Dmitry Babich: “My answer to Sean Guillory” [re: Russian Studies]

Bookcase file photo, adapted from image at nlm.nih.gov

Subject: My answer to Sean Guillory (re Russian Studies)
Date: Sat, 25 Apr 2020 08:53:34 +0300
From: Dmitry Babich <dima9770@mail.ru>

[Dmitry Babich, born in Moscow, has worked for various Russian and international media outlets for more than 25 years. He is a frequent guest on BBC, Al Jazeera, RT, and CNN. His core areas of focus include Russia’s modern political history and international relations.]

It was a great pleasure for me to get Sean Guillory’s response to my short piece WHY HONEST RUSSIAN STUDIES ARE NOT POSSIBLE IN THE MODERN WEST. First of all, because I am a great fan of Mr. Guillory’s research and especially his SRB podcasts, so, it is interesting to have a discussion with an informed opponent. Second, I am not a scholar, but a journalist, and I view it as a success when my short piece provokes a discussion. This is what real journalism is for. [Guillory in JRL 2020-#69 April 15 Item 27: russialist.org/sean-guillory-response-to-dmitry-babich-from-jrl-67-item-27/]

I agree with Mr. Guillory that “scholars now have more access than ever to archives, Russian media, citizens, culture, and other sources on the ground.” But I can’t agree with him when he says that “we are in a golden age of Russian studies precisely because of the lack of overt ideology among academics.” Scientists nowadays more than ever do not live in an ivory tower, a success (or a lack of success) of their work is, among other things, measured by the amount of their influence on society, and also by the public perceptions that they strive to form. In Russian Studies in the US, as well as in American Studies in Russia, that success is measured primarily by the scholars’ ability to help society (especially the mass media and decision makers in politics and economy) overcome stereotypes, which have always been numerous, and take a more balanced view of the country on the other side of the ocean. And here the situation in Russian Studies in the US does not simply leave much to be desired. In fact, perceptions of Russia and Russians went from bad to worse since the early nineties in the US, and most of the “academic” research in the US helped this unfortunate development, instead of deterring it.

The Dangers from Ill-Informed Decision Makers

The result is not just unfortunate, it is plain dangerous for both countries and the world at large. The most recent example is how the former US president Barack Obama believed a glaringly inaccurate and misleading article of The New York Times titled “Putin’s Long War Against American Science” from April 13, 2020, and retweeted it.
publish.twitter.com/?query=https%3A%2F%2Ftwitter.com%2FBarackObama%2Fstatus%2F1250464854114213889&widget=Tweet

The article stated in its subtitle that “President Vladimir Putin of Russia has sown wide confusion, hurt major institutions and encouraged the spread of deadly illnesses” in the United States.

I will not go into the details of the article, which was dismissed even by such an anti-Russian media outlet as Bellingcat.

The question, after all, is not whether the NYT’s reporting on Russia is accurate and reliable (few people are under illusion about it even among the Russian ultra-liberals, which says a lot). The question is: how informed were President Obama’s decisions on his policy towards Russia if he can believe the “black legend” like this one about our country? And, obviously, Obama had been informed on Russia by American scholars of Russia Studies – for more than a decade at least now. What should be the general context of Russia Studies in the US if it allowed Obama believe such crap? Obviously, when a student leaving a school after 12 years of study, still believes that the Sun rotates around the Earth – such a lamentable situation tells you something about the school, and not just about the student.

Russian Academia and American Academia: Differences in Public Perceptions

I understand that academia and its research play in the United States a role different from the one they play in Russia. I now understand more than ever the American public’s general distrust of academia, the accusations of elitism, etc. Yes, better no Russian Studies at all than the hostile books and research whose existence Sean Guillory mentions and concedes in his letter. (“There are some books that reflect Babich’s claims. Cold War frameworks do persist in some fields. And I would concede that his statements are applicable to some journalism on contemporary Russia as well as some books published by journalists, pundits, scholars policy-makers and the like.”) In Russia, academia is still revered and viewed by the people as a source of informed opinions. 95 percent of the academic research on the United States in Russia is positive – hence the enduring positive attitude of most of Russians to the US and Americans. For example, a recent session of Russia’s Society for the Study of the United States, which took place at my alma mater – journalism faculty of the Moscow State University – only reviewed 1 (one) critical analysis of American press about Russia, with other 15 presentations being very positive, and covering not only such uncontestable achievements as the work of Herman Melville or Vladimir Nabokov, but also current journalism.

