Clinton’s mentor and the Russian interregnum of 1825


July 28, 2015 by AK

In his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic nomination, Bill Clinton named his history professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, Carroll Quigley, as a major influence. Quigley was a scholar of wide-spanning, almost Toynbean ambition and indisputably great learning. Perhaps the greater the range of a historian’s interests, the more relaxed is his approach to peripheral facts.

From Prof. Quigley’s 1976 lecture, Public Authority and the State in the Western Tradition: A Thousand Years of Growth, 976-1976:

There are no constitutional rules of succession in Islamic Civilization, in Byzantine Civilization or in Russian Civilization — ever. To talk about constitutional law in Russia is to talk nonsense. Alexander the First left a note in his desk saying that he wanted his second son, I believe, to succeed him, and that settled it. That was not an act of constitutional law: it was an act of will.

Alexander I had no sons; his two daughters died in infancy. He might have had illegitimate children but no historian has seriously suggested Alexander ever thought of them as heirs to the throne.

What Quigley probably had in mind are Alexander’s brothers. The claim becomes this: Alexander disinherited his natural successor, the oldest of his younger brothers, in favor of the second-oldest, in a secret and whimsical manner.

I would call it an unorthodox view. As a scholar of the Napoleonic period — his doctoral dissertation was The Public Administration of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy — Quigley might have had access to some secret archive unavailable to Russian historians, but speaking seriously, his recall of the facts was probably imperfect.

Alexander’s father, Paul I, enacted a succession law in 1797 restoring male primogeniture. Although Alexander loved and respected his imperial grandmother Catherine more than he did his father Paul, he only made one change to the succession law, disqualifying children of morganatic marriages from the throne. 

Paul’s law made Constantine, the second of Paul’s sons, Alexander’s lawful successor, although Constantine’s children from his marriage to Countess Grudzińska might have been ineligible for further succession. However as early as 1819, Constantine indicated he was indisposed to rule. In 1823, he sent a formal letter to Alexander asking to be removed as his heir. Alexander wrote a manifesto citing Constantine’s renunciation and making Nicolas the heir apparent. For some reason, however, Alexander sealed the manifesto and ordered it published upon his death.

Alexander passed away unexpectedly on November 19, 1825. The State Council, the advisory legislative chamber created and appointed by the late emperor, was at a loss: Alexander’s manifesto appeared to contradict the succession law. The majority of the council decided to pledge allegiance to Constantine, and were encouraged to do so by Nicolas, who also took the oath, on November 27. 

Once Constantine had confirmed his refusal to take the scepter, Nicolas proclaimed himself emperor on December 13. The day after, Decembrist officers assembled their troops in the Senate Square in St. Petersburg but were defeated. They used the temporary confusion over the succession process to strike but it was too late. Perhaps they would have had a chance if Constantine had changed his mind.

Quigley’s offhand remark works like a fun house mirror. Not Alexander’s second son but second brother. Not an envelope discovered by chance but three sealed copies of a decree left with three trusted officials. Top bureaucrats reluctant to accept the late monarch’s will as law. (As to why Constantine stepped aside, and whether he was coerced to a decree, conspiracy theories abound.)

This does nothing to disprove Quigley’s general thesis, of course. One can argue that in matters of succession, Russian autocrats faced options limited by tradition or by elite opinion but that would take a more serious effort than correcting an imprecise statement.

The latest on Russian libel tourism


July 23, 2015 by AK

Up until 2012, Vladimir Slutsker (Sloutsker) was a second-tier Russian oligarch. He was a member of the Federation Council, a senator in colloquial usage, in 2002-2010. His detractors claim that Slutsker largely owed his success to being good at obtaining “protection” for his businesses from high-placed government officials, typically with backgrounds in intelligence.

Together with his wife Olga, known in Russia as the owner of the World Class gym chain, Slutsker bought a house in Kensington for £6 million in 2000. The Slutskers got divorced in 2009 and after a legal battle in London, Vladimir lost the house, then worth £40 million, to his ex in 2012. In the same year (or 2011 according to some sources) he left Russia and permanently settled in Israel.

