borders were neither sensible nor fair and yes, the treatment of Russian speakers by post-Soviet dictators in Central Asia has been deplorable. But a politician’s or a nation’s idea of a fair world order and the price they are prepared to pay for breaking through to that ideal are not one and the same.

Keep honking till it’s dinner time


September 13, 2014 by AK

The great Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov creatively retold La Fontaine and Aesop but The Geese seems to be original. Faced with the prospect of being sold in the market for food, a gaggle of geese protest that they are descended from the Capitoline Geese of Rome, who had saved it from the Gauls in 365 B.C., and deserve to be spared. The farmer wonders if the fowl have any achievements of their own, detects none and decrees them “only fit for the stew”.

In arguments over the Perugia murder case or the conviction of Italian seismologists, advocates of Italy’s legal system would sometimes remark that it is 2,000 years old and Cicero flourished when Anglo-Saxons still lived in caves. That gets me thinking of the geese at once, and of the anonymous Italian magistrate quoted by Piero Calamandrei in A Eulogy for Judges (1935):

It may be that half of the sentences handed down are unjust… and therefore half of those in prison are innocent; but by the same reasoning half of those acquitted and set free are in fact guilty and should be in prison… [I]t’s important to look at the bigger picture and understand that every error is compensated by another in the opposite direction. So the scales of justice are in balance and we judges can sleep easy at night.

Cicero would have recognized this Lottery-in-Babylon approach as an extension of his own, no doubt.

I don’t argue with Russians much online these days – I lose my cool too quickly in the face of insanity. But like some of the Italians, proponents of the Russian Universe (Russky mir) imagine themselves to be direct descendants of the greats. “Ours is the culture of Pushkin and Tolstoy,” they claim without understanding much of either, and tend to confuse their bastardized, Soviet idea of Russian culture with the real thing.

Their version of Eastern Christianity also tends to be a bastardization. In 2009 Putin visited the personal gallery of a Russian painter known for “spiritual” and “patriotic” kitsch. One painting depicted the saints Boris and Gleb, the Kievan princes who were murdered on the orders of their elder brother Svyatopolk (“the Accursed”) and declined to resist their killers. Putin remarked that Boris and Gleb were saints but “one must fight for oneself, for one’s country – they gave it up without a struggle… This cannot be an example for us – they lay down and waited to be killed.”

Heads of state do not have to endorse extreme non-violence, of course, but Putin either did not know much about Boris and Gleb or consciously denigrated the two young men who – as the legend goes – chose to die rather than perpetuate violence in a bloody feud. It’s remarkable considering that Boris and Gleb were widely venerated in old Russia, as evidenced by the large number of settlements and churches bearing their name (Borisoglebsky).

Boris and Gleb were the first native saints canonized by the Greek Church after the baptism of Kievan Rus. According to the chronicles and hagiographers, they did exactly as written, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That type of martyrdom was new to the Byzantines, who hesitated whether they should canonize the barbarian princes whose martyrdom did not conform to established patterns of sainthood. According to Georgy Fedotov, in the “passion bearer category of sainthood… we are in the very core of the Russian religious world. Many a Russian saint was canonized for the only obvious reason: his violent death.”

Better stories


September 12, 2014 by AK

Peter Pomerantsev’s latest in The Atlantic is a great read. The author, a UK TV producer, knows what he’s talking about: he used to sell British TV shows to Russian channels, which rely heavily on these imports. I’ll limit myself to just two excerpts.

During one Russian news broadcast, a woman related how Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a child in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. When Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications, was confronted with the fact that the crucifixion story was a fabrication, he showed no embarrassment, instead suggesting that all that mattered were ratings. “The public likes how our main TV channels present material, the tone of our programs,” he said. “The share of viewers for news programs on Russian TV has doubled over the last two months.”

If I remember correctly, Volin also said the crucifixion report was OK with him because the woman was a legitimate source. Which reminds me of Irina Bergseth, a Russian lady who married a Norwegian, got divorced, lost custody of the children and went clinically insane, not necessarily in that order. Bergseth was on Russian TV saying Norwegians were all pedophiles and her four-year-old son had been gang-raped while dressed up as Putin. She said lots of other, equally believable things, but that’s my all-time favorite, and “Putin suit” enjoyed its 15 minutes as a RuNet meme.

Not surprisingly, Bergseth soon became a “coordinator” of a “patriotic” “movement”, “Russia’s mothers”. To quote from Švejk, “Forensic doctors examined her and wrote in their report that she, although weak of mind, was nonetheless eligible for any government position.”

…Christo Grozev, of the Bulgaria-based Risk Management Lab, found that the majority of the country’s newspapers followed Russian rather than Ukrainian narratives about events such as the downing of Flight MH17. “It’s not merely a case of sympathy or language,” Grozev says. “The Russian media just tell more and better stories, and that’s what gets reprinted.”

So do tabloids, and their concoctions are often reprinted by mainstream publications.

That’s not it at all (Russian demographics)


September 10, 2014 by AK

Masha Gessen’s review of two books on Russian demography in the NYRB begins with her account of a personal experience from the 1990s:

People—men and women—were falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes.

In his riposte in Forbes, Mark Adomanis does little to address the inescapable feeling Gessen attempts to communicate – the sense of Russians dying “before [their] time is due”. Gessen is hardly the only person of her age to detect that sad phenomenon from first-hand experience. Adomanis, who is much younger (1965 vs 1984 or 85) merely claims that Gessen’s evidence is outdated – that things have changed.

Perhaps they have, but where can I find data for that specific cohort, the “everybody” of Gessen’s review – let’s say inhabitants of Central Russia born in the 1950s through the 1970s? Have they stopped dying, or is their evanescence merely obscured by some other group of (younger?) Russians multiplying happily?

Adomanis prefers to speak about Russia as a whole and believes that Gessen is ignoring recent trends: Russia is no longer “dying”. That’s missing the point. First, Gessen’s piece is a book review and has to rely on the data in the books under review, somewhat outdated as good research takes time to edit and publish. Second, the most recent population data suggests that Central Russia is still dying out, although at a lower rate than 10 years ago. To put it differently, natural population growth in Central Russia remains negative, although the decline has considerably slowed down since 2005.

The rest of this post is a closer look at some demographic data for 2004-14. Russia’s state statistics service maintains a useful free database at, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in Russia and some knowledge of the language. I am suspicious of population estimates between censuses because interregional migration is difficult to assess but I trust their data on organic, or natural, population growth because vital records are probably kept with reasonable accuracy across the country.

According to, Russia’s population started growing, year over year, in 2009 but only because of immigration as the natural growth rate remained negative. It was only in 2013 that both total and organic growth turned positive, although the organic increment made up only 8% of total population growth. But how was it distributed geographically?

The tables below summarize my calculations from data. I have looked at four large parts of Russia. The first is “the Core” or “the Center”: in this Wiki map, it is districts 1, 5, and 6, that is the Central, Volga, and Northwestern federal districts. Then comes “the East”: the Urals, Siberian and Far Eastern districts, coded 2, 3, 4 on the map. Next, “the South”: for my purposes it is the Southern district of Russia (number 7) plus the Stavropol kray, region 49 on the map, whose settlement history and ethnic makeup are closer to Krasnodar in the Southern district than to North Caucasian republics. Finally, “North Caucasus” is the North Caucasian federal district (8) without the Stavropol kray.

Annual natural growth (1,000 persons) and growth rate (%), 2004-13.

Annual natural growth (1,000 persons) and growth rate (%), 2004-13.

Two things are clear: the natural growth trend has been positive in the Center, East and South since 2010 but the population of Central Russia is still declining: no longer at the rate of 600k+ per year as in 2004-5, but by a hardly intangible 125k in 2013, of which 90k was contributed by the Central federal district. The South got close to zero growth in 2013 but was still technically in the red. The East has been growing, propelled by the Urals, since 2009 – but not enough to offset the dying Center. Without the Northern Caucasus, Russia’s organic population change would have been negative in 2013.

Natural growth in the North Caucasus peaked in 2011 and has edged down slightly since, in contrast to the other three areas, but it remains incredibly high by Russian standards. In per mille terms, it was 12.5 in 2013, way ahead of 2.7 in the Urals and 1.9 in the whole East, to say nothing of the declining areas. It cannot be said that all of Russia’s organic population growth is due to the Caucasus, but that underindustrialized peripheral area with less than 5% of total population is contributing more to population growth than the whole area from the Urals to the Pacific with 26% of total.

More detailed breakdown of 2013 data

More detailed breakdown of 2013 data

I have also looked at the preliminary data for January-July 2014. The Center looks set to lose about 100k in 2014. On the other hand, the positive trend is still here. The negative 7-month totals are due to seasonality: December through May see more deaths than June through November, with January leading the death count.

Preliminary data for 7 mos 2014

Preliminary data for 7 mos 2014

Happy in their tinfoil houses


September 5, 2014 by AK

I have translated a blog entry by Natalia Samorukova, a Russian artist who lives in France. The title is “Why there’s no point in mounting barricades”. I’m not happy about the way she talks about the mentally ill but that’s not my choice.

I’m going to say it – I’m seeing this too often in my friend feed: “Why don’t you, Russian brothers, go man the barricades?”

I’ll tell you why. Any struggle must have a goal and a motive, plus at least a minimum chance of success. I know something about this situation from the inside – I have relatives, friends and buddies you’d call vatniks; and I call kin or kith. One doesn’t get to choose them and I won’t dump them whatever their views. [Based on that knowledge] I am perfectly sure: an overwhelming majority of the population do not need that [the barricades]. It’s not that they have not matured enough: they dwell in an altogether different world and so far they are comfortable there.

Yes, that world is pretty much like a lunatic asylum. But suppose you come to a real-life mental ward and try to explain to the loonies that you’re going to tell them about a better life and patients’ rights. Then you’ll put up quick little barricades in the corridor. Can you imagine that?

Who’s going to be the greater fool, you or the crazies?

To go die for someone who rejects you, your way of life, and your convictions – fiercely and sometimes quite consciously? No, thank you. Honestly. Also, that crowd, those simple souls will rip any protest to shreds before police arrive.

It’s a critical moment and everything is going to change. Very fast. But right now, apart from one-person pickets… I don’t know what I can suggest. Probably nothing. Protect yourself, your kids and whoever you can… And of course defend prisoners of the regime by all possible means, with pickets, with money, with words.

China to the rescue, mere trifles in return


September 4, 2014 by AK

From the 1990s until very recently, domestic critics of government policies repeated the mantra that Russia was but a resource appendage of the West. Now that Russia’s use of Western financial markets and petroleum technology has been restricted, China seems to be coming to the rescue, asking for greater access to Russian hydrocarbons in return. China has already extended large loans against future deliveries to Russian oil and gas companies and plans to lend more.

There’s a sense of purpose about it. Western banks and oil traders used to offer export financing to Russian companies for no reason other than earning money for their shareholders. But Chinese companies seem to be offering long-term loans against future deliveries for a strategic objective – to provide China with reliable, predictable sources of oil and gas for decades ahead. It’s not about CNPC or Sinopec as such but all about Corporation China.

If Russia eventually becomes China’s resource colony, it will be the outcome not of complex interactions in global energy markets but of Russia’s readiness to accept this role at the prompting of China in the face of the Western sanctions. “Overall, we are very cautious when it comes to choosing foreign partners but, of course, there are no restrictions for our Chinese friends,” according to President Putin.

Specifically, he has welcomed the sale of an equity share in one major upstream project, Rosneft’s Vankor, to Chinese investors. “Today, Vankor is one of Russia’s largest enterprises by production, with great prospects,” said Putin. True, and that’s why the deal is out of the ordinary. Most of the field’s future output, though 2038, has been pledged to China anyway. But that is no longer enough for China, which prefers an ownership share and some degree of oversight at the wellhead.


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