Angels and Demons in the Cold War and Today – New York Times Op-Ed

Angels and Demons in the Cold War and Today

New York Times

March 13, 2017

LOS ANGELES — George Kennan knew how to bring down the house. His lecture audiences started off skeptical about whether Russia really wanted to be remade on the American model. Then he told them about the Russian political prisoners who spent the weeks before the Fourth of July scrounging bits of cloth in red, white and blue. When the holiday came, they met their jailers by waving a sea of tiny hand-sewn stars and stripes through the bars.

It sounds like the perfect Cold War propaganda tale. But the Fourth of July that Kennan was referring to wasn’t during the 1950s — it was in 1876. And the George Kennan telling the story wasn’t the famous Cold War-era diplomat, but his distant relative and namesake, a journalist who had spent time in Russia before going on the lecture circuit in the 1880s.

The American narrative of the Cold War as a battle for the fate of humankind is a familiar one. From the establishment of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States portrayed Soviet Russia as not merely a geopolitical rival, but a spiritual foe. Journalists and policy makers veered between bitter demonization of the country and Messianic fantasies about remaking it in America’s image. But what’s surprising is how far back America’s evangelizing approach to Russia goes — and how it continues to distort our thinking today.

In his book “The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire,’” the historian David Foglesong details how American opinion leaders have cast Russia in the role of America’s “dark double” for more than a century. Mr. Foglesong’s book is as indespensible today as ever, helping Americans to understand how we have treated Russia as either a benighted land yearning to become a second America, or a moral monster whose faults ease Americans’ own guilty conscience.

This pattern began in the last decades of the 19th century, when America was facing a decline of religious faith, a surge in racial terrorism against African-Americans and brutal conditions for industrial workers. In an atmosphere of domestic crisis, many Americans found their idealism renewed by George Kennan’s campaign to liberate Russia from autocratic rule.

Kennan wrote and lectured passionately to change American perceptions of czarist Russia from benign to barbaric. Russia was usually cast at the time as America’s “distant friend,” the great power that had helped ward off French and British support for the Confederacy by sending its ships to American ports during the American Civil War. But Kennan’s reports on the “perfect hell of misery” among Russian political prisoners — invented in parts — helped turn the tide. Kennan was motivated by his contacts with Russian exiles to Siberia, who filled him with “spiritual uplift.” In turn, he helped American antislavery activists find new purpose in the anti-czarist crusade.

Kennan’s campaign coincided with a rising perception of Russia as a land of opportunity for Protestant missionaries and American manufacturers. Both groups welcomed the message that Russians wanted to trade czarist autocracy for American freedom. The Fourth of July flag anecdote sent Kennan’s audiences into raptures — but it was based on a fantasy. Anti-czarist revolutionaries in Russia were largely skeptical of the American model and saw more promise in socialism.

Still, what a contemporary American newspaper called “the gospel according to Kennan” soon became common wisdom: Russia was a savage land ready to be remade by American ideals, prayers and products.

A Life magazine illustration marking the February 1917 Russian Revolution perfectly captured this vision. The Statue of Liberty was shown riding on the back of a bear, casting the light of liberty over awe-struck Russian peasants. A tablet in her hand bears two dates: 1776 and 1917. Americans celebrated the Russian Revolution as an extension of their own. In a speech to Congress in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson hailed the “naïve majesty” of the “great, generous Russian people,” who were “always in fact democratic at heart.”

The rise of the Bolsheviks swung American opinion from irrational hopes to bitter, racially charged demonization. George A. Simons, a Methodist missionary, returned from Petrograd in 1919 to warn the Senate about a “cruel,” “hellish,” “diabolical” and “Antichrist” regime, dominated by “Yiddish” agitators with worrying ties to Jewish radicals in New York.

The pendulum swung back in the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks opened their doors to American famine relief workers and Protestant missionaries. The director of the American Relief Administration, a congressionally funded food aid mission, proclaimed that Russians saw his organization as “a miracle of God which came to them in their darkest hour under stars and stripes.” American evangelicals, whom the Bolsheviks found useful in undermining the Russian Orthodox Church, celebrated Russia as “the greatest missionary opportunity of our time,” where “millions of white people are waiting for the message of life.”

But when the Soviet regime squeezed out foreign missionaries in the 1930s, American evangelicals identified Russia as the satanic “land of Magog,” prophesied in Ezekiel 38-39 to battle Israel at the end of days. The portrayal of Russia as uniquely evil rose together with the influence of evangelicals in American political life over the course of the Cold War.

The nuclear standoff that followed World War II dampened American hopes to “liberate” Russia in the near term. But the moral panic continued unabated, and again found targets at home. The anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s exemplified what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.” American conservatives responded with particular fury when Soviet criticism of the United States aligned with that of the American left, be it over racial segregation or the conduct of the war in Vietnam. The conservative Chicago Tribune insisted in a 1968 editorial “Liberty Prostrate” that “international immorality is a monopoly of Communists.”

The culmination of the moralizing rhetoric came at a 1983 meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, where President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Reagan used the specter of the “dark double” to sell nuclear escalation as a moral imperative.

Inevitably, the fall of the “evil empire” brought claims of cosmic victory — and with it, bad policy. Neoconservatives declared the American economic and political order the end point of human history. This triumphalist mind-set led to American policies on Russia in the 1990s that paved the way for an authoritarian backlash: the economic “shock therapy” that impoverished tens of millions of Russians, support for monstrously corrupt privatization schemes and the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet bloc. George F. Kennan, the 20th century diplomat and foreign policy “wise man,” was one of many to warn that NATO expansion was “a tragic mistake” that was bound to provoke “a new Cold War.”

Today, the American commentariat is again trapped in a narrative of angels and demons, with President Vladimir V. Putin our latest Mephistopheles. Efforts to depict a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence — thus far without evidence — have reached a such a pitch that even implacable Putin critics like the journalist Masha Gessen and the former American ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul have called for cooler heads.

Russia presents obvious challenges to American interests and ideals. But those challenges require thoughtful analysis and fresh insights — not millenarian fantasies about a battle for the spiritual fate of humankind.

Americans should also remember that the heat of our Russia talk has always reflected anxieties about the health of our own democracy. The deepest challenges Americans face at home don’t come from the Kremlin. They come from homegrown authoritarianism, entrenched inequality, the corporate capture of our politics and the collapse of the 20th-century social contract. The way we address these problems will determine more about the future of the American experiment — and America’s role abroad — than all the anti-Russia epithets in the world.

Stephen Boykewich is a screenwriter and journalist who was based in Moscow from 2004 to 2007.

Original online at:

Feature image source:

Five Voices of Sanity on Russia

As the fervor of our latest Red Scare grows, it’s getting harder to find voices of sanity on Russian affairs. Here are a few worth heeding.

– SB

1. Keith Gessen

Born in Russia and raised in the U.S., Keith has won justified acclaim a journalist, editor, translator, and fiction writer. His Russia-related reporting and commentary is stellar — his March 2017 long read for the Guardian, “Killer, kleptocrat, genius, spy: the many myths of Vladimir Putin,” is a case in point.

Follow his work via Twitter, the excellent journal n+1 (which he co-founded), the New Yorker, and elsewhere.

2. Maxim Tryudolyubov

Maxim is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Editor-at-Large of the Russian daily Vedomosti, and a regular columnist for the International New York Times.

Follow him via Twitter and his Kennan Institute blog, the Russia File.

3. Nicolai Petro

Nicolai is a professor of comparative and international politics at the University of Rhode Island, and a frequent speaker at the Carnegie Council, particularly on Ukrainian politics and the current war. Broad-minded, deeply informed, and clearest where most are full of cant.

Read his work at the National Interest and listen via the Carnegie Council podcasts.

4. Sean Guillory

Sean is a journalist and Russian historian with a Ph.D. from UCLA. His blog is full of useful insights and discoveries — on Russian culture and history as well as politics — but the accompanying podcast is pure gold.

5. Russia Matters

A project of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center (and under the direction of my former Moscow Times colleague Simon Saradzhan), Russia Matters provides useful news roundups, original analysis, and commentary, with a focus on dispelling myths.

Feature image from the British Library

Required Reading on Ukraine: Keith Gessen in n+1

Amid the avalanche of hysteria and hackwork on Ukraine from people who ought to know better, Keith Gessen’s piece “Ukraine, Putin, and the West” in n+1 is a blessing — and ought to be required reading.

Keith was kind enough to let me reprint it here. If you read one thing on Ukraine today, make it this.

– SB

Ukraine, Putin, and the West

The Editors of n+1

In November of last year, a spirited protest took place in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv after the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, declined at the last minute to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The agreement would have been a very small first step toward a still hazy, far-off EU membership, but it had significant cultural and symbolic significance, and its sudden rejection, under clear pressure from Russia, brought people to the streets.

The initial protest, on central Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, has since been estimated at around a thousand people—hardly impressive, especially in a country where since independence the citizenry has been willing to take to the streets. The difference this time was the surprising ham-handedness of the authorities, who first ignored the protest, then tried violently to disperse it. This, to many people who’d been growing weary of a corrupt and incompetent regime that had imprisoned political opponents and enriched itself and its friends while the country’s economy stagnated, was too much, and they too came out into the streets.

The massive, sustained, courageous protests that followed were anomalous for the post-Soviet space in that they did not revolve around rigged elections, as had the successful 2003 and 2004 protests in Georgia and Ukraine (the Rose and Orange “Revolutions,” respectively), as well as the large, ultimately unsuccessful protests in Moldova in 2009 and Moscow in December 2011. They were also anomalous in that Yanukovych, bad as he was, was a typical post-Soviet leader: a man who’d used his ties to the old nomenklatura and the rising criminal-capitalist class to consolidate power, often through the use of violence. Yanukovych would have been very much at home as a regional governor in Russian Krasnoyarsk or Irkutsk. And yet here were people, formerly docile and frightened and cowed, out in the streets against him.

In the American press, the protests were initially greeted as “pro-Western”—like the earlier Georgian and Ukrainian protests, and subsequent protests in Lebanon, Iran, and Egypt had been. The protesters, the story went, were people who wished to pull Ukraine into a 21st-century European future, rather than back toward a 20th-century Soviet past. We’re not saying we saw it personally, but if no one wrote an exuberant article about the use of social media on Maidan, we will eat our laptop.

Continue reading »

Reports from the Heart of Russian Islamism

In light of recent events, a trio of stories I wrote for Agence France Presse out of Dagestan about the rise of Islam in Russia.

– SB

Islam’s rapid rise giving Russia growing pains

By Stephen Boykewich

MAKHACHKALA, Russia, April 9, 2007 (AFP) – Ask Khadji Gasan Gasanaliyev, imam of an independent mosque in this North Caucasus city, what’s wrong with Russia, and he tells how a three-year-old held a gun to his head.

The bearded, excitable imam sprawled face-down on the floor, imitating a friend’s young son who threw a tantrum when Gasanaliyev was trying to lead the namaz, or daily prayer devout Muslims recite five times a day.

Gasanaliyev dragged the boy up from the floor, and in return the boy got a toy gun and pressed it to the kneeling imam’s temple.

“A three-year-old boy! Where did he learn this?” Gasanaliyev asked, his eyes wide behind a pair of thick glasses. “There is no pity, there is no kindness here…. Look at this
civilization: Women going around naked on television, even on the street, violence everywhere. This is civilization?”

Muslims all across the country are asking similar questions about the nature of contemporary Russian society — even as their rapid rise is transforming not only the face of this traditionally Orthodox Christian country, but its culture.

Mosques that were once all but empty now overflow with believers at Friday midday prayers, from Makhachkala to the courtyard of Moscow’s central Cathedral Mosque, where hundreds of men denied spaces inside kneel
on prayer rugs and newspapers.

Russia’s population has been in free-fall since the Soviet collapse in 1991, dropping by five percent to 142.5 million and sparking forebodings of the collapse of the state along with multi-billion-dollar programs to raise birthrates.

But while ethnic Russians struggle for survival, the country’s Muslim population is booming thanks to higher birthrates and a flood of immigrants from largely Muslim Central Asia. Official statistics put Russia’s Muslim population at 12 million in 1989, while current estimates are as high as 30 million.

Mix in concerns over Islamist radicalism in the Northern Caucasus, which has seen two wars and hundreds of extremist attacks since the Soviet collapse, and Muslims here face challenges that range from ignorance about
their religion to threats to their lives.

Dzhamshid Aliboyev, 26, told how he bewildered his coworkers on his first day of work in February at a Moscow auto-parts factory, where he was the only Muslim on a team of 50.

He laid out his prayer rug in the lobby for morning namaz, and “one by one, every single one of them stopped work to poke their heads in the door and stare at me. They said: ‘We’ve got a Muslim! What on earth is he

After several weeks of lunchtime question-and-answer sessions, “now my cell phone alarm goes off to remind me about the namaz, and they’re all excited. ‘You’re going to pray now?’ they say.”

Not all of Russia’s Muslims feel so welcome.

“Of course I’m afraid,” said Makhmud, a Kyrgyz man in his late 50s who moved to Moscow three months ago seeking work. “You see young men with shaved heads on the street or the metro, and you know that anything could happen.”

Muslims bear brunt of escalating racist violence in Russia

Muslims bear the brunt of the escalating racist violence in Russia. Racist attacks struck 539 people last year, a 17 percent rise over 2005, the Sova analytical center said in a report last week. Nearly half of the
56 people killed in the attacks were from the North Caucasus and Central Asia — both overwhelmingly Muslim.

“Xenophobia is growing very quickly here, and Islamophobia is growing along with it and will continue to, there’s no question,” said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Islam in Russia at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Underlying the threat to Russian Muslims as individuals is a deep uncertainty the Russian government feels about how to handle the quick rise of the faith.

President Vladimir Putin meets with Kremlin-friendly Muslim leaders regularly and underlines the centuries-old presence of Islam in Russia during his visits to traditionally Muslim countries.

But in Makhachkala, the capital of the Caucasian region of Dagestan, Imam Gasanaliyev’s energetic delivery turned angry when he was asked about the government’s relation to Islam.

“They hate this religion,” he said, pounding his fist on the table. “There’s no help, no support for us at all.”

It might seem an odd claim in Dagestan, where 80 percent of the population is Muslim and the government is sponsoring a mosque-building boom.

But as an advocate of what he calls “pure Islam” — as opposed to the government-friendly Islam that has dominated in Russia since the time of the tsars — Gasanaliyev hovers on the edge of what authorities see as a foreign-sponsored threat.

When the Soviet Union fell, radical Islamist influence from abroad provoked a split in the North Caucasus “between so-called traditional Islam and pure Islam — the Wahhabists, as we call them,” Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev told journalists recently.

“We’re openly struggling against them and will continue to, because they don’t recognize the constitution, don’t recognize the authorities…they don’t recognize any language except that of the machine gun.”

For many Muslims, though, corruption among politicians and state law enforcement agencies only proves the need for a higher authority.

“They steal, they say they’re going to do things for people and do nothing — of course we trust our imams more,” said Rasul, 26, an unemployed agricultural college graduate in Makhachkala.

Gasanaliyev also charged that law enforcement deliberately targeted the most devout young Muslims, seeing them as potential radicals.

“No less than 20 or 30 young people have disappeared over the last two to three years, no one knows where,” Gasanaliyev said. “There are people like that in every mosque. The most worthy, respectable young people are
the ones who disappear.”

Back in Moscow, local and federal authorities show their two-sided relationship to Islam just as clearly.

Dozens of the faithful waited long after a recent midday Friday namaz for the results of a meeting between Russian Council of Muftis head Ravil Gainutdin, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, and two top Kremlin aides over how
to kick-start the planned expansion of the Cathedral Mosque.

Construction of a new hall that would quadruple the mosque’s capacity has been stalled for over a year in spite of a pledge of support from Putin in January 2005. The talks this month ended with vague promises to help find additional funding.

Twenty-five-year-old Abdul-Qodr, an Uzbek immigrant to Moscow, was not disheartened. The whole world is moving closer to Islam, he said, and Russia is moving along with it.

“Just a few years ago we were amazed when Russians or Americans or French people converted to Islam. No one’s amazed anymore,” he said.

Russian mountains cradle hoard of ancient languages

By Stephen Boykewich

KUBACHI, Russia, March 27, 2007 (AFP) – Life isn’t bad in this North Caucasus mountain town. The air is pure, the view is magnificent, and the centuries-old tradition of silver handiwork guarantees jobs for all.

There is one downside for the 2,000 residents of Kubachi, however: Their neighbors a short donkey ride down the road can’t understand a word they say.

“What we speak here, the Kubachinsky language, people in Darginsk don’t understand at all,” said Magomed Akhmedov, 35, director of the village’s silverworks factory. “That’s literally five or six kilometres away.”

The extraordinary linguistic diversity preserved amid these snow-capped peaks is what led a 10th-century geographer to name the Caucasus “the mountain of tongues.”

The rocky, mostly rural region of Dagestan has one of the highest concentrations of languages in the world, between 30 and 70 in an area smaller than Scotland.

Its 2.3 million residents are divided into 34 ethnic groups and nearly all speak Russian, as the territory fell to Russia’s imperial advance in 1859. Beside it are local languages that would strike fear into the heart of any student who has ever wrestled with case endings.

Lak, the native tongue of about five percent of the Dagestani population, has 56 cases — compared to six in Russian and a mere four in German — language specialist Yunusov Abdul-Raman said.

But even Lak is beaten by Tabasaran, which is spoken by 95,000 in southern Dagestan and has 62 cases.

“It was in the Guinness Book of World Records! These are extremely difficult languages,” Abdul-Raman said.

Like many Dagestani tongues, Kubachinsky in not a written language and is not taught in schools, but was preserved through the Soviet era by the same combination of geography and tight social bonds that has preserved Kubachi’s tradition of silverworking for centuries.

“We only marry among ourselves. There are exceptions, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand,” said Akhmedov, who has directed the village’s silverworks factory since 2001. “Everyone here is related in one way or another.”

Unlike in neighboring Chechnya, which was devastated when Joseph Stalin deported its entire population in 1944, Dagestan’s mountain towns were largely spared from Soviet social engineering.

Aside from the total number of languages here — which depends on where lines are drawn between dialect and language — the diversity of their origins also amazes scholars.

Aside from the native Caucasian languages, linguists have identified Turkic, Mongol, Greek and other language families here.

The Tats, or Moutain Jews, an ethnic group of about 18,000 people living near the southern coastal city of Derbent, still speak a dialect of Persian that is over 1,000 years old.

But what seven decades of Soviet rule could not erode, the creep of Western culture is beginning to.

Children in Kubachi learn their native language only at home, since it has no written form and is not taught in schools.

The related language of Darginsky is, but has to jostle for position with Russian and, increasingly, English.

“To tell you the truth, we teach English better than our own language,” said Darzhi Kurvan, the director of a village school.

“As much as we talk about patriotism, beyond our region it’s more convenient and more profitable to know English.”

And though children usually speak Kubachinsky in the home, “we’ve noticed that in the schoolyard, most of the children speak Russian. They even bawl each other out in Russian,” Kurvan said, his wizened face breaking into a smile.

“There’s a battle for these languages going on now,” said journalist and opposition activist Magomed Shamilyev, a member of Dagestan’s majority Avar ethnic group in the regional capital Makhachkala.

Radio and television programmes are broadcast here in 14 languages, but as more of the region’s 60-percent rural population moves to cities in search of work, the smaller languages are at risk of vanishing, Shamilyev

And while there is a regional law reinforcing the status of Russian as an official language, “there is no law on national languages, no law to protect and develop the languages that are disappearing,” he said.

Factory director Akhmedov is living proof of how times are changing. Asked how a simple welcome would sound in Kubachinsky, he hesitated, then let a few words of Russian slip in while he spoke.

“He spends too much time in the city,” laughed one of the factory’s workers.

After an embarrassed smile, Magomedov repeated the phrase fluently.

“There is a risk these languages will disappear,” he said, “but we
preserve them in our hearts.”

Muslim freedom fighter stirs pride, fear in Russia

By Stephen Boykewich

GHIMRI, Russia, March 23, 2007 (AFP) – One of the fiercest enemies Russia saw, Dagestani resistance leader Imam Shamil helped launch a holy war in this mountain village in 1829 — and from the sound of the shouts
in the street, the struggle was not over yet.

“If you want a war, declare a war, but this is mockery!” cried Patima, a woman in her 50s who appeared on a cobbled lane beside the mosque that villagers said Imam Shamil had helped build with his own hands.

Elite police troops had raided the town two nights before, demonstrating that in Imam Shamil’s birthplace, his anti-Russian battle was as fresh to the authorities as it was to the villagers.

Magomed Ibraimov, the pot-bellied deputy head of the village administration, first denied there had been a raid, then relented as villagers accosted him.

Special forces targeted Ghimri “because Imam Shamil and Imam Gazimagomed grew up here,” he told AFP, referring to the village’s most famous son and his childhood friend and fellow freedom fighter.

“They began the very first war against Russia, they started it all, and that’s why everybody wants to find something here.”

Today’s Russian authorities say they are combating separatists and Muslim radicals in the North Caucasus, all the way from Kabardino-Balkaria to Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan.

But inextricably mixed with these modern issues are passions stretching centuries back to the bitter resistance in these mountains to Russian imperial conquest.

Imam Shamil led Chechen and Dagestani volunteers against vastly superior numbers of Russian troops from 1829 until his surrender in 1859, earning renown as far as Victorian Britain as “the Lion of Dagestan.”

Villagers’ pride in him today is as keen as their fright over the raid.

Residents said special forces had filled the night with machine gun fire and dragged three young men out into the steep, winding lanes of the village of 3,600, saying they hadn’t been heard from since.

“There was no reason for it, no evidence, and it wasn’t the first time. We’re sick of this!” Fatima said. “Three grandmothers — forgive me for saying this — pissed themselves from fear at the sound of the machine
guns. My 72-year-old mother nearly died of fright.”

Ibraimov insisted that the radical Islam advocated by Imam Shamil had not taken root, as did Ruslan Dzhamalov, a federal migration service official based in Ghimri. But Dzhamalov also said Imam Shamil cast a long shadow there.

“It’s historical,” he said. “We Dagestanis never forget our history.”

That history, at least in the 19th century, is dominated by the figure whose imposing portrait stares out from the walls of homes and offices all over this North Caucasus republic.

About 1,000 people a day come to pray at a tiny mosque on the outskirts of Ghimri where Shamil pulled off the first miraculous escape that helped spread his fame and unite the mountains’ vast array of clans and ethnic
groups against the invaders.

Leaping from a stone house where he and Gazimagomed had taken refuge, Shamil slashed his way through rows of Russian soldiers. A sign posted impossibly far from the ruins of the house shows the distance he
supposedly cleared in one jump.

“He did it by stepping on to the shoulders of the first line of soldiers, then he flew 16 meters to that spot. Could anyone do that today?” beamed the site’s caretaker, Magomed. “He did it with the help of

Gazimagomed, then the first imam of Dagestan, was killed on the site. Shamil later followed in his footsteps to become the region’s third imam, and the two remain deeply beloved here.

“There’s a joke about Dagestan,” said the present imam of Ghimri, Gazimagomed Abakarov, a trim, smiling figure in a tall Caucasian fur hat.

“A programmer types into a computer: How many Magomeds are there in Dagestan? And the computer explodes. It’s the same thing here with Shamils and Gazimagomeds.”

A more serious issue is whether Imam Shamil’s example is still inspiring Islamic extremists to violence.

While Dagestan never saw the separatist fighting in the post-Soviet era that engulfed Chechnya from 1994-96 and again from 1999, guerrillas still carry out dozens of attacks each year, mostly against police.

A Chechen namesake of the 19th century imam, Shamil Basayev, often crossed the border into the Dagestani mountains before his death last year.

Officials and residents in Ghimri denied there were guerrillas there, referring cryptically to “two or three bad seeds.”

A source close to law enforcement in the regional capital Makhatchkala, however, said Islamist groups were deeply rooted in Ghimri, and that the raid had been ordered to secure the area before a delegation of foreign
journalists were brought to the region.

“They are there,” he said of the guerrillas. “They haven’t all been caught, and they won’t be.”

And while most Dagestanis say they cannot imagine a life independent from Moscow, which provides 70 percent of the poverty-stricken region’s budget, many grow uneasy when asked whether Imam Shamil was right to
surrender in 1859 and cede control of the region to Russia.

“We’re not saying he struggled in vain,” said Eduard Urazayev, the region’s minister for nationalities, choosing his words carefully. “But in the end, life is quieter and more stable for us under Russia’s wing. We
put our confidence in that.”

How Russia Got Into the Democratic Club

How Russia Got Into the Democratic Club

By Stephen Boykewich
The Moscow Times

Friday, July 14, 2006. Page 1.

ST. PETERSBURG — When an ailing, barely reelected President Boris Yeltsin was struggling to contain Russian fury in 1997 over NATO expansion into former Soviet states, U.S. President Bill Clinton had a solution: Let Russia into the Group of Seven.

“It’s real simple. As we push Ol’ Boris to do the right but hard thing on NATO, I want him to feel the warm, beckoning glow of doors that are opening to other institutions where he’s welcome,” Clinton told his aides in 1997, according to a memoir by Strobe Talbott, then the U.S. president’s top Russia aide.

It turned out to be far from simple.

Continue reading »

“Devilish Forces” – On Putin’s Russia

Devilish Forces

Stephen Boykewich

On Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, by Steve LeVine. Random House, June 2008. $26

In early October 2007, almost three years to the day after I began my career as a journalist in Russia, a conversation with a former CIA agent brought it to an end.

He was a longtime friend I’d joined in Scotland for a weekend holiday. We were on a train hurtling through the countryside east of Edinburgh after a morning rain; the hills were so vivid it hurt to look at them too long. Idly at first, I told him about a series of encounters I’d had in Moscow with a former agent of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency that runs more spies abroad than any other branch of the country’s secret services. The Russian agent, who called himself Alex, had appeared as though out of nowhere earlier that year and struck up a friendship—only weeks after I’d gotten the attention of the FSB (the reconstituted KGB) with some aggressive reporting in Dagestan, the unstable Russian republic that borders Chechnya in the Northern Caucasus.
Continue reading »

Whitman’s War: Essay

Whitman’s War: On Whitman’s Civil War Notebooks

By Stephen Boykewich


THE CIVIL WAR THREATENED TO GIVE THE LIE to every claim Walt Whitman made about America.

In the preface to his 1855 Leaves of Grass, he set forth a vision of a “teeming nation of nations,” unified, for all its variety, by the spirit of openness and sincerity common to its citizens, “their deathless attachment to freedom … the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states … their good temper and openhandedness … ” The American spirit had not yet had “the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it”; he sought, in his sprawling poem, to give it just that. Continue reading »

The Man With the Plan for Russia, Inc.

The Man With the Plan for Russia Inc.

By Stephen Boykewich

The Moscow Times

ST. PETERSBURG — Using natural resources for geopolitical gain may upset the West, but for the man who was helping shape President Vladimir Putin’s energy strategy years before he took office, it’s merely common sense.

“There was a time when salt was the most important resource in the world. Then it was metal of any kind, then later it became gold,” said Vladimir Litvinenko, rector of the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute, in an interview last week in his luxuriously appointed office.

“In the specific circumstances the world finds itself in today, the most important resources are hydrocarbons,” he said. “They’re the main instrument in our hands — particularly in Putin’s — and our strongest argument in geopolitics.” Continue reading »

Tales from the Kremlin’s Shadow

Tales, Old and New, From a Legendary Dom

By Stephen Boykewich
Staff Writer

When the windows sparkled through the night at the monumental apartment block across the river from the Kremlin, it once meant that the Great Terror had struck another member of the Communist Party elite. Now it may mean that a party of wealthy Russians is starting on a second case of champagne.

Still, as many times as the population of Dom na Naberezhnoi has changed — from the days of Josef Stalin’s rule to today’s real estate boom — its walls continue to hold a vital history of Russian life in the 20th century.

Continue reading »

In Georgia, Rose Euphoria Fades

2 Years On, Rose Euphoria Has Faded

By Stephen Boykewich
The Moscow Times

December 14, 2005

TBILISI, Georgia — The strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” were still echoing through the hall, and already the president was on the defensive.

The scene was a conference celebrating the second anniversary of the Rose Revolution, which swept Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to power after he led hundreds of thousands in protest of fraudulent parliamentary elections. Two years later, the still-boyish 37-year-old president beamed and whispered comments to his fellow participants during a triumphant video montage of Georgians storming the streets of Tbilisi, armed only with roses and flags. Continue reading »