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Books / eXile Classic / November 27, 2002

Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin

By Michael McFaul, Cornell University Press, 2001

This book is a four-hundred page testimonial to the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the American Russia-watching mafia. In its pages, Michael McFaul condemns himself again and again with staggering non-sequiturs, self-serving lies, crude misrepresentations of his own past and the recent history of Russia, and repeated failures to meet even the most basic standards of academic rigor.

The failures to meet academic standards are the most glaring fault of the book. What can one say of an academic work that attempts to chart Russia’s “course to democracy” without once even attempting to define its central term, “democracy”? Was this mere incompetence? God knows there is incompetence and provincial gaucherie enough in McFaul’s work, from the Preface, in which he informs us that “In 1799, France was still deep in the throws [sic] of revolutionary turmoil…,” to his Conclusion, which ends with some of the most inadvertently comic attempts at grand chiasmus since Cicero wore out his whipping-arm on his duller pupils.

But McFaul’s simple-minded concepts and clunky prose serve his and his masters’ purposes. There’s all too much method in this muddle. As his long, successful career has shown, McFaul possesses a canine cunning which has more than compensated for his canine intelligence, sending him to the top of a profession which values collegiality far more than brains. And his most glaring intellectual failures, starting with his failure to define “democracy,” show the cunning of the sidling, canine mind. If McFaul had attempted to produce a clear definition of this term, it would have become impossible — even for him — to imply that Yeltsin’s garish kleptocracy ever approached anything which could be called “democracy.”

McFaul’s method of dealing with inconvenient theoretical questions such as the question of whether 1990s Russia ever attained anything which could be called “democracy” is consistent, simple and efficient: he relegates such thorny complications to footnotes in which opposing texts are listed — without comment, without rebuttal, without any engagement at all. The most stunning example of this technique comes on page 338. Here, near the end of the book, McFaul interrupts one of his many rhetorical flights about how Russia’s transition to democracy “has been a long one” with this footnote:

“Of course, many still argue that there has been no transition to democracy at all. Others have argued that Russia is still an authoritarian regime, not due to historical legacies but as a result of Yeltsin and his reforms. See [followed by list of academic books].”

It does seem a bit odd that in a book wholly devoted to Russia’s transition to democracy, the fact that there exists a whole body of academic work asserting that Russia has no democracy should be mentioned only once.

In a footnote on page 338.

Without comment.

I would be curious to hear the views of “the many scholars” mentioned in McFaul’s “Acknowledgements,” who “devoted hundreds of hours to reading drafts of the manuscript” on this matter. Here are the academics named by McFaul as having read the manuscript:

Anders Aslund, Vladimir Bokser, George Breslauer, Valerie Bunce, Larry Diamond, John Dunlop, Lynn Eden, Matthew Evangelista, Jim Fearon, Jim Goldgeiger, Gordon Hahn, David Holloway, Andrew Kuchins, Gail Lapidus, David Laitin, Sarah Mendelson, Nikolai Petrov, Thomas Remington, Scott Sagan, Stephen Stedman, Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom, Steven Solnick, Svetlana Tsalik, Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, Barry Weingast.

All those whose names appear on this list are encouraged to write to me, c/o the eXile, to clarify what might otherwise seem like collusion in a prima facie case of violation of basic academic integrity for reasons of crude ideological bias. Replies will be published without alteration in the eXile.

Being more cynical than the average academic, I am inclined to suspect that McFaul failed to deal with opposing views simply because he is intellectually incapable of doing so and temperamentally unsuited, by virtue of his utterly shameless pursuit of political power, to spend too much time on the unrewarding arcana of his vocation.

Perhaps the starkest illustration of that shamelessness is that this man, who has spent the last year groveling to the most rightwing administration in a century, can allude with a straight face to “my comrades in the African National Congress (ANC).” It would be interesting to survey the ANC ruling circles to see if anyone there remembers a “comrade” named McFaul. One might refresh their memories with some updated details: “You know, McFaul — Fellow of the Hoover Institution, advocate of ‘regime change’ in Iraq, admirer of George W., …” It might be a tad difficult, these days, to find anyone in the ANC willing to admit remembering Comrade McFaul.

But for McFaul, there is no shame and no contradiction in simultaneously groveling to Bush’s imperialists and the ANC. After reading McFaul’s book, I was overcome by something like morbid curiosity about what sort of grotesque consciousness could sustain such incompatible patrons. To put it more bluntly: how can such a vile, double-speaking courtier live with himself?

Rereading the book, I realized that for McFaul, groveling to power is not merely a natural, but in a bizarre sense, a moral act. A sincere conviction underlies such behavior and also provides the major premise of McFaul’s book: the belief that any political structure that can triumph and sustain itself is thereby legitimized.

This premise is historicized in McFaul’s account of recent Russian history via a crude, fairy-tale structure: the ancient Indo-European story-form of the heroic quest involving three attempts, the first two of which fail, while the third succeeds (eg “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Little Pigs”). The first stage, which McFaul calls “The Gorbachev Era,” begins with Gorbachev’s accession to power and ends with the failed 1991 coup. The second begins with Yeltsin coming to power in 1991 and ends with the attack on the White House. To this alleged epoch McFaul has given the grand title “The First Russian Republic.” The third stage is the next three years of Yeltsin’s disastrous reign, a period which McFaul terms “The Emergence of the Second Russian Republic, 1993-1996.”

McFaul is not shy in introducing his three-part narrative, admitting that it is an artificial “periodization” of a “single historical phenomenon.” In fact, in a two-page subsection called “Methodological Considerations” (pp. 26-27) he admits that “…this periodization is manufactured, artificially dividing what is a single case of regime transformation into three observations of institutional change…” Then, without engaging this rather basic intellectual flaw in any way whatsoever, he says that despite such “research design limitations,” “[his] analysis forges ahead…”

This is surely one of the grandest non sequiturs in contemporary academic prose. Like much of McFaul’s work, it cannot be understood in logical terms. It must be seen as a rhetorical ploy resulting from the author’s divided intention and audience. Look closely at the language of the non sequitur. The very title of the subsection in which it occurs, “Methodological Considerations,” suggests that this two-page section is a brief aside to more rigorous academic readers. McFaul trots out academic language here, conceding his “research design limitations.” But then he turns to the language of the politician in boasting that “the analysis forges ahead” — as if resuming his true role, the orator, and abandoning his academic pretensions in all possible haste. The author’s priorities could hardly be clearer: professional respectability is well enough, but “forg[ing] ahead” to the big grants is what really matters.

Having made his pro forma concession that the whole three-part fairytale story is fake, McFaul returns to it, unabashedly repeating the term “failure” as often as possible in discussing the first two stages: “The first failure occurred in August 1991…”; “The second failure occurred in October 1993.” Whenever alluding to the first two “failures” after introducing them, McFaul consistently uses melodramatic terms, calling them “two violent confrontations” or characterizing them separately as “the August 1991 conflict and the October 1993 confrontation.” By such emotive language, and by dint of simply repeating the term “failure,” McFaul tries to create an artificial break between these two events and his happy-ending third stage, that just-right bowl of democratic porridge which Yeltsin served up, with the help of oligarch cash and electoral fraud, thereafter.

So often, and so crudely, does McFaul overdo the contrast that one is almost forced to confront the begged question: why make two historical events villains, and a third a fairy-tale hero? Why not accept Russian political history of the 1990s as all of a piece? For McFaul, the reason is simple: there would be no moral to that story. That is the way the story reads, in the hands of more honorable scholars like Stephen Cohen, Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski, who have risked their careers by debunking the lie that Yeltsin’s era ever had anything like a happy ending. But honor has a price; those people will never have the access to the White House, which is, for creatures like McFaul, the whole purpose of a career in Russia-watching.

In defining the success of this third attempt, McFaul is, at least, consistent. Throughout the book, even as he fudges everything from his own sleazy record as Yeltsin apologist to the disastrous economic effects of Gaidar’s reforms, he never wavers from the criterion by which he measures the success of “political institutions”: survival. Every sentence of the book is suffused with the influence of that most fundamental American proverb: “You can’t argue with success.”

By this standard, the Bolsheviks would make excellent protagonists in a three-stage fairy tale of the sort McFaul employs: Once upon a time, there were three revolutions. The first two were “failures,” “violent confrontations” which left no enduring Russian political institutions; the third was a grand success. The first failure was the 1905 revolution. The second was the Kerensky revolution. Then came the third, Leninist revolution, which left “enduring political institutions” (to say the least).

Why stop there? Why not impose the three-little-pigs tale on the course of Bolshevik rule (as Orwell did quite literally in Animal Farm): first came Lenin, who built his house of Proletarian straw; then Trotsky, who built his of Comintern sticks; and then, at last, that most worthy of pigs, Stalin, who built his house of good blood red bricks. Stalin’s edifice meets McFaul’s single standard of success: it lasted.

Survival, plain and simple — again and again, McFaul uses this as the test of the post-1993 political structure of Russia. In a crucial passage very early on in the book, he acknowledges that outright fraud had everything to do with the “success” of Yeltsin’s regime, but then — relying on the word “yet” to wall off this troubling quibble — he simply reasserts what is, for him, the only fact that matters: the regime survived, and is therefore legitimate:

“Elections…became a crucial component of this new political order….These elections were guided by law, held on time, and did not contradict the 1993 Constitution…Election fraud tarnished the results, especially in 1993, yet all major political actors recognized the results as legitimate and refrained from challenging their validity.”

Note the key concession, “[e]lection fraud tarnished the results…” An interesting metaphor, “tarnished.” It implies surface damage, largely cosmetic; nothing to whine about, as implied by the way the sentence plows onward, returning to McFaul’s relentless optimistic tone in the next clause, “…yet all major political actors recognized the results as legitimate and refrained from challenging their validity.” That aside, McFaul is just plain wrong: everyone from Yavlinsky to Zyuganov as well as most of the Russian press uncovered massive fraud in the elections. Just because they didn’t take up arms doesn’t mean they recognized the results: they knew that there was no other choice but civil war, so they chose to play ball. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Yeltsin’s democracy.

There are so many lies and half-truths in this claim that it’s difficult to know where to begin. First, it is absolutely false that fraud was crucial “especially in 1993″; as McFaul knows very well, fraud was central to the far more important 1996 Presidential elections. McFaul simply hopes to pass this nonsense off on an American audience which doesn’t know any better. Then there’s the implication that fraud merely “tarnished” the results of these elections. Lying via metaphor is lying nonetheless — fraud changed the outcome of these elections.

In an attempt to mollify more knowledgeable readers who know something of the scope and effect of electoral fraud in Yeltsin’s time, McFaul inserts brief accounts of what really happened in that crucial 1996 election here and there, too far apart for the casual American reader to piece together. Here, formed by connecting two such passages placed forty pages apart, is a more honest version of this triumph of “democracy”:

“In…the ‘loans for shares’ program, a small group of Russian banks gave the government loans in exchange for interim control of shares in a dozen major companies. These loans were never paid back, so the banks kept their shares. …Boris Berezovsky’s Logovaz eventually landed its own oil company, Sibneft, through the loans-for-shares scheme….Cleverly, the oligarchs only gained control of these companies after the 1996 election.” (p. 252)

Taking up this story forty pages later, McFaul concedes that in the lead-up to the 1996 election, Yeltsin knew he was in trouble — and so did his backers, the very oligarchs who had been handed over Russia’s entire wealth by Yeltsin’s thieves’ court. He only rated about 3 percent in the polls. So the oligarchs decided to intervene in the “democratic process”:

“Assembled in Davos…arch-rivals Vladimir Gusinsky from Most Bank and Boris Berezovsky from Logovaz decided to bury their differences for the duration of the campaign and work together to reelect Boris Yeltsin. Because Gusinsky owned NTV television (Channel 4) and Berezovsky controlled ORT (Channel 1), this strategic alliance was crucial….Berezovsky and his business colleagues [!] met with the president and pledged to finance his campaign….” (p. 293)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how “democracy” came to Russia. At least, that’s how McFaul sees this shameful tale, the stripping of a rich land by a band of vultures. One can only wonder what sort of model of democracy McFaul has absorbed…Oh, that’s right, he lives in the United States and spends his life sucking up to the Bush administration — so of course government by oil oligarchs, sustained by massive petrodollar infusion, tax evasion, shareholder fraud and crude vote rigging is the very essence of “democracy” in his mind. No wonder he finds the recent history of Russia such fertile ground for his notorious “optimism”: every day in every way, Russia looks more and more like Texas — and now, D.C.

For McFaul, Yeltsin’s great achievement is the fact that he left power voluntarily, rather than staging a coup to stay in charge. It’s astonishing to see McFaul repeating endlessly his hymn to Yeltsin as champion of democracy simply for not calling out the tanks…again. McFaul makes Yeltsin sound like Thomas More on the scaffold for bowing out “peacefully and constitutionally” — even while conceding that Yeltsin probably COULD NOT have stayed in power even if he had staged a coup:

“We may never know what Yeltsin would have done had he lost the 1996 election. Many believe he would not have vacated the Kremlin peacefully….[but changes] in the balance of power limited Yeltsin’s ability to hold on to power by other means [i.e. a military coup]. This power distribution may have encouraged Yeltsin to leave office peacefully and constitutionally, as he did on December 31, 1999.”

Apparently the reader is supposed to be misty-eyed at the thought that this bloated, moribund embezzler limped away from the throne to play with his ill-got millions, handing over power to a spy who didn’t even pretend to play with democracy, rather than ordering tanks into the street. This was, for me, the most utterly bizarre aspect of this strange volume. Have I lived away from America too long? Do we now so revere oil oligarchs and their frontmen that we are required to canonize them for failing to stage a coup?

McFaul’s tone changes suddenly at the end of the book, when Putin replaces Yeltsin. The ever-forgiving adulator suddenly switches on his atrophied sense of outrage. Putin, McFaul informs us “…inflicted considerable damage to democratic institutions.” This sentence occurs on p. 362, which is why the reader is somewhat surprised; how can Putin have damaged “democratic institutions” when McFaul has never even begun to demonstrate that such institutions came into being in Yeltsin’s Russia? It’s like accusing Hiroshima’s 1946 City Council of ruining the city’s architectural heritage.

All the outrage over Chechnya which was notably absent in McFaul’s scanty mentions of the first, Yeltsin-led war pours out in his account of the second, undertaken by Putin’s administration: “More gruesome [than Putin's electoral crimes] has been Putin’s indifference to the human rights of his own citizens in Chechnya…”

At this point, irony fails me; I’d just like to spit in McFaul’s face. The first Chechen war — Yeltsin’s war — killed 100,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them Chechen women and children. Yeltsin’s army treated the entire territory of Chechnya as a free-fire zone, responding to “enemy activity” of any scale from sniper upward by massed artillery fire. Where is McFaul’s anger over these hundred thousand dead? As far as the reader of this book will ever know, that first war was, literally, a footnote.

Why, then, does McFaul’s dormant indignation spring up when the topic is Putin? McFaul and his fellows dislike Putin for a simple reason: Putin isn’t their guy. Yeltsin was. So Yeltsin can do no wrong; Putin can do no right. McFaul — who was loudly denying rumors of graft and embezzlement right up to the 1998 crash — is up to his neck in the blood and filth of 1990s Russian politics. He has no choice but to prop up his crimes with repeated fairy-tales like this long retelling of the three little pigs. But there were far more than three of them, and they stayed at the trough till they had stolen every scrap…and their advocate, this smiling Palo Alto grant-getting Oval-Office parasite–

Words will not suffice. One sees why so many cultures have a notion of Hell, or vengeful reincarnation as a slug or a toad…because I know very well that McFaul and the hundred thousand McFaul-facsimiles clogging the campuses, the op-ed pages, the grant committees and the policy teams, will squirm from success to success, with no prospect of justice this side of the grave.

This article was originally published in The eXile, November 27, 2002.

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