Olga Romanova is an experienced Russian journalist, a professor of journalism at a leading university, and a human rights activist. She co-founded a movement called Rus’ Sidyaschaya, “Russia behind bars” or “Russia doing time,” seeking to reverse wrongful convictions and improve prison conditions. Her activism was triggered by the prosecution and conviction of her husband, Alexei Kozlov, on likely trumped-up embezzlement and laundering charges. Kozlov was jailed in 2008-11 and then again in 2012-13. Although the Russian Supreme Court quashed his conviction in 2011, Kozlov was re-convicted in 2012 and had to serve another year until the Supreme Court acquitted him on some of the charges.

Kozlov had managed one of Slutsker’s businesses for several years before charges were brought against him. About the time of Kozlov’s first arrest, in 2007, Olga Romanova accused Slutsker of orchestrating the judicial assault on Kozlov. In 2010 she was reported to file a formal complaint against Slutsker with the prosecutor-general’s office. When Kozlov was re-arrested in 2012, Romanova claimed that Slutsker had arranged for her husband to be murdered in custody.

Slutsker filed a libel suit in London in 2012 based on four instances of Romanova’a publlicizing these two allegations. There was much wrangling between the parties over the issues of jurisdiction and service of process. In March 2015 the judge ruled that England and Wales was the proper place for the claim and that valid service had taken place.

At that point, Romanova declined to take part in further proceedings. In July the judge entered a default judgment , ordering her to pay £110,000. The court never got down to examining the merits of Slutsker’s and Romanova’s claims. I cannot come up a good reason for Romanova’s sudden refusal to defend herself. It seems to me that she would have invoked the “fair comment” principle to shield herself. She has said somewhere that she expected police investigators who worked on the Kozlov case (and feel bad about their involvement, apparently) to testify for her, but now they are not allowed to travel abroad.

I don’t quite agree with this logic, but that’s a minor puzzle compared with the fact that it was allowed to proceed in London. I’m not questioning the judge’s finding of Slutsker’s substantial link to the UK despite his never being a resident. Rather, I am looking at the big picture, a purely Russian dispute between two non-UK residents getting resolved in London.

New MH17 footage, one year after


July 17, 2015 by AK

Like carrion-eating hyenas, News Corp. and its peers sometimes help the ecosystem to cleanse itself. This time they’ve dug up this:

…after a 12-month pursuit, News Corp Australia has obtained new footage shot by the rebels themselves on a camcorder as they captured what they initially believed to be a Ukrainian air force fighter jet they had just shot down using a ground-to-air missile system…

The film records their dismay as they minutes later discover the aircraft is a commercial airliner.

I believe there were obvious clues to whodunit on the day of the downing, July 17, 2014 (no doubt lots of new evidence has been discovered in the past year). Within 10-15 minutes of the disaster, perhaps less, Strelkov was on Twitter (or was it VK? I don’t remember now) saying the separatists had just shot down a Ukrainian military plane, or two planes. I’m not a heavy Twitter user and I’m not on VK but like everybody else, I can read Russian news wires. They carried the same reports of a Ukrainian plane, or two planes, just downed by the separatists. They stopped and began to disappear an hour or two later.

The footage unearthed by News Corp. makes the same point with greater force.

The double parade of November 1941


July 12, 2015 by AK

If you have taken a cab from Moscow to Sheremetievo, you must have seen these giant anti-tank “hedgehogs” in Khimki. It is a monument to the defenders of Moscow in 1941. While regular Nazi troops probably did not advance as far as Khimki, the front line in November 1941 was a mile to the north of what is now the Sheremetievo runway. It is said that by early December, Rokossovsky’s 16th Army had stopped the Germans at the 41th kilometer of the Leningrad Highway: a 25-mile drive to the nearest metro station in Moscow, Sokol, opened in 1938.

Despite all this, the Soviets decided to hold the annual military parade on Red Square on November 7, as usual, in commemoration of the 1917 revolution. Oleg Khlevniuk writes, citing this article among others:

[The parade] was a risky undertaking since a few days earlier, on 29 October, German planes had dropped a large bomb right on the Kremlin. A total of 146 people were injured and 41 were killed.78 The Luftwaffe could certainly strike again. In anticipation of this possibility, a parallel parade was held in Kuibyshev (today’s Samara), the city chosen as the reserve capital should Moscow fall. In case of an attack during the Moscow parade, radio coverage of the celebration would switch to Kuibyshev.

