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Blog > Interview: Sean Guillory

Interview: Sean Guillory

Sean’s Russia Blog is one of the older, hardier Russia blogs, having been running now for almost two and a half years. Initially, like most of us, Sean started out as a solo blogger, but over the past few months, Sean’s Russia Blog has expanded to include the work of other writers, such as Mike Averko.

Sean is one of the more academically minded Russia bloggers (meaning his posts are intelligent and thoughtful, not that they’re dull!), and has interests in domestic Russian politics, particularly youth politics. Which is why you’ll find questions about Nashi, the Natsbols and the Communist party towards the end of the interview.

1. Why did you start blogging?

SeanI started blogging in the fall of 2004 as a way to keep family and friends updated on my trip to Russia. I was going to Russia for 10 months on a Fulbright-Hays research grant for my dissertation on the Komsomol in the 1920s. I thought that a blog would be a good way to communicate without having to write separate emails to everyone. But I�ve never been good or really comfortable with writing about my personal experiences and the blog quickly became an outlet for writing about Russian politics.

Until that point I was mostly interested in Russia historically. This quickly changed. So my writing on Russian politics has been an ongoing education.

2. What are your goals for Sean’s Russia Blog?

It is funny that you ask this because I�ve been thinking about this question more and more as SRB has become a permanent fixture in my life. When I started the blog I had no intention of it being permanent. As time went on and people actually started reading it, I decided to keep it going.

In regard to my goals for SRB, I think that they more or less breakdown into three:

1. Diversity of voices.
2. Analyzing Russia in all its complexity.
3. And following from both of these, presenting Russia as a contradictory place, but without actually attempting to resolve those contradictions.

In regard to the first, I want to create a place that carries a diversity of voices about Russia. This is why I recently opened the blog up to submissions. So far I haven�t had that many takers, but I see this as a process that will build over time. In terms of diversity, so far it has been quite difficult and I still think I�ve had mixed results.

The problem with fulfilling the first goal speaks to the second. Most views of Russia are often binaried. Russia is often painted either as a saint or a devil, the ultimate good or ultimate evil. This is one of the unfortunate outcomes of the Cold War. And in my opinion, breaking through this binary is difficult because the Cold War has so thoroughly structured our thinking about Russia. On one side you have the so-called �Russophiles� or even to some extent Russian nationalists who fail to see or even consider the very real problems that exist in Russia. If they do recognize them, there is a tendency to elide their significance by placing Russia next to the United States or Europe as if Russia�s history is identical to those states. (Admittedly, I�ve done this myself in my more flippant moments.) Or worse there is a knee jerk nationalist reaction that sees critics of Russia as hypocritical, enemies, insignificant or uninformed. This latter position is easily dismissed and ignored. The former, I think has more analytical promise if treated carefully. The problem is not with placing Russia in a more global context. I wholeheartedly support this analytical move. In fact one of my goals for SRB is to look at Russia in relation to other states and societies and not as an isolated sonderweg of European modernity. However, even though Russia is part of several transnational historical developments�Enlightenment, modernization, industrialization, and ultimately, globalization�the particularities in the Russian context need to be highlighted. So one can say yes, Russia is part of the industrialized world, but its industrialization has its own particularities that make it different from say England. I think that some �Russophiles� tend to miss this.

On the other end we have the �Russophobes.� Interestingly they are the opposite side of the �Russophile� coin. According to them, Russia is an aberration and cannot be treated as a normal state. Russia�s tendency toward authoritarianism, centralization, and anti-democracy, they argue, is rooted in almost innate characteristics of Russian culture, or even in some cases race. I see very little value in this analysis except that �Russophobes� tend to highlight the problems that Russia faces. Some of these are very real like the state�s authoritarian nature and centralization of political power. Others are so wholly exaggerated, like the ability for say Putin to control all flows of power and policy, that �Russophobes�� descriptions of a very real problem becomes mired in hyperbole and rhetoric.

I reject both these positions in principle and as analytics. Ideally, my analytical scope (and this is my third goal) is to look at Russia through the dialectic between universal and particular. For example, take Russian capitalism. Russia is certainly a capitalist state and is part of and a significant player in the global capitalist system. Yet while Russia is part of the universal process of globalization, the way globalization plays out in the Russian economy, culture and society has its own particular elements. So while Russian pop culture may look like MTV in Europe or America, it still retains something very Russian about it. A good example of this method is Perry Anderson�s recent article in the London Review of Books. Now I can�t say that I�ve been fully successful in maintaining a dialectical analytic in my writing, nor would I say that I possess the analytical acumen that Anderson does, but it is a goal at least for my intellectual work.

Despite their efforts to distinguish themselves from each other, Russophiles and Russophobes cannot exist without the other. In my opinion, this binary is rooted in an Orientalism toward Russia that inevitably eroticizes and fetishizes it. I don�t think most Russia watchers have adequately confronted this Orientalism.

3. What have been your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

I have yet to have any �worst� experiences to mention. I take whatever criticism in stride to the point where I�m sure some critics are frustrated with my lack of engagement. I�ve decided to stay away from polemics. I don�t find them useful and honestly they are quite exhausting. I�m much more interested in general discussion that looks to develop ideas.

My best experiences are to discover that there is something akin to a community of Russia bloggers. I think that this is a wonderful development and something I think is being facilitated by Siberian Light�s series of interviews. It is nice to see that there are many people out there who are interested in Russia, regardless of their particular viewpoints. Overall, the contact that I�ve had with these people has been a positive experience.

4. Which blogs about Russia and the former Soviet Union do you most enjoy reading?

My blog reading tends to go through phases rather than always reading one or two specifically. There are some I really enjoy and check more regularly than others. This list includes Copy Dude, The Russian Dilettante,, Russia Blog, and of course Siberian Light. I�m very happy to see that Lyndon started Scraps of Moscow again. Tim Newman�s White Sun of the Desert is always insightful. I find Turkish Invasion hilarious. I think one of the most creative blogs was Wally Shedd�s Accidental Russophile, but it seems that Wally is devoting his time to other things. His ability to feature Russian cultural artifacts is always impressive. I occasionally glance at La Russophobe just to see what �Kim� is up to, though �her� shtick is pretty predictable. I think the translations �she� provides should be commended. In fact, any translations of Russian media into English are a plus. It is too bad that �her� bombastic rhetoric is too shrill to have any worthwhile exchange. On the whole, I think that English language Russian blogophere is quite rich and deserving of recognition.

5. What first sparked your interest in Russia?

I�m very much a child of the Cold War in the sense that my fascination with Russia began during the Reagan years. My serious interest in Russia didn�t begin until college. At first it was a fascination based in politics. My interest in leftist politics and Marxism made curiosity about the Soviet Union a given. By the end of my Bachelors degree I was sold on making a career out of Russian history.

However, my interests in Russia have changed over the years. The Soviet Union as a fascination of leftist politics has waned as I learned more about it, and my political ideas began to be influenced by different Marxisms and post-structuralism. However, I still consider myself still very much a Marxist. I am still very much interested in revolutionary politics�my dissertation on the Komsomol is an outgrowth of that interest�but more in terms of how new societies and political systems are established. I also have a particular interest in authoritarian systems, especially how they establish and maintain themselves. In fact, I would argue that the Soviet Union, especially during the Stalin period represented what I would call �authoritarian populism.� It was a violent system that had no regard for human life, but at the same time was predicated on mass participation and mobilization. It was what the historian Moshe Lewin called, �two models in one.�

I think my interest in Russia today, especially its present conditions, are partly connected to the above interests. Similar to the 1920s, Russia is undergoing a �transition� of sorts. This may not be a completely adequate term because transition suggests that it is transitioning to something that is inevitable, but I can�t think of another word to use. Basically, the vestiges of Soviet Russia are colliding with capitalist Russia. I think what Russia is today is very much a bricolage of those two systems. Therefore, I think that to suggest that Russia is returning to some kind of �neo-Soviet� form is wholly mistaken. What we are seeing is very much a braiding of two systems similar to how the emerging Soviet system of the 1920s was a braiding of the Tsarist and Communist systems. Still, reducing Russia to these two systems is mistaken. There is something quite tenacious in Russian culture that makes whatever universal system (and I would include both Soviet socialism and capitalism as systems that strive toward the universal) it adopts is confronted with already existing conditions that cannot be fully overcome. As far as identifying what this third braid might be, part of me wants to point to Russian Orthodoxy and possibly Russian national identity as the tenacious elements.

6. What do you love about Russia? What do you hate?

I love its thickness and complexity. Its people�s ability to adapt and survive. Also of the Russians I know, and I know many non-Russians have experienced this, there are those moments when you meet a Russian and they are standoffish. Even a bit suspicious. But once you know them and they you, they open up the world. I love Moscow and have had some of the best times of my life there. I can only describe the place as a giant anthill.

What I don�t like about Russia is the racism and anti-Semitism, and extending from those, nationalism. Not all Russians exhibit these for sure, and some may argue differences between patriotism and nationalism, but even in those attempts there is a certain slippage between the two. Russian nationalism is a very primordial phenomenon that I can�t seem to wrap my head around or really see a justification for it on a personal, let alone political level.

Another thing that bothers me is Russian society�s inability and reluctance to come to terms with the past. I still don�t think the gravity of the human loss under the Soviet system has been fully dealt with. Worse, there is a tendency to play the victim and portray the Communist system as some otherworldly phenomenon that was imposed on Russia. The 1917 Revolutions continue to silently haunt the Russian body politic, and I can�t think of no other event, except for perhaps the French Revolution of 1789 that has undergone more presentist revisionism. I think this recent article by Pavel Baev is a good summary of this.

A friend once told me how the Communists killed her father. He was a kolkhoz chairman in the 1970s and the stress of the job killed him. What she failed to recognize is that her father was also a member of the Communist Party. Now forget whether membership was compulsory or not to have a good job (except to say that compulsion was reinforced and reproduced by Russians themselves), he was still a participant in that system, just like I am a participant in whatever crimes the American government commits. And this participation has nothing to do with the fact that the Soviet Union wasn�t democratic. The lack of democracy didn�t matter in the Revolutions of 1905, 1917 and 1991.

7. If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

Now this is a hard question since books come in so many varieties. I would say something from Russian literature. If there was one book, it would have to be Dostoevsky�s Brothers Karamazov. I could list several historical works that influenced me, but I think I�m inundating your readers enough as it is. But even those are few and far between since Russian historical studies tend to quite intellectually bland and myopic.

8. What is your favourite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

Favorite places are Chistye prudi for the goths and punks and Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow. I�m rather fascinated by how people remember the dead. There are too many places to mention where I would love to visit. Someday I would like to ride the Trans-Siberian railroad.

9. If you could invite three Russians, past or present, to a dinner party, who would they be?

Another difficult question. Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vladimir Vysotsky, and Nicholas I. I don�t know . . .

10. On balance, do you think Vladimir Putin’s Presidency has been good or bad for Russia?

I would say both. And I don�t say this as a way to avoid the question. I think it has been good because Putin�s policies have brought economic and political stability to Russia. I don�t think you can evaluate the Putin presidency without considering the chaos of Yeltsin years. I recently read Paul Klebnikov�s Godfather in the Kremlin and I think he gives a good picture of the utter catastrophe the 1990s were. It is amazing that the chaos didn�t descend further into outright civil war, though it seems that the oligarchs who supported Yeltsin would have pushed it that far if Zyuganov was elected in 1996.

Putin ended all this chaos by trying to make a political deal with the oligarchs and reasserting the state�s monopoly on political power, and to some extent violence. In retrospect Putin�s strengthening of vertical political control was a necessary move, albeit unfortunate because of its anti-democratic character. Further, the Russian economy has been robust in the last few years, and though the spread of capital is horribly centralized, and oligarchic, average Russians feel like they are living better. I think it is important to stress that Russians feel like their lives are better off and that the future looks brighter. One can certainly cite a number of economic and demographic statistics to the contrary, and those would be right to state that wealth is highly concentrated among so few. But the objective factors tend to mean little in people�s everyday lives. People tend to evaluate their reality mostly from a subjective position. And this subjective feeling of prosperity should not be dismissed as false consciousness because in my view it has very real and important material affects. First, it gives legitimacy to Putin, his policies, and the state he has reconstructed. I think his overwhelming popularity according to opinion polls speaks to this. Second, it slows down the impoverishing effects of capitalism as Russians subjectively feel them. So instead of your bank accounts getting wiped out in a matter of hours, your real income in relation to its purchasing power gradually lessens rather than feeling its immediate shock. Thus capitalism as a legitimate system is stabilized and allowed to do its business. Third, political and economic stability contributes to cultural stability. Culture is a tricky issue because art and cultural experimentation seem to thrive in periods of social and political disharmony. Here I�m not talking about the arts per se, but about the development of a national idea. Unlike the 1990s, when the Soviet past was thoroughly discredited, Putin�s Presidency has allowed for a reconciliation of that past with the present. Whether one sees this as a positive thing or not matters little. The point is that Russia�s national identity as a nation state is now one based on a continuum between the Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods. Ironically, the Soviet experience is now reduced to a period of Russia�s modernization rather than one of revolutionary experimentation. I think it would be interesting to look at Russia�s national identity or even Putin�s idea of �sovereign democracy� and compare it to Nicholas I�s idea of Official Nationality. There would certainly be important divergences, but I�m sure there would be convergences too.

However, the stability of Russia�s economy, politics and culture under Putin has come at a cost. The cost to the politics has been stated by many already: the muting of oppositionist voices, the consolidation of mass media, especially television, under the Kremlin�s control, the development of corporatist politics with economics as a political weapon, the weakening of grass roots democracy, human rights organizations, and civil society (by civil society I mean in terms of Habermas that acts as a democratic check to the state, not the popular culture civil society produced by the culture industry) that is autonomous from the state, and the state�s willingness to use coercion and even violence against political opponents (whether real or imagined).

Economics has seen a similar centralization on the macro level where the interests of the state and elite have merged. This is shown by the fact that many of the Russians listed on Forbes�s billionaires list are current or former government officials or have strong ties to them. The micro level, in terms of consumer production and consumption etc is very capitalistic. But capitalism in practice tends to be socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. In this sense it would be a mistake to think that Putin �smashed� the oligarchy. He just tamed it or it tamed itself according to its own interests. There is an oligarchy in Russia, and it has Putin at the center not acting simply as an authoritarian leader, but also as a godfather who adjudicates disputes. As long as those close to the Kremlin recognize the limits to their ambitions, they are free to accumulate wealth and power. This deal between the state and the elite seems to have been lost on oligarchs like Berezovsky and Khordokovsky. Contrary to the 1990s, Russia is now a �managed oligarchy� with the office of the president as its manager.

The costs of all this are a strengthening of centralization, and dare I say, authoritarianism of economic and political power around a tiny circle of people that have similar backgrounds. I think that Andrei Illarionov is correct to label Russia corporatist. (Though I think calling it medieval is stretching it too far because it implies that oligarchy is somehow contradictory to capitalism. In fact I would call oligarchy capitalism�s true face.) Much as been made of the fact that Putin has surrounded himself with former KGB/FSB types. On a sociological level, it is not surprising since the KGB was the main producer of the most educated, skilled, and politically connected people in the USSR. It is no surprise that the top elite around Putin are of similar ilk. But there is another reason and that is the clannish nature of Russian politics. Politics and political power is personal and based on patronage. So when Putin has to choose people to staff the state�s important offices or economic powerhouses, he�s going to most likely pick someone from his patronage circle. It�s either going to be his guy or his guy�s guy.

There is much more I can say about the negatives of Putin�s tenure in terms of oil and gas as a short term, and potentially unstable, economic policy as well as the possible long term effects of Chechnya its spillover into neighboring regions, the grave human rights violations there, and what Kadyrov�s presidency might mean for the region, but I will stop short of that. Just let me say that the fact that we are hearing increased rhetoric about the need to �diversify the economy� suggests that the ruling elite recognize the short term and concentrated prospects of an economy solely based on oil and gas exports.

11. Do you think Russia will ever embrace the style of representative democracy now favoured in (most of) the rest of Europe?

I don�t have much hope or predictions for Russia developing a parliamentary democracy like Western Europe. First, there is a tendency to fetishize European democracy. We need to recognize that it is not static by any means. In fact I think that it is undergoing a number of tests that will ultimately challenge its much lauded democratic character. These include attempts to reconcile the supranational structure of the EU and its federal democracy and the democracy within each respective member nation. The second, and perhaps more threatening challenge is immigration. How European states, which have been racially homogenous until recently, deal with their politically disenfranchised immigrant populations will have a very important effect on the course of European democracy. But I think the challenges of democracy in Europe are indicative of a much larger and global challenges to democracy that we find in many of the states that are upheld as models.

In terms of Russia, one would hope that it develops toward a more European model, but I think we have to come to terms with the fact that democracy is always in relation to a state�s history and political present. I think if there is any model that best suits Russia at the moment; I would point to Mexico under the PRI. Like the PRI, United Russia looks as if it will dominate Russian politics for a long time to come. They will do this not by outlawing other parties, but by limiting their access to power through a variety of legal and corrupt means. And also like the PRI, Russian politics and economics will remain a mixture of corruption and patron-clientage, where large industry will be quasi-private and quasi-national, with some foreign investment thrown in. Russia will be subjected to the norms of international capital�the WTO�but with protections to benefit its elite.

12. Do you think the average Russian’s life today is better, or worse than it was in 1989? Why?

Whether the �average� Russian lives better or worse today depends on a number of demographic and geographical factors that makes it difficult to assess. I assume your question points to a person�s economic livelihood rather than their social, cultural or psychological. In terms of economics, I think we will have to dust off the old concept of class to evaluate this question with any acumen. In this sense, some classes live better than others because the collapse of the USSR and the reconstruction period has affected certain classes differently.

On the whole, if I can make any generalization, I will go back to what I said about subjective and objective conditions above. The average Russian is living better because they feel like they are. This is not to suggest that they are deluded and their feelings of general and individual prosperity are false. Feelings of prosperity are based in grains of truth. I would imagine that many average Russians� lives are better because when they think about the past, look at the present, and then look at those around them and the atmosphere of prosperity, they determine that they are part of it too. I think Putin�s overwhelming popularity is a sign that Russians feel they are living better.

13. If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing, what would it be?

Man, I have to pick one thing! I would say that it needs to stop obsessing about the political opposition and stop the repression and harassment of political opponents. First, it makes the opposition, which is really weak, appear strong and legitimate. Second, it makes the Russian state look bad, if not foolish, in the eyes of other great powers. I thought the way Putin dealt with Anna Politkovskaya�s murder was appalling and politically stupid. Whether she was actually a force in Russian politics is irrelevant. The truth was that she was an admired and respected journalist among the Russian intelligentsia and around the world. All he had to do is give some lip service to her accomplishments. Third, rule through coercion has its limits, especially in a world like ours where the rhetoric of human rights matters more than whether it is actually practiced or not. The use of coercion as a first weapon of rule misunderstands the asymmetry of power between the state and its opponents. The opposition in Russia has no power, and so far, no constituency. For me that means they can be easily ignored. In this regard, the Bush team is a lot politically smarter than Putin�s. I would suggest that Putin read Machiavelli or even Gramsci�s work on hegemony to learn that ruling is a balance between coercion and consent. The Russian political elite�s failure to understand all of this tells me that it is still very immature when it comes to politics.

14. Russia has developed a much more assertive and confrontational approach to foreign policy over the past couple of years, particularly in its near abroad. From Russia’s perspective, what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?

From Russia�s perspective, the benefits are that it is asserting what it believes is its rightful sphere of influence. A sphere that it felt was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent expansion and threats to expand NATO. Also the move, showed other powers�the EU, United States, and China�that Russia will not be silent in geopolitics.

The drawbacks are that in asserting itself it completely overestimated the threat of �colored revolution� in the region. Here I refer to my previous answer. It is now clear that these were hardly revolutions, but merely dramatic events where one political clan replaced another. I don�t want to minimize the fact that liberal democracy as a political and economic system was the beneficiary. The �colored revolutions� created new parameters of unacceptable and acceptable political practice, leaving Ukraine and to some extent Georgia and Kyrgyzstan more palatable to Western democracies. But let�s be honest about this. The EU and US are not going to stick their necks out too far when it comes to these countries. They will give them diplomatic recognition, aid, and moral support, but the EU and US are not going to sacrifice their relationship with Russia for them. In addition, Russia is such an economic powerhouse that both these countries (Ukraine a bit less so) must orientate itself toward Russia whether it likes it or not. That said, Russia�s reaction to its former satellites� �revolt� was way overblown. The response to the Georgians was especially heavy handed and revealed Russia�s chauvinism and racism. When you evaluate the situation geopolitically, Russia turned out to be a loser, not because it lost Ukraine or Georgia, but because it was revealed as an insecure power.

15. What changes in policy (if any) do you think the European Union should implement to deal with Russia’s increasing dominance over energy supplies?

When we speak about the EU here, we are really speaking about Germany. This is the only state in Europe that has any real relationship with Russia, especially with Putin. It is quite striking how many trips Putin takes to Germany and the close relationship he has forged with Merkel and Schroeder before her. I think not getting too taken by the European Union is smart on Russia�s part and, as the Russians rightly surmise, states still matter and the only one that matters on the continent is Germany. But that puts Germany in a really curious position as the European state than can influence, but also be influenced by Russia. That means if the Germans want the gas to continue to flow, they have to tone down their rhetoric about democracy and human rights in Russia. This might be a position Germany�s political elite is satisfied with because after all this is all about money. We shouldn�t so readily drink the kool-aid that Europe is some kind of utopia of human rights. Human rights in Europe are more an elixir for their populations to help them buy into an idea European civilization or exceptionalism and humanitarian capitalism.

If the Europeans were really smart, and their belief in human rights actually had teeth then they would begin to move away from petrol based economy and invest in more green methods. Granted it appears that Europe is on the cutting edge of adopting �green� methods, but I think more needs to be done to really realize that the reliance on oil and gas is eventually a losing prospect. But if the EU or Germany is going to have a close relationship with Russia in the meantime, then I would hope that they put pressure on Russia to really support the creation of genuine democratic structures, the rule of law, and the respect for human rights if only to help maintain a politically stable Russia in the long term. But on the whole, I am doubtful. A European parliamentary democracy in Russia is antithetical to global capitalism. It would stress the reconstruction of the social welfare system, human rights, the redistribution of wealth, anti-corruption, labor environmental and wage laws, etc. Russia is a pool of cheap labor and potentially unfettered capitalist forms of exploitation. Genuine democracy would throw wrenches into this.

16. If the Russian people were to suddenly elect a President in 2008 who had genuine democratic credentials, how successful do you think he would be in effecting genuine change in Russia’s political structures?

If this happened, that president would also have to have the will to smash the political and economic elite. They are the main beneficiaries of the current system and any genuine democratic system would have to first deal with them. This would certainly take authoritarian methods, methods that would certainly contradict attempts to build democracy, but the reality would be that the elite are not going to stand idly by and allow this. I don�t know how successful this leader would be in all this because once he moves against the entrenched political elite, history might quickly spin from his hands and create outcomes that are not only unpredictable, but undesirable.

Given the political conditions in Russia, I don�t think that the establishment of genuine democratic structures�rule of law, honest elections, influential and autonomous civil society, free media, and grassroots political participation�can be done through any constitutional and legislative reform. Any leader who wants to create such a system in Russia would inevitably come into conflict with the oligarchy.

17. Nashi has quickly established itself a place in Russian youth politics. Do you think it will survive the end of Putin’s Presidency?

Whether Nashi survives or not has to do first with how much is it tied exclusively to Putin. Granted there is a cult of Putin in the organization, and �Putinism� is one of its central ideological tenets. And it is clear that Nashi was created by some initiative on the part of the Putin Administration. But it seems that over the last year, the organization has been growing closer to United Russia. I think that this is very important if it does want to last beyond Putin because it needs to become more a �reserve� (as the Communist Party referred to the Komsomol) to United Russia and subsequently the state itself. I can see Nashi filling this vacuum left by the Komsomol, but in a very different way. I don�t think Nashi will ever become a mass or a state organization in the sense that Nashi cells will be created in every school, university etc. Instead, I think it will become an ideological and political training ground for future United Russia cadres and state functionaries. Its focus is less on indoctrinating generations as it is helping to funnel potential talent into the political system. This isn�t so much Nashi�s present function, (like many youth organizations their tactics are merely based on public spectacles) but I can see it transforming into something like this. It is clear however that the organization is becoming a place for youths to make important political connections.

Further, I would suggest that Nashi could also serve two roles. On the one hand, it could serve as a reserve for future functionaries. On the other, it could serve as a check from below against other politicians, especially provincial governors. I remember reading a story that before Putin sacked one of his governors, a local Nashi chapter began accusing the governor of �fascism� (fascism as a catch all boogey word is an interesting tool of Nashi). This is a classic Soviet move. Before moving against a notable from above, you discredit him from below to make his removal seem �legitimate� and �justified�.

18. The National Bolshevik Party’s publicity stunts feature regularly in the media. How much impact would you say the party has on political discourse in Russia today.

One should say that they are featured regularly in the Western media. They are featured less in Russian media. There could be a lot of reasons for this disparity. The major being that Western media is simply fascinated by Limonov (I include myself in this) and give attention to any oppositional force in Russia as if opposition doesn�t or never has existed. The Russian media doesn�t give them a lot of coverage probably for the same reason the Black Bloc, the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) or many of the other anarchist, anti-globalization groups aren�t given much attention in the Untied States. These groups are usually seen as hooligans at best with little political legitimacy for them to matter or pay attention to. Still, I find the Natsbols fascinating and I have written about them on a number of occasions. But as for them actually having an impact on political discourse, I would say that it is very small. If there is a youth group that has such an impact, it would be Aleksandr Belov�s Movement Against Illegal Immigration.

But in regard to the Natsbols, I�m more interested in their political aesthetic�their combining of communist and fascist symbols, their tactics and how they fit into a wider context of youth radicalism, their class nature, their affinity to subculture, particularly punk, and of course Limonov himself. I don�t doubt that his entire look is completely manufactured to the point he resembles Trotsky, and if not some revolutionary from the turn of the 20th century. As for what the Natsbols actually stand for, I�m not sure they know. Are they politically left or right? Are they serious or not? In some ways these questions aren�t that important because my feeling is that the Natsbols are what I would call an �anti-�group. They are against everything the powers that be are for. I can see how this would make them attractive group to some youth who see themselves as on the margins of society.

19. The Communist Party is regarded by many as a party of the elderly. Do you think it will ever appeal to a significant proportion of Russia’s under 30s?

No. I think the Communist Party lives too much in the past to appeal to younger people. Plus, let�s face it, most youth in Russia, let alone anywhere else, aren�t concerned with politics on an active level. While young people tend to very active when they are political, a lot of youth simply don�t care and more often than not go with mainstream political choices. The only inroads the Communist Party may make with youth is in terms of nationalism, but it appears that United Russia and Nashi have the monopoly on this so far.

20. How big a role do you think youth movements will play in the 2008 presidential election?

About a year ago, I thought that youth would play an important role in 2008. Now I�m not so sure. I think that I too got swept up in the rhetoric about �colored revolution� to think that groups like Nashi, the Natsbols or some leftwing untied front between the Natsbols, the communists, and AKM (Red Vanguard Youth) would at least have some impact or at least play a role. For a period of time it seemed as if Nashi and the Natsbols were going of square off in the streets.

While I don�t claim to be able to predict the future of all this, it seems that youth movements might not play a significant role. It seems that �Operation Successor� might go very smoothly and more importantly the political opposition, personified now by �Other Russia� has not generated any meaningful constituency or platform. Their recent protest, which garnered a lot of media attention because of the police repression, will probably not have any real lasting effects. I also wonder how long this coalition of anarchists, fascists, and liberals will hold together.

Plus given the Russian government�s tendency to be heavy handed, I�m sure the cops will be on the alert in the months running up to the election. I can imagine them using the extent of the anti-extremism law just to make an example out of some radical youths.

On the whole, and this comes from my experience with the American left, political movements will never make any real change or have any influence until they stop being against and start being for something. In addition, you can�t build a movement based on protesting. The antiwar movement in the United States has revealed the limits of that strategy. Similarly, as long as the Russian opposition keeps �anti-Putin� as its central identity (just like the American left being anti-Bush), they will never build a constituency because ultimately people want to know what you stand for more than what you stand against.


  • Andy, I think this is the best interview you have done yet. Sean’s blog is one I just started reading recently. Out of the blue he commented on a post I wrote and I found that he had me linked on his blogroll. Since in the last two and a half years only half a dozen people have ever read anything I have posted on my blog I thought I should check him out. This interview provides a lot of good background material regarding the content of Sean’s blog. Keep up the good work.

  • I don’t think I can really take much of the credit – the words are all Sean’s!

    By the way – I fixed the typo in your website address on the first comment.

  • A great interview of a brilliant person.

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  • “It is too bad that “her” bombastic rhetoric is too shrill to have any worthwhile exchange. On the whole, I think that English language Russian blogophere is quite rich and deserving of recognition.”

    Sean, do you have any basis for implying that I’m not female? Don’t you think it’s rather hypocritical to condemn “shrill” and “bombast” whilst making such a totally gratuitous personal attack upon me? Andy’s called such statements “demented.” Are you demented? Or were you just trying to prove how bad shrill bombast is by example?

    Speaking of “bombastic and shrill,” how about when your beloved (and defunct) Wally Shedd accused me on your blog of advocating mass murder of Russians? Seems like what is bombastic and shrill is all in the ear of the listener, I guess. Fortunately, we have Sean to decide for all of us what the “truth” is.

    Rich? compared to what? A tree stump? Actual data clearly shows that compared to the blogospheres other countries have inspired in English, Russia’s is woefully impoverished. Part of the reason may well be that folks like Sean fail to challenge it to improve. Sounds vaguely neo-Soviet — the Soviets were always talking about how rich they were too, right up until they went bankrupt and disappeared. Come to think of it, not one but two of the blogs Sean’s named in Russia’s “rich” blogosphere are defunct and one is about Turkey. Seems like a contradiction. Maybe it’s just me.

    “Worthwhile exchange”? Hmmm. So I guess then you think that the 100 or so comments that I’ve generated here on Andy’s blog recently are worthless, huh? Gosh, that’s pretty harsh. Come to think of it, Andy’s blog wasn’t among those you admired, was it? Talk about biting the hand that interviews you! You may be right after all . . . he did interview you, and not until he’d first interviewed Mike Averko. I guess you feel that the over 100 bloggers and thousands of readers who support LR are not “worthwhile” huh? Gosh. You don’t plan to exterminate them or anything, do you?

    Speaking of Averko, Sean is (apparently proudly) taking sloppy seconds from a blog sponsored by Discovery Insitute, a neocon group that promotes intelligent design. That’s just about the most amazing factoid in the blogosphere, given what Sean otherwise purports to believe.

  • Hmmm, just to clarify a few points:

    I seem to recall saying that attempts to discover La Russophobe’s true identity were “demented”, not attacks on her personally. Having said that, I don’t approve of gratuitous personal attacks either.

    I provide the interviews in an unedited form. This is to encourage people to write what they really think – not what they think will pass my censurious eye. I’d rather have people’s honest views, and allow them to be dissected in the comments section if necessary.

    The order in which I choose to interview bloggers does not in any way indicate my opinion of the interviewees themselves. The order in which I sent out (and continue to send out) requests for interviews is pretty random, and the order in which they are published tends to be based on the order in which the completed interviews are received.

    Actually, Sean did complement Siberian Light (thanks Sean). You may have missed it, because there was no hyperlink.

  • Thanks very much to both of you for this insightful interview – I think all of us could use a little more of this viewpoint of the dialectic between the universal and the particular.

    Probably the two most-cited English language magazine pieces on Russia over the past year would be those by Perry Anderson and Michael Specter, and it is interesting to note that both Russia critics and Putin supporters alike seem to find something in them to cheer about. They must be doing something right in their approach.

    It’s also interesting that Sean notes the comparison between United Russia and the PRI – I also blogged about that on RA recently:

  • A brilliant interview with an objective observer who clearly knows his stuff. Well done Sean and Andy. Fine piece of work. And thats a nice poem too Heribert wherever you got it from.

    LR -above you take a lot of credit for 100 or so comments generated by yourself here. You fail to take into account that a large portion of those are actually from ME validly questioning and criticising you. A bit rich, no? Questions which you are unable to answer. You really live in Lah-Lah Land. Like an ostrich.

  • A revealing interview of the most academic of the leading English language Russia bloggers.

    I respectfully take issue with Sean on several points regarding Russian intolerance, Russia’s ability to honestly look back at the past and how Russia is situated vis-a-vis East and West. Without seeking to repeat previously stated views:

    On Being Russian

    Coverage of Intolerance in Russia & Abroad

    Ukraine’s First Lady and the Ugly History of the Captive Nations Committee

    When applied to Russia, the political discipline of comparative politics is very much lacking. As per what’s selected for top billing, the English language mass media, academia and body politic have done a disservice to the idea of fostering a better understanding in terms of providing varied perspectives which cover all of the angles.

    At their respective blogs, Sean and Andy (as well as some others elsewhere) are pleasant alternatives.

    A closing general thought on Sean’s observation about Russian differences with the West. Individual nations each have their particular ways of going about doing things. In this sense, Russia isn’t so different from the West, which is far from being a monolithic entity.

  • “Worthwhile exchange”? Hmmm. So I guess then you think that the 100 or so comments that I’ve generated here on Andy’s blog recently are worthless, huh?

    Just to put things in perspective, on a global scale, I can’t think of much that is less significant or has less inherrant ‘worth’ than comments on an obscure blog. (Sorry Andy!)

    I do see that the exchange of views and clarification of political stance resulting from the posts has a value, but who is posting is, I suspect, fairly irrelevant as long as a discussion is perpetuated.

    I appreciate your points of view LA R, if only because they and the answers they invoke make for an amusing read on a dull Friday, but if you stopped commenting tomorrow, I don’t believe that this or any other blog would decrease in net worth.

  • ANDY:

    Thanks for the correction, Sean did mention and fail to link to you. This actually makes my point even stronger: It gives me the opportunity to point out that, like Averko and unlike me, I believe Sean never once commented upon or expressed open interest in your blog until you interviewed him; certainly, there was no active ongoing expression of interest on your pages as there was from me. Seems to me like they are fair-weather admirers. I commented on your blog extensively long before I had any idea you wished to interview me, giving me legitimate basis to praise you in my interview.

    I’m sure you’ll agree upon reflection that Sean openly questioning my gender is inviting a revival of the “demented” inquiry to which you referred. I appreciate your confirmation that you don’t approve of personal abuse (I carefully refrained from it in my interview as you well know, out of respect for your pages) and appreciate as well your tacit recognition of Sean’s gross hypocrisy on this point, not only because he haughtily purports to dislike personal attacks but also because he purports to embrace tolerance for all kinds of people. To me, these seem like very hollow words given his remarks.

    I should be clear in saying that I have no problem with personal attacks based on intelligence or morality that are tied to specific substantive statements of the target (I have published many such statements about me on my blog in the form of comments), and I have no problem with challenges to a person’s identity if they place it at issue by seeking to invoke their credentials as support for their positions. However, your word “demented” is quite appropriate for personal attacks on identity made against someone who does not invoke credentials. It’s the action of a brigadnik. I despise the publishers of Copydude and Russian Blog and have repeatedly criticized their statements, but I’ve never once questioned their identity or lack thereof, since neither one claims any special gravitas for their views based on who they are. In my view, it’s the finest expression of bloggerism to let your views and facts stand utterly alone, and many famous writers agree. It means far more if Shakespeare gets a play accepted for publication if he submits anonymously than if he uses his famous name. In my view, it’s the ultimate confirmation of a failed argument (maybe even a failed intellect) if one makes a gratiutous personal attack unconnected to any substantive basis, as Sean has done by calling me “she.” Whether I’m one or many, male or female, changes nothing about anything I’ve ever written. I’ve never said I’m right because of who I am.

    Above all, though, I despise the hypocrisy of someone like Sean who purports to condemn shrill language while using it and to decide for others what forms of abuse are acceptable. To your credit, you seem to have avoided that ugly situation. However, I’m not sure you can avoid all responsiblity for what appears on your blog just because you choose to give subjects the freedom to write what they want. I’m willing to bet that, no matter what you say, there are things you would in fact censor. If you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t be human.

  • Folks:

    For the record, I’d said that Andy’s work was something I appreciated prior to his interviewing me.

    This was communicated to Andy AFTER his first interview and before he invited me for an exchange.

    Andy might recall himself having a brief exchange with me awhile back. This was before his recent return to active blogging.

    While I’m on the subject of Andy. I like the way Andy’s blog lists most recent posted comments at the top right of the SL home page. It also appears quite easy to post comments at his blog unlike some others which are pre-screened.

    Andy’s blog is the closest to a hybrid forum and blog. Among the Eng. language Russia topical blogs, I rate Andy’s and Sean’s respective blog as having the best conversations.

  • For the record, I’d said that Andy’s work was something I appreciated prior to his interviewing me.

    Yeah, but if you really loved Andy you’d have taken the effort to meet up with him. Raaaaaaaassspppp!

  • To all who’ve given compliments, thank you very much. I appreciate them.

    LR you really are a one trick pony. Yes I’m all the things you call me: hypocritical, demented, hollow, bombastic, shrill, etc, etc, etc. What do I care?

    But on to something more substantive and interesting.

    Thank you James for pointing me to your post on Russia and the PRI. I think it is a comparison worth exploring. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Mexico myself to go into any deep analysis.

    Mike, I think we will continue to disagree on the issue of race and racism in Russia. Racism strikes a particular cord with me mostly because politically I am not only anti-racist, I’m anti-race.

    I have the problem with the concept of tolerance. Unlike most liberals, I don’t see anything antithetical between “tolerance” and “racism.” The latter does not prevent or sublimate the former. In fact, I would say that tolerance is a way to repress racism and even to some extent reinforce it. Tolerance by no means undoes it.

    But first a definition. In my view, a race is when persons or groups are defined or define themselves biologically or culturally with characteristics (skin color, language, traditions, facial or body features) that are immutable and transhistorical. These immutable characteristics are historically invested with political and cultural meanings that define what that person or group ultimately is. I always wonder why we have races based on skin color, but not races based on say eye color or big feet.

    It is difficult to measure the extent of racism in Russia because race works differently there. And I would never say that Russia is more racist than other countries. Russia certainly has a race problem but I’m not sure if race or racism is a core foundation in Russian ideology like it is in American or Brazilian ideology, where it is a fundamental pillar. Russian nationalism plays a far more critical role, but that nationalism is not necessarily predicated on an idea of race or racism. To my knowledge, Russia doesn’t even have a legal tradition where race is written into or interwoven with law, again like in the United States.

    One day I would like to conduct a historical study of “race” in Russia, from the 19th century to the present in order to understand what it is in the Russian context. Race seems to function very differently there than in the US. And what I consider a race or racist might not necessarily be seen as such by a Russian or in Russia.

    I do wonder what profit this law on concealing the race of hate crime victims and perpetrators will do for the betterment of race relations in Russia.

    Race in Russia is a fascinating subject. I hope others are interested in it too.

  • To my knowledge, Russia doesn’t even have a legal tradition where race is written into or interwoven with law, again like in the United States.

    I am of the opinion that the practice of making Soviet citizens having their race clearly stamped in the passports as a legal tradition. Certainly those who had “Jew” displayed boldly and clearly on the first page of their passports would think so.

  • Tim you are of course correct. I also forgot about the Pale of Settlement for Jews. Thanks for the correction. What a mistake on my part.

  • Re:

    “Tim Newman said:
    March 16th, 2007 at 11:25 pm
    To my knowledge, Russia doesn’t even have a legal tradition where race is written into or interwoven with law, again like in the United States.

    I am of the opinion that the practice of making Soviet citizens having their race clearly stamped in the passports as a legal tradition. Certainly those who had “Jew” displayed boldly and clearly on the first page of their passports would think so.

    Sean said:
    March 16th, 2007 at 11:32 pm
    Tim you are of course correct. I also forgot about the Pale of Settlement for Jews. Thanks for the correction. What a mistake on my part.”



    Your rejoinder to my last prior posted comments clarifies your views. I respect your logic, while having a different take.


    I’m as anti-Soviet as they come and I don’t see my opposition to bigotry as being less that of anyone at this discussion.

    Let’s distinguish between propaganda and reality. Zionism acknowledges a Jewish nation and hence a Jewish national identity. Every ten years, a Soviet census was taken. Soviet citizens had the freedom to list whatever of many chosen groups were offered. For example, a Russian in Aremina could choose an Armenian identity.

    During this period, NO ONE forced Jews to list a Jewish identity. Some Jews chose an identity other than Jewish. What if the USSR didn’t list a choice of ethnic groups? Suppression of national identity! I’m also unaware that a Jew’s document was (as suggested) constructed differently from others.

    Bigotry? How about Jackson-Vanik which essentially stated that only a Jew can leave the USSR? Was it okay for others to live in an unfortunate situation? This shortsighted clause saw a good number of Soviet citizens forge a Jewish identity just to get out of the USSR. I recall eXile having written a piece on this.

    As for the Pale of Settlement, in fact many Jews lived in Russia proper (the territory of today’s Russian Federation) during that paper law which was frequntly not observed. Also, consider what was going on elsewhere in the world during that period.

    So yes, Russia has ethnic tensions. Who doesn’t? It’s not skirting the issuie to show double standards and clarify certain points related to Russia’s ethnic problems.

    Try building a mosque in Slovenia. Try getting an article published in American mass media on Jewish bigotry against Arabs without noting what nurtures such an attitude. On the matter of bigotry, where’s the outrage against the bigoted anti-Russian Captive Nations Committee?

  • LR, your comment:
    ”I’ve never said I’m right because of who I am.”

    Hilarious is ever. Should be more like ”i’ve never said I’m right full stop”
    That’d be more accurate.

    Sadly your reasoning on your own use of anonymity is as flawed as all your other arguments. The reason you practice anonymity is very simple – if your name was out there, you’d never get a Russian visa again. Gratuitiously offending the Russian Federation publicy is an actual offence and if the Russians knew who you are – and to be honest I’d say they do anyway – you’d just be told ”nyet” next time at the embassy. The line is quite strict ”entering Russia is a courtesy of the Russian Federal government and shuold not be considered an automatic right.” So if I were you I wouldnt be too suprised if you never see Moscow or Petes again. Then again, lets face it, its hardly Russia’s loss really.
    Never mind! You’ll still be as influential as you think you are. Obviously, the continetal United States is the best place to influence change in Russia from. After all its only 10 hours away on the plane, uses a totally different language and couldnt care less what westerners think. Who needs to actually be in Russia anyway, eh?) Perish the thought! You can make that revolution happen from there at your pc!)

    Please dont compare yourself to Shakespeare. Its really upsetting. To quote Polonius giving his fatherly talk to Laertes ”give very man thine ear but few thine voice”. Maybe you should take Polonius’ advice, stop your ranting and actually learn something about Russia?

  • No answer to the above LR? Didnt think so. Cooked like a goose. Anyway on the plus side you wont ever have to worry about using the toilet on the Moscow metro. I’ll send you some postcards. Wouldnt like you to miss the beauty of Novoslobodskaya, Kievskaya and my personal favourite – Mayakovskaya.

  • I have the impression that Mayakovskaya is a general favourite. I thought it was only me — but turns out most people seem to like that place. I have never been able to quite figure out why, though. I suspect it’s that HUGE, no, make that MEGA HUGE entrance area….

  • RM, its funny you should say that, but it has a lot to do with symmetry I suspect, in the way its often speculated that particularily beautiful people have symmetrical features. But the entrance to Mayakovskaya is huge but what makes it spectacular is that it opens onto the enormous, throbbing Bolshaya Sadovaya and the Peking Hotel. Its a real Centre-of-a-Massive-Empire type of street. I’m also partial to it cos its its always full of couples meeting with bunches of flowers, hugs and smiles. It puts me in go mood seeing all this young romance! Arbatskaya is another station full of sweet moments.

    Andy, not telling you your business or anything, its your blog, but why not put up a post where people can discuss their favourite streets/metro stations/Russian women? It’d be popular I’m sure.

  • I loved Mayakovskaya even before the new entrance was opened – for me, it’s the mosaics in the ceiling. And the fact that it used to be so close to home. I have a bunch of pictures that I took last summer of the new Mayakovskaya entrance somewhere, but I haven’t posted them yet.

    The Moscow metro has to be the most photography-friendly metro I’ve ever encountered. Even the DC metro now periodically makes announcements that photography is not allowed, SPB has signs up, police stop you in Tashkent… but in Moscow, I’ve only ever been approached once by a cop in the metro – unpleasant, but fairly remarkable given all the times I’ve been down there with a camera.

    Some of my metro pics are here;
    some better metro photos are here;
    Artemy Lebedev’s excellent metro site is (with old maps, tokens & tickets, archival photos, etc.) here.

  • Lyndon,

    those pics of your are brilliant!!)) They really capture the atmosphere underground. I especially like the Kutznetskii Most ones. How many times have I waited there for a train home at 6am after a night out in Kitai Gorod!
    Unlike you I havent the balls to take pics underground. Her indoors says ”no” and thats the end of it for me. Do you anywhere I’d get a pic of ‘metro girl’, the pretty blonde/redhead in the poster adds?

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