Thursday, June 04, 2015

Stavridis on Putin and Understanding the Russian Mind

On Tuesday over at FP, Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) offered up some of the best advice I have read in awhile for those who are trying to get their head around Putin and what is going on with Russia.

As I've mentioned here and we've discussed often on Midrats, Russia is neither West nor East ... she is just Russia. To try to understand her as anything else simply will not work.

Given that ... why is Russia being ... Russia?
Want to really understand what’s going on in Russia? Get rid of that CIA report full of dusty Cold War tropes. Forget the NSA intercepts or spy satellite imagery. And drop the jargon-filled scholarly analysis from those political science journals.

Instead, get back to the richest literary gold mine in the Western world: Russian novels and poetry. Read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov. That’s where you’ll really find how Russians think.
Stavridis gives a great series of recommendations.
Begin with Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 masterpiece, Dead Souls. It is the blackest of black humor, a story in which a mysterious businessman moves through the Russian countryside “buying up souls” (i.e., taking away a tax burden from the estate owners).
How will Russians fight and what kind of leaders do they follow? Want to understand their patriotism? Go read the master, Leo Tolstoy. His sweeping 1869 epic, War and Peace, shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment spins a tale that captures the Russian sensibility perfectly: A deeply troubled protagonist chooses to kill, but then is haunted by guilt and — encouraged by the good people around him — eventually confesses. He is then purified and ultimately achieves redemption.
Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? Try reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the 1962 novel by dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity.
For something more modern, try One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. It’s a foot soldier’s memoir set in Chechnya during the height of the war there in the 1990s waged by the Russian conscript military against the rebellious population. This is counterinsurgency turned upside down — the Russians aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds; they are quite content with putting a bullet into each.
And finally, to understand the view of the Russian √©migr√©, the brilliant Russian-American novelist Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan captures the post-Soviet space better than any book of non-fiction. Set in Moscow and a thinly disguised Azerbaijan (a former republic of the USSR, in case you forgot), it serves up a portrait of Russian “capitalism” with a huge dose of black humor. It echoes Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a magical realist novel written in the 1930s, in its evocation of the Russians’ ability to exist quite happily in a world where everything is half a beat off the music.
And what of Russian leaders? Dostoyevsky said about one key character in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, that “Anger was buried far too early in a young heart, which perhaps contained much good.” A description of the young Putin? Perhaps.
When in doubt, no one could be accused of doing a bad thing if they picked up a book. Or, as simply put by Stavridis;
...pick up a novel and start reading.

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