A “just in case” military parade in Samara while the Germans were 25 miles from the capital. The bit below is also typical of the time and place.

Stalin addressed the parading troops with a short speech delivered from atop Lenin’s Mausoleum…

The military parade on Red Square was captured on film, but for some reason Stalin’s speech was not. It was decided to stage the speech in an improvised studio. A mockup of Lenin’s tomb was built in one of the halls of the Great Kremlin Palace, and Stalin repeated his speech for the cameras on 15 November.

In December, movie theaters began showing [the film]… including the reenactment of Stalin’s speech. Over seven days, beginning December 4, two hundred thousand viewers watched the film in Moscow alone.

Inspired by this discussion at LanguageHat.

What a loss


July 9, 2015 by AK

Recall Flirt, the sex ad rag that printed jingoist rants alongside pictures of sylphs for sale. The couple running the business have been detained on suspicion of procuring, along with 35 call center operators. Apparently Flirt served as a sort of sex exchange: a potential customer would have to call a Flirt number and reference the advertisement he would like to act on. The operator would then put him through to the sex worker, or more likely her pimp or madam.

One source claims Flirt skimmed 30% off each “order.” quotes a policeman saying one issue “brought in” – in revenues, I suppose – around five million rubles for its owners. I think it comes up to more that half a million dollars per month. Not a huge turnover considering the risks but probably enough to make a couple million per year.

Prostitution is not a crime in Russia, merely a (petty) misdemeanor, an “administrative infraction” like speeding, jaywalking or littering. In contrast, pimping and procuring is a felony. suggests plausibly that Flirt went down because it had lost protection by the usual suspects, which include law enforcement. But perhaps not all is yet lost for these patriots.

By the way, I used strictly gendered language in the first paragraph because Flirt was staunchly heterosexual – I would even say conservative in its menu.

Happy July 4th


July 4, 2015 by AK

…to my American readers and to all who celebrate the Declaration.

Stalin the helmsman and the imitation of Mussolini


July 2, 2015 by AK

This post has been inspired by this note by Language Hat on a slightly different subject.

In modern Russian usage, “the Great Helmsman” is taken by default to be a reference to Mao. The word most likely to denote Stalin is vozhd’, a leader-chief hybrid. (Of course he was also the Coryphaeus of All Sciences – and Humanities, especially the theory of language.) However, it’s true that Stalin was called a great helmsman as early as 1934 on the occasion of the Soviet ice-cutter F. Litke  (previously called Earl Gray, Canada, and The Third International) successfully passing the Northern sea route. That was 15 years before the Communist takeover of China.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, going back at least to John Chrysostom (possibly to Justin the Martyr), the Church is sometimes referred to as a ship and Christ as its helmsman. Later Roman Catholic interpretations have St. Peter steering but in the East, it’s always the Messiah Himself. The nautical symbolism in Christianity goes deep and far back in time – consider the origin of “nave” for example.

Stalin, as a former priest in training, may have been familiar with the Christian connotations of the Great Henchman title. According to Oleg Khlevniuk’s latest bio of the dictator, Ioseb Jugashvili was either expelled or forced to leave the seminary “with a commendatory certificate on the completion of four years,” which “would have enabled him to work in the area of religion or teach elementary school.”

Did the coiner of the sacrilegious epithet realize what he was doing? A considerable number of Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries came from the clerical estate, but that’s all I can say for now.

Curiously, in the same year 1934, a Sardinian-born aspiring intellectual called Edgardo Sulis published a book titled The Imitation of Mussolini, no less. According to R.J.B. Boswell:

The first claim to fame of Edgardo Sulis is that in 1934 he published a book with perhaps the most egregious title of all the star-struck accounts of the Duce – **Imitazione di Mussolini**. In its pages, this Thomas à Kempis of Fascism set out the basic tenets of what he labelled in somewhat hackneyed phrase ‘the new political religion’. In the articles of this totalitarian faith, love of country, of nation, of Duce and potentially of race fused in mysterious fashion.

Sulis published more books in support of fascism and rose to a senior propaganda position in the republic of Salò but little if anything is known about him after 1945.

Primakov as PM and Yeltsin’s non-successor


June 30, 2015 by AK

When Russia defaulted on its public ruble-denominated bonds and the ruble lost two-thirds of its value to the dollar in August 1998, the Kirienko cabinet also fell. Facing a largely hostile Duma, Yeltsin appointed Yevgeny Primakov prime minister. It was feared the cabinet would push for counter-reform, for a return to a late-Soviet, state-dominated economy.

My impression is that Primakov’s cabinet did not do much at all. The Russian economy started to recover in 1999 without much government or IMF intervention, helped by the cheap ruble and temporarily unused production capacity (if in need of modernizing investment). August 1998 seemed like the end of the world; in May 1999, it looked like the worst was past us.

Meanwhile, Yeltsin was probably thinking of retiring and did not want the old spy Primakov to succeed him. (Eventually he picked for that part a young spy whose name also begins with a P.) Besides, Primakov – two years Yeltsin’s senior – was past 70 so and would have been almost as old when assuming the top office as Konstantin U. Chernenko was in 1984. “Comrade X assumed the post without regaining consciousness,” the standard early to mid-1980s joke went.

Owen Hatherley on Cheryomushki


June 24, 2015 by AK

I would recommend Owen Hatherley’s well-researched piece on Moscow’s residential districts (not quite suburbs) to anyone interested in post-Soviet urban life and urban planning in general.

I suggest that readers also browse the photos in the author’s Flickr albums, some linked to from the text. They give a pretty good overview of the three areas of Moscow described in the article, and a few others, such as the 1925 GosProm/DerzhProm complex in Kharkiv.

I suspect the author has a soft spot for central planning and an aversion to free markets – unlike myself – but he knows more about architecture than I’m ever going to learn. For example, I agree that “infill” construction borders on the criminal in some cases but I would argue it is a result of general lawlessness and poorly defined or allotted property rights rather than the market economy by itself.

I have never lived in Cheryomushki proper but I have lived nearby for long enough to be familiar with the area. It’s hardly the only part of Moscow built over with Khruschev-era five-stories but it’s the first, allegedly the best-planned, and probably the most expensive of them, in terms of rents and property values. All the three boroughs Hatherley examined are actually at the higher end of the property value range for middle-class urban dwellings. An apartment in a Cheryomushki-type mikrorayon in the South-West of Moscow is likely to sell at a 20%-40% premium to an almost identical one in the south-east. It may have to do with the sort of people who had populated these areas by the early 1990s and with the availability of good schools, greater in the south-west than elsewhere in the city, except the center.

Which means that after the ruble’s recent slide, a family of four would still have to spend over $200k to buy an apartment consisting of three rooms and a small kitchen (khruschevka kitchens typically take 6-7 square yards) in a block that was supposed to be demolished 20 years ago and wasn’t sturdily built in the first place. Those early prefabricated panel buildings, including the K-7 types, were not supposed to last very long. They are being demolished gradually and replaced with modernized versions of Belyayevo-style blocks as dictated by the economics of real estate development. If the house is due for demolition, the apartment owners get replacement flats from the developer, usually in recently built blocks of somewhat better quality but not necessarily in the exact same area.

If the city authorities believe the old khruschevka can wait for three-five more years, the family will console itself with the ability to choose among decent local schools and a not too long drive or commute to the city center, where most people work. If your child can walk to school and you spend less than an hour getting to work, one way, you’ve got a good deal by Moscow standards.

By the way, the four-story K-7 block shown in the first illustration to the piece looks like the one in Grimau Street that is allegedly the first khruschevka (Khruschev-era prefab panel building) ever built. It was the birthplace of the Cheryomushki project. But most of Moscow’s khruschevkas, whether of the K-7 series or of other types, have five floors rather than four, like this one, a couple of miles southwest of the first K-7.

To conclude with a translation quibble: Novye Cheryomushki does not really mean “New Cherry Town.” The name of the village razed to make room for the mikrorayon, Cheryomushki (Google Stan Wayman Moscow for images of Khruschev-era construction), is possibly derived from cheryomukha, Prunus Padus, technically a species of cherry known as bird cherry (and its fruit, as hackberry), or Mayday tree, or Maybush. But Russians do not call cheryomukha a cherry tree (vishnya) so the name Cheryomushki does not evoke memories of Cherry Orchard. Rather, it’s the first tree/bush to bloom in May in Central Russia, followed by the cherry tree and naturally associated with spring and the merry month of May.

Mr. Perfect goes to church


June 19, 2015 by AK

Putin met with Pope Francis last week, but just before that

In a rare newspaper interview ahead of his state visit to Italy, Vladimir Putin has claimed he never makes mistakes because God “built his life so he’d have nothing to regret”.

Which inspired this drawing by the well-known Russian political cartoonist who goes by Yolkin (Elkin).

Yulia Latynina, by turns sensible and unhinged but usually entertaining, hypothesizes that Putin may have offered Pope Frances a “PR church union.”

What could it be? “Your Holiness, I guarantee you the Russian church will recognize your primacy by the end of the year if you support me on Ukraine and especially on World Cup 2018?” Sounds crazy: another Russian schism à la 1653 would be all but inevitable. Eschatologically-minded literalists rebelled when Russia introduced taxpayer identification numbers in the early 2000s, interpreting them as the Antichrist’s seal.

Putin is probably hoping that papal support (which I don’t think will ever be provided) would come at a price the Russian church will be able to pay if pressured by the Kremlin. Moreover, I suspect that the Kremlin would like to take down the Russian Orthodox Church a notch or two, distrustful of its loyalty and fearful of its potential influence if led by independent and risk-taking bishops.

Curiously, Patriarch Kirill’s detractors in the ROC have long accused him of Roman Catholic sympathies, to the point of calling him a “secret cardinal” (cardinal in pectore), an accusation previously reserved for Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov, 1929-1978).

These accusers tend to be isolationist obscurantists and reactionary purists but their extravagant claims are not all rubbish.

Apart from purely theological grounds, suspicion of the ecumenical movement is grounded in the KGB infiltration of it. In the past, the Kremlin has used interchurch dialogue to influence public opinion in the West; Latynina claims it was the case after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the ensuing boycotts. Why not again?

Within Russia, Kirill apparently wanted his church to play the same role as the Catholic church once did in some European countries – Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and to some degree France — before secularization and urbanization enervated its influence. If Kirill is “popish,” it means he would like to have the powers and independence the bishop of Rome enjoys (significantly greater than any Eastern patriarch’s) with the social and institutional power of a firmly established Russian church greatly expanded.

The author of this 2010 piece, the Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov, is anything but a reactionary. This was written before Kirill was elected Patriarch:

But by all accounts what attracted Nikodim was not the church as such, but the Vatican’s administrative machine…

Kirill really does want to reform the Russian Orthodox Church as an organization, possibly even on the Vatican model, and he is capable of doing so. He wants to make the church more “telegenic” and open it up to the Internet, which is inevitable if the Russian Orthodox Church really wants to become not simply a cover and friend of the authorities in Russia…

But from the theological and social standpoint, this apparent reformer remains an arch-conservative… He is, in fact, the John Paul II of the Russian church, a man who is not afraid of television cameras or crowded stadiums, who can express himself not just on religious topics, but also on history and politics.

But there is one key difference: The Russian patriarch is not the pope. Kirill, however, refuses to admit this fact. He is trying to subordinate to himself the entire administrative machine of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The last Moscow patriarch to be suspected of Pope-grade ambitions was Nikon, and Tsar Alexei did not take it lightly: Nikon was deposed and banished to a monastery. It is rumored that Putin does not like Kirill, who has not been heard much on state TV since the Crimean invasion. (His silence may have to do with the risk of the Ukrainian church shifting from autonomy to full independence.) If it’s true that Kirill is ambitious and sees his role as different from the minister of religious propaganda, it’s natural that the Kremlin is wary of him.


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