So, if the aim of academic research is to “inform the informers,” providing the reporting journalists with in-depth knowledge about the country they cover, the failure of Western academia is the one of epic proportions. May be, it will sound as a solace to Mr. Guillory: with European journalists the situation is even worse. The few honestly investigative Western journalists whom I met during my 30 years of working with and reading Western correspondents in Moscow were the few Americans who came with an open mind and had not imbibed the clichés of marquis de Custine and his modern spiritual successors. The situation with the British and the French was indeed worse precisely because of their “non-sentimental education” about Russia.

Free Information from an “Unfree” Country?

That still does not excuse the sorry state of American Russia Studies which failed to “inform the informers” not only about Russia, but even about itself and the real conditions of its activities in Russia.

Let’s take the simplest of examples, examining Mr. Guillory’s truthful words about “American scholars now having more access than ever to Russian media, citizens, culture”. I did a random search of the biggest American mass media outlets and found them last reflecting this basically constant positive reality in the mid-1990s. Since the early 1990s, if this subject was mentioned at all in American publications (scientific and non-scientific), the huge majority of the stories was about the inverse – about Putin’s “crackdown on dissent” and “prevention of the objective study of history” in Russia. A search of the Internet site of The New York Times alone produced 162 results for “Putin’s crackdown on dissent”. As a result, it may not be clear to an outside observer how, under such dire circumstances, in such an “unfree” country, so much archive-based and interview-based research can be done on Russia by foreign scholars, including the American ones. Even when the subjects most unpleasant to any country are tackled (such as the legitimacy of the government, corruption, etc.) most of critical data about Russia is obtained by foreign researchers from open sources (including the Russian supposedly “unfree” media) and interviews with people who were not afraid to provide their names. To me, a person who was already an adult (21), when the Soviet Union collapsed, a country where such opportunities for research exist, cannot be an “unfree” country. (I can add to this some familiarity with the current historical research in French, German, Spanish and Polish languages, the tongues of the countries where archives were supposed to be opened long ago, just like in the US. Even the amount of subsequent publications in these countries of “batches” of declassified documents from as far as the 1950s or 1930s proves that their “openness” is very relative and selective.)

It is ironic that when I tried to log Mr.Guillory’s words about American scholars having access to Russia’s archives into the NYT’s search engine, the first story to pop up was Scott Shane’s and Mark Mazetti’s “The Plot to Subvert an Election: Unravelling the Russia Story So Far,” a part of the discredited narrative about Russia’s “collusion” with candidate Trump and his campaign in 2016, finally rejected even in Robert Mueller’s report in April 2019. Obviously, the words “Russians” and “access” have a very different mutual magnetism in the modern American media discourse, and the random combination of words in a computer search engine revealed it. If we talk about access, the predominant narrative in the US media is about the need to LIMIT the access FOR Russians, so that they do not learn bad things about the US and do not publish them, “misleading” their own public and poor uninformed Trump-voting Americans. Obviously, it is not the late Soviet Union restricting the access here, but someone very different.

Multi-pronged Black Legends: Can’t Blame Them on Cold War

One may say that academic science should not be blamed for the mistakes of the media, which has to cater to popular tastes and reduce complex issues to understandable schemes. However, in the media and partially in the academic Russophobic narrative, one can find not only inaccuracies and hyperbolic generalizations, typical for tabloids (with some quality media outlets debasing themselves to the level of tabloids when talking about Russia, like the NYT writing that Putin spread in Russia rumors about the American origin of COVID-19). There are real multi-pronged black legends about Russia (such as the Russiagate saga and the global multilingual narrative about “Russia’s worldwide meddling in Western democracies”). These black legends require an explanation – where did they come from? Mr. Guillory’s explanation that “Cold War frameworks do persist in some fields” is just too simple to be true. All scholars of US -Russia relations stress the difference between the current confrontation and the Cold War, with the latter being proclaimed dead for good. So, if Russophobia is indeed just a rudiment of the Cold War, as Sean Guillory writes in his letter, it should have become extinct long ago: rudiments get weaker with time, not stronger. But the anti-Russian bias in the US and the West in general is only getting stronger, and this applies not just to media, but to science too. Why is that happening? I think the answer is ideology.

It Is the Ideology, Stupid!

The modern American ideology, even though the country’s political class is divided on the methods of spreading it, is essentially a crude version of liberalism. It became a sort of ultra-liberalism, moving far away from its great origins, in the same way as Bolshevism became a crude, vulgarized version of the nineteenth century socialism. This relatively new American ideology considers itself entitled to carry “free elections” (which are proclaimed good only if ultraliberals win) and “market economy” (with unlimited access for US-based multinationals) around the globe – if need be, by bombs and fire. This ideology views Russia and China as hostile nations since they are the only ones that can potentially fight back. This ideological attitude is reflected in the generally negative American media and scientific coverage of Russia. I cannot see any other source for this malaise, since the current lies about Russia are not in the US national interest. They are also not in the interest of humanity and they do bad service to the reputation of American science.

Good Anthropology, Bad Modern Politics

I agree with Mr. Guillory that there might have been some good anthropological research on Russia published lately in the American media, but as things get closer to our times, the quality of American research falls dramatically. The reasons for this are ideological: from our Soviet experience we remember that there were excellent books published in the Soviet Union about, say, the ancient state of Urartu, Babylon and even Kievan Rus (anthropology), but it was hard to find something honest on the themes closer to home. Former Soviet historians who worked in those times told me that only hopeless conformists took up the themes from the twentieth century, while the nineteenth century was much more popular because of the opportunity to produce stinging hints about the Soviet Union’s present day of the time. One could covertly compare Stalin and Brezhnev to Nicholas I, etc. The Soviet ideological habit of seeing nineteenth century Russia as a country ready for a revolution, with all its institutions presumably failing, made the production of these hints especially easy. However, honest researchers, such as a Pushkinist scholar Valentin Nepomnyashchy, resisted this bias about “pre-1917 Russia always craving for a revolution” too. Nepomnyashchy, for example, rejected the conformist Soviet narrative of “Pushkin as a Decembrist poet.” Unfortunately, in the United States the scholars of modern Russian politics are usually the most conformist, the most anti-scientific ones, just like the Soviet “scholars” of the twentieth century’s OFFICIAL Soviet history.

In that sense, American scientific discourse about the Russia of today reminds me of the Soviet history textbooks about Russia’s nineteenth century. Everything is viewed through a prism of revolutionary “regime change” (“Is Putin’s system sustainable?” – how many times have I read such a headline?) Anything promoting a revolution (regime change) is viewed by American scholars positively, anything deterring it – negatively. Periods of increased “anti-Putin activity” are by definition better than periods of peace and calm – much like in Soviet historiography the terrible year of the first Russian revolution (1905) was viewed more positively than the stability and prosperity under Alexander III in the 1880s.

Divide and Rule?

A very dangerous trend entrenched itself in Russian Studies in the last 10-15 years, quickly spreading to the mass media too, – the trend of singling out a minority segment of Russian society (usually viewed as “liberal,” “progressive” and sometimes just plain “pro-Western”) and opposing it to the rest of the country, presented by American scholars and journalists as “inert,” “pro-Putin” and ipso facto dependent on state, nostalgic about Stalinist past, – in short, bad. This second part is rarely given a voice in the works of American scholars of Russia Studies, and if it is given that voice, the aim is usually to make the “liberal” part shine even brighter on such a macabre background.

The works of Samuel Greene, mentioned by Mr. Guillory in a positive context, as an example of “genuine” research, are in fact the epitome of the above-mentioned divisive attitude. Just a brief look at Mr. Greene’s numerous writings and scholarly presentations on the theme of ONE rally at Bolotnaia square in Moscow in 2011 (“Understanding Bolotnaia,” “Beyond Bolotnaia”, etc.) reminds me of endless writings of Soviet historians about ONE revolutionary event of the first half of the nineteenth century in Russia – the Decembrists’ rebellion. These pieces of Mr. Greene’s “scholarly work” were equally black and white and ideologized (good people against bad government; good revolutionaries still not able to go beyond their “narrow circle”, but otherwise admirable, as Lenin wrote about Decembrists, with Mr. Greene writing the same about anti-Putin activists, etc.) The book singled out by Mr. Guillory and written by Samuel Greene in co-authorship with Graeme Robertson (Putin v. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia) is filled with the same divisive spirit, even its title reflects it.

Where Do They All Come From?

By the way, an inquisitive American reader might ask: how come Mr. Greene looks so nice and healthy having spent 13 years (!) in “unfree” Putin’s Russia as a scholar devoting most of his time to the research of the local (supposedly embattled and persecuted) liberal opposition? Yes, dear inquisitive American reader, there are many researchers like that, returning from Russia with academic titles and remarkably good memories after doing nothing but harm to their host country, but still seething with anger against “Putin’s intolerant regime”, which somehow made an exception for all of them, tolerating, say, Mr. Greene for 13 years.

The authors like Samuel Greene are often lying by omission, just not mentioning important facts, while mentioning the non-significant ones that fit the ultra-liberal narrative. The most vivid example is the supposed “rehabilitation” of Stalin during Putin’s years in power. In fact, the inept attempts of some individuals in Russia to take a generally positive view of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union are never supported by the state, and this can be seen even without leaving your hotel room – it is enough to switch on a TV set. The anti-Stalinist films, such as Andrzej Wajda’s “Katyn” and now Guzel Yakhina’s “Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” were shown on national television in the prime time, while Stalinists were confined to the fringe publications in the 1990s and now mostly to the social networks and some online video services.

Black Legends – Important Facts, but not Guiding Lights

Now on a more conciliatory note, I will wrap up on “black legends” spread about Russia. Every country and every nation has a “black legend” about itself, and with big countries these black legends tend to be more developed and sophisticated, moving from rumors to their own “science” (usually a cherry-picking version of history), developing with time their own set of distinguished authors, some of them not untalented. With Russia, studying some of the authors of our own “black legend” not only makes sense, but is absolutely necessary for understanding our history, since very often this negative view of our consciousness became A PART of our consciousness itself, much like Freud’s peculiar vision of “mass subconscious” became a segment of modern society’s subconscious. In the same way Alexander Herzen acknowledged being “politically shaped” by the extremely negativist writings about Russia penned by marquis Astolphe de Custine of France in the times when Russia was ruled Nicholas the First. However, it is preposterous and even dangerous to try to extrapolate Custine’s conclusions on modern Russia, and this is exactly what some modern scholars and journalists in the US and in the EU are doing.

Now thinking historians view Astolphe de Custine’s writings as a valuable source of information on foreigners’ perceptions of Russia and the anti-government nihilist moods inside the Russian aristocracy of the period (not speaking Russian, Custine took most of his information talking to the French speaking prince Kozlovsky and other disgruntled Russian closet liberals of the day). But only an unprofessional, lazy historian would take Custine’s writings for a “realistic portrait” of Russia in the nineteenth century, basing his or her conclusions on the impressions of the marquis, some of which border on anti-Slav racism. However, a lot of modern American researchers uncritically believe every word of our modern ultra-liberals, not even noticing that these sources, unlike prince Kozlovsky, stopped speaking from a closet about 25-30 years ago, but retained the same black and white “closet” vocabulary of narcissistic victims.

Respectfully,
Dmitry Babich