Anatomy of a giant

Modern Russian politics defeats facile explanation. By Godfrey Hodgson; An Empire's New Clothes: The End of Russia's Liberal Regime by Bruce Clark Vintage, pounds 7.99

As Russia faces two elections, for parliament in December and presumably for the presidency next year, and as Boris Yeltsin, the West's chosen saviour, prepares to leave the stage, this clear-eyed account, written out of personal experience and original thought, is very timely.

Bruce Clark's view is what most Western observers would regard as pessimistic. He predicts the failure of the liberal Little Russia which has been the West's preferred option. But then he thinks that most western analysis has largely missed the point of what is happening in Russia: he believes that Russia is recovering economically and will soon be making itself felt diplomatically.

Whether or not you agree with all his conclusions, this account is to most journalistic commentary on Russian politics what a long, careful analysis is to a 30-second piece to camera on CNN, where all that locates you in Russia is the silhouette of St Basil's cathedral.

This rare attempt to understand Russia in its own terms starts with a great advantage over those who try to understand it only in ours. The Orthodox church is a good example of this. At first, westerners saw it as a heroic band of persecuted martyrs. Then, when the full extent of the church leaders' collaboration with the KGB became known, they were shocked. Clark points out that, to the Orthodox mind, co-operation with the temporal power was always seen as necessary to safeguard the spiritual dimension of life under autocracy.

He begins with an illuminating examination of the furious arguments over the very nature of Russia among intellectuals. He explains the influence, for example, of Lev Gumilyov's theory of Russia as a "super-ethnos", compounded of Slav and Turkish civilisations. To Western readers, that sounds like crazy geopolitical nonsense; yet Gumilyov is not some wild, Dostoyevskyan holy fool, but the historian son of that supreme heroine of western liberals, Anna Akhmatova.

Clark examines the strange, shifting alliances, the diametric alternations of ideas in the Russian political class: "Villains have metamorphosed into heroes, destitutes into multimillionaires, and reformers into arch- conservatives and back again". The post-Soviet world, intellectual as well as political, is, he says, far more remote from that of the West than we are prone to believe. Yet he does not underestimate the sophistication of the new Russian politics: think of chess and the hydrogen bomb, he observes in passing.

He is led to some surprising, even sensational conclusions. The war in Chechnya was not an aberration, he says, but, an essential part of a rational, if ruthless, strategy for controlling exports from the new Caspian oilfields. He takes Vladimir Zhirinovsky seriously, interpreting his imperialist ravings as the cover for a cool strategy of neutralising those countries - Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran - which share divided populations (Kurds, Tajiks and Azeris respectively) with the former Soviet Union. Indeed, he suspects a tacit alliance between Yeltsin and Zhirinovsky, the anti- Semite who, Clark shows, probably had a Jewish father: a perfect illustration of how things in the new Russian politics are never quite what they seem.

He suspects Yeltsin and his allies of manipulating the media image of his victory over the 1993 coup, and accuses them of stage-managing the killings at the Ostankino television centre.

His central contention, and it is on the whole convincing, is that the West in general, and the United States in particular, has committed a historic mistake by patronising and underestimating this convalescent giant.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms