Daily Archives: November 25, 2006

L’affaire Litvinenko and perceptions of Russia

So Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy/defector who has fallen mysteriously ill after meeting with a source while investigating the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, died in a London hospital yesterday, apparently poisoned by a powerful radioactive substance (see many links on the page). Litvinenko, in a deathbed statement, has accused Putin of being behind his poisoning; the Kremlin denies it as “nonsense,” and Putin has personally denied any role, but of course one wouldn’t expect him to issue a statement along the lines of “If I had had Litvinenko murdered, here’s how I would have done it.”

What to make of this story? The murder of defectors/dissenters is certainly a secret services M.O. from the old communist days. Could the new Russia be up to those old tricks? Sadly, I can’t say I would be shocked. After Politkovskaya’s murder, Putin issued a comment that was rather extraordinary in its cynicism: “She had minimal influence on political life in Russia. This murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications.” As I noted in my column on the subject, Putin thus not only dismissed Politkovskaya’s work as insignificant but also branded it as harmful to her country; but there’s another remarkable aspect to that comment, as well. In essence, Putin was dismissing suspicions that his agents had murdered Politkovskaya not on the grounds that the Russian government doesn’t do such things, but that it had no reason to. Ironically, Soviet foreign intelligence spokesman Sergei Ivanov has made the same charming argument in response to Litvinenko’s death, telling the Interfax news agency that “Litvinenko is not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations” and “it is absolutely not in our interests to be engaged in such activity.”

Putin, perhaps realizing that Russia is getting some serious bad PR, has responded to Litvinenko’s death in a far less callous fashion than he did to Politkovskaya; he has called Litvinenko’s death a tragedy and expressed condolences to his family.

Could Russia be implicated? On the one hand, it does seem improbable that Russia would risk a major scandal by assassinating a critic in a Western country. On the other hand, if Litvinenko was enough of a thorn in their side (and/or was on the trail of something important regarding the Politkovskaya case), it’s conceivable that the Putin regime could have counted on his murder never being traced. And indeed, it’s likely that we’ll never know for sure. It’s also possible that the FSB (former KGB) could have pulled off this operation without Putin’s direct knowledge. Or perhaps Putin chose not to know.

While looking for articles on the topic, I came across a fascinating post on Sean’s Russia Blog, the work of UCLA graduate student Sean Guillory. Guillory argues that people are too quick to blame Russia for the Litvinenko poisoning, and perhaps he has a point. He notes, for instance, that even if the poisoning is linked to Russian intelligence, it could have been carried out by rogue elements in the FSB. Fair enough. (It should be noted that Guillory made his post before the new evidence of polonium poisoning as the cause of the ex-spy’s illness and death.) But then Guillory goes on to say:

The readiness for Westerns to believe that the Kremlin is behind every nefarious plot is a long standing view. In fact, suspicion, rumor and a willingness to accept conspiracy drove a whole generation of Soviet historiography. For example, many historians explain every bad thing that happened in the 1930s as a result of Stalin’s direct hand. This includes the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934 and Ordzhonikidze’s suicide in 1937 as well as the belief that there was a plan behind collectivization and the Terror.

Evidence doesn’t matter when it comes to Stalin, Russia, and now, even Putin. They are all given magical powers to direct events and history at will. This line of thinking only shows how difficult it is to break the Cold War’s cultural and ideological structures that still inform how we in the West think about Russia. …

This is not to suggest that Russia doesn’t share some of the blame for its negative image. Putin’s reaction to Anna Politkovskaya’s murder was cold and indifferent. In addition, Russia does have serious problems with nationalism, racism, democracy, political and press freedom, and corruption. The Kremlin’s ambivalence and lack of action feeds into assumptions about its ill intent. As an editorial in the International Herald Tribune rightly states, “instead of going into a snarling, defensive crouch over each political hit, the Russian government has to start reining in the former spies, organized criminals and Chechen quislings, and start solving some cases.”

Still, the jump to conspiracy without evidence, let alone the Tribune’s animalistic ascriptions, perpetuates Russia as some sort of abnormal society. Not only does it make Russia appear hopelessly and eternally backward, it also inevitably posits the West as normative. And this is exactly what Orientalism does: it is a position from which to claim enlightenment at the expense and detriment of the Other. If you don’t think so, take a look at the final line of the Guardian’s editorial, “Poisoning dissidents cannot be part of a modern, democratic agenda.” True enough. But who but the West is the silent measurement for what is “modern’ and ‘democratic’ in this statement?

(The Guardian editorial in question is here; Guillory finds fault with its apparently too value-laden language, such as a reference to Russia’s “bad habits of bullying and intervening” in neighboring states such as Ukraine and Georgia. Tut, tut.)

Of course, no one should jump to conclusions without evidence. But Guillory pooh-poohs conclusions based on some pretty weighty evidence — for instance, about Stalin’s link to the Kirov murder, which as far as I know is recognized as likely by most mainstream Russian historians today. (This link was first suggested by Nikita Khrushchev in his 1956 speech at a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which he first denounced the Stalin cult.) And Guillory’s apparent belief that collectivization and the Great Terror “just happened” unplanned represents an extraