I’m a few months behind in my New Yorkers. Today, though, David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, linked on Twitter a fascinating conversation he had with a Stalin scholar, Stephen Kotkin.
The title of the piece, “The Weakness of the Despot,” drew me in immediately — absurd optimist that I am, searching always for good things that might be happening. Weak despot counts as a good thing.
Kotkin is at Stanford and the Hoover Institution. Hoover is a conservative place (Condi Rice is its director.) This info pushed a small button in my brain which switched my reading from uncritical to wary, at first. But even when wary of a columnist or expert, I don’t stop reading or automatically toss the opinions and label them unacceptable to me.
Kotkin knows things about Russia and Russian history I don’t know (deeply unfortunate, but my mad love for Armando Iannucci’s brilliant satire, The Death of Stalin, did not earn me a Ph.D.). He has an interesting perspective, free of rumor and preassumptions. Perhaps relatedly, he does not seem to have a Twitter account.
I’m not linking the article, dated March 11, 2022. Go buy the issue, if this is in an issue. If not, find it on Twitter. The New Yorker is journalism at its the best and most profound and deserves our money.
With apologies to Remnick and Kotkin, I’ve pulled some excerpts.
Russia’s historical pattern
Way before NATO existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.
“…war is usually a miscalculation.”
Yes, well, war usually is a miscalculation. It’s based upon assumptions that don’t pan out, things that you believe to be true or want to be true.
“Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining.”
And so we think, but we don’t know, that [Putin] is not getting the full gamut of information. He’s getting what he wants to hear. In any case, he believes that he’s superior and smarter. This is the problem of despotism. It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining.
…”the thing about authoritarian regimes: they’re terrible at everything.”
This is the thing about authoritarian regimes: they’re terrible at everything. They can’t feed their people. They can’t provide security for their people. They can’t educate their people. But they only have to be good at one thing to survive. If they can deny political alternatives, if they can force all opposition into exile or prison, they can survive, no matter how incompetent or corrupt or terrible they are.
Sanctions versus “hot war”
Sanctions are a weapon that you use when you don’t want to fight a hot war because you’re facing a nuclear power. It’s one thing to bomb countries in the Middle East that don’t have nuclear weapons; it’s another thing to contemplate bombing Russia or China in the nuclear age. It’s understandable that economic sanctions, including really powerful ones, are the tools that we reach for.
“We are…arming the Ukrainians to the teeth.”
We are also, however, arming the Ukrainians to the teeth. And there’s a great deal of stuff happening in the cyber realm that we don’t know anything about because the people who are talking don’t know, and the people who know are not talking.
“Russia cannot successfully occupy Ukraine.”
…Russia cannot successfully occupy Ukraine. They do not have the scale of forces. They do not have the number of administrators they’d need or the coöperation of the population. They don’t even have a Quisling yet.
“All it takes is a handful of assassinations…”
Think about all those Ukrainians who would continue to resist. The Nazis came into Kyiv, in 1940. They grabbed all the luxury hotels, but days later those hotels started to blow up. They were booby-trapped. If you’re an administrator or a military officer in occupied Ukraine and you order a cup of tea, are you going to drink that cup of tea? Do you want to turn the ignition on in your car? Are you going to turn the light switch on in your office? All it takes is a handful of assassinations to unsettle the whole occupation.
Authoritarian regime hirings: tupoi
You have to remember that these regimes practice something called “negative selection.” ...[I]n an authoritarian regime…They hire people who are a little bit, as they say in Russian, tupoi, not very bright. They hire them precisely because they won’t be too competent, too clever, to organize a coup against them.
That does two things. It enables [Putin] to feel more secure, through all his paranoia, that they’re not clever enough to take him down. But it also diminishes the power of the Russian state because you have a construction foreman who’s the defense minister [Sergei Shoigu], and he was feeding Putin all sorts of nonsense about what they were going to do in Ukraine.
“…the thing about the United States.”
That’s the thing about the United States. We have corrective mechanisms. We can learn from our mistakes. We have a political system that punishes mistakes. We have strong institutions. We have a powerful society, a powerful and free media. Administrations that perform badly can learn and get better, which is not the case in Russia or in China. It’s an advantage that we can’t forget.