Ice Age is upon us

June has been unseasonably cold, making the conclusion in the title irrefutable. True?

Not quite. You’ll object that we shouldn’t jump to far-reaching conclusions on the basis of such a small sample, and you’ll be right. That’s the difference between weather and climate: the first is short-term, the second can only be judged properly over a long time.

Events in any country, and certainly one as hard for Westerners to understand as Russia, is the same way. Only a panoramic historical look can enable one to see clearly what’s really happening there and why.

That’s the look that precious few Western commentators can cast. Hence Western politicians are so often caught off-guard, eyeing yet another twist in Russian politics with genuine bemusement on their faces.

They can barely understand what’s happening in Russia at any historical moment, and they certainly have no clue about why it’s happening. That means our governments can only respond to each Russian threat with a spasmodic kneejerk, which tends to be too little too late.

If they were capable of detecting an historical continuum between, say, Lenin and Putin and everything in between, they’d be forewarned and forearmed. As it is, our governments have to play catch-up, with Russia always acting and the West reacting.

This is, briefly, what we should know and appreciate.

Once the Bolsheviks took over Russia and won their Civil War, they decided to act on their global doctrine and conquer the West in one fell swoop. In 1920, shouting “Onwards to Paris and Berlin!”, the Red Cavalry rode in the general direction of the Channel, but got only as far as Warsaw where Marshal Pilsudski’s horsemen chopped their historical enemies into mincemeat.

Clearly, the Red Army, useful as it eventually proved to be, was too blunt a weapon for what was developing into a delicate task. More perfidious subtlety was required, and perfidious subtlety was something only the Cheka (currently FSB) had.

Thus the first few years of Bolshevik rule saw the formulation of two Cheka policies which, mutatis mutandis, Russia has been alternating ever since: Military Communism and New Economic Policy (NEP).

The purpose of the former was to rape first the country and then the world into submission; the chief objectives of the latter were to mitigate the effects of the former, back-pedal a bit, let some steam off, put the West’s fears at rest and set up the next round by attempting to present to the world a picture of ‘change’, ‘liberalisation’, Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’, Stalin’s ‘perestroika’, Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’, Yeltsyn’s ‘democracy’ and so forth.

Sudden shifts in Russian policy can never surprise anyone who is familiar with this alternating pattern: the bloodthirsty collectivisation followed by Stalin’s caution against ‘vertigo from success’; post-war Walpurgisnacht followed by ‘the thaw’, which was bound to adumbrate Brezhnev’s reaction, which in turn set the stage for another NEP binge. 

But it’s not enough to execute this policy of two steps forward, one step backwards domestically. The West’s support, or at least acquiescence, is a sine qua non. That means disinformation and strategic deception don’t just lie at the heart of Russia’s policy. They are Russia’s policy – and that’s really why Lenin called the Cheka “the essence of bolshevism”.

That organisation has shown it’s not only willing but also eminently able to string the West along. Its strategic debut in the early 20s was an auspicious event: Operation Trust. The OGPU, as it then was, created a bogus anti-Bolshevik network inside Russia and dropped a few telling hints in the West that the regime was about to collapse – given inactivity on the West’s part and a little financing.

The West swallowed the bait and was immobilised at a time when the demons were at their most vulnerable. Cheka ‘ops’ were being financed by their targets, and, as an additional benefit, the Trust lured some prominent émigré leaders into Russia, where they were murdered.

The history of the Cheka/KGB/FSB (I’m leaving out a few of its monikers) is one continuous string of such successes.

An extremely abbreviated list would include the post-war peace movement, as a result of which Western atomic scientists felt called upon to share their secrets with the Russians; the bogus anti-communist guerrilla movements in the forests of Lithuania and Latvia in the late 40s-early 50s, which pre-empted any real resistance; the detente and ‘SALT process’ of the 70s, enabling the Russians to embark on an unprecedented military build-up that put them in a position of strength vis-a-vis NATO; the ‘Prague Spring’, a perestroika rehearsal possibly designed to test the West’s reaction; the Solidarity movement, probably run by the KGB from the very start; and – at the risk of angering some of my Russian friends – even to a large extent the dissident movement of the 60s and 70s which was infiltrated by the KGB, and many of whose leaders are now known to have been KGB informers. 

That all those operations duped not only their ultimate targets but also many of their rank-and-file participants is neither here nor there. Let’s doff our hats to the memory of the self-immolating Czech students, Lithuanian peasants riddled with Cheka bullets and Russian youths dying in Kolyma – but let’s not allow tears to impair our vision or sorrow to cloud our judgement.

The KGB’s most outstanding figure was Andropov’s mentor Lavrentiy Beria who led that organisation from 1938. After Stalin’s death, which Beria welcomed and, according to strong circumstantial evidence, might have accelerated, he proposed to his Politburo colleagues a glasnost and perestroika programme which anticipated the ‘op’ of the 80s in such details as the introduction of private enterprise, abolition of collective farms, withdrawal from Germany and a greater accent on the production of consumer goods.

The objective was all-familiar: presenting a human face to the West, luring it into disarmament, blackmailing it into a massive transfer of funds and technology, finlandising first Europe and then the rest of the world.

Yet the more cautious Party apparatchiks, led by Khrushchev, thought the Chekists were moving too fast. Beria was killed, but the Cheka, in the decaying shape of Yuri Andropov, won the next round. When Andropov’s protégé Gorbachev took over, the Russian language made the most important contributions to the OED since ‘disinformation’: ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’.

People who warned that the triumphant shrieks over the 1991 collapse of communism were premature were dismissed as conspiracy theorists. Can’t they celebrate with the rest of us the triumph of liberal democracy, which is tantamount to what a particularly inane commentator described as “the end of history”?

I was writing articles at the time, describing the ‘collapse of communism’ as a thermodynamic event of evil changing its form, not its essence. Russian post-communist history, I wrote, is a fusion of NEP and Operation Trust: a successful attempt to curry favour with the West by flashing a kindly smile rather than a lupine scowl. A version of Military Communism is bound to follow.

Conservative journals would publish my Cassandra impersonations, but with the condescending smile of a grownup observing a frolicking child. They knew what I was saying was just fear-mongering, but generously chose not to stop my saying it.

In fact, the period from Gorbachev to Putin represented Beria’s posthumous victory over Khrushchev. It was a transfer of power from the sclerotic, ossified Party apparat to the new ruling elite made up of the more forward-looking members of the Party nomenklatura fused with organised crime and led by the KGB, first as the éminence grise and later, with Putin’s advent, directly.

Throughout the 90s, the KGB were pulling the strings from backstage. Its Active Reserve officers were attached to every sizeable commercial concern, every government office. That, incidentally, was the role Putin played in the entourage of Petersburg’s mayor Sobchak.

The West either failed to realise that the new ‘democratic’ elite was made up of high-ranking Party nomenklatura and the KGB, or didn’t attach much importance to that fact. Would you have felt the same way, I kept asking, if the post-war West German government included nothing but NSDAP functionaries and SS officers? No reply.

Gradually the KGB, the most dynamic and savvy member of the new class, began to move into the foreground. The time came to take the reins overtly, and Yeltsyn got his arm twisted into appointing a KGB officer as his successor. And once Putin’s – which is to say the KGB’s – tenure turned into an outright dictatorship, it became possible to initiate a new aggressive policy in the style of Military Communism, while trying not to eliminate NEP altogether.

The structure I’ve built here is stripped down to its bare bones, with many nuances and parallel developments left unmentioned. An element of entropy is ever-present, and not every subsequent step was a controlled development of a strategy. But it’s foolhardy to deny that a strategy has always existed, even if its path at times resembled zigzags more than a straight line.

The Bolsheviks weren’t aliens from another planet; they were a natural, though not inevitable, development of Russian history. By the same token, Putin’s Russia is a development of Soviet history. We’ll ignore the historical continuity at our peril – it’s impossible to pre-empt a threat if you don’t understand its nature. Sun Tzu said something to that effect.  

2 thoughts on “Ice Age is upon us”

  1. I’m astounded that, after three days, nobody has thanked you for this magnificent elucidation of modern Russian history.

    Thank you for this magnificent elucidation of modern Russian history.

    But you don’t discuss the history of Russia before 1917. In 1917 an evil Western ideology became dominant in Russia, and has remained dominant ever since, but I’d be very interested to learn from you if any native Russian elements survive in contemporary Russian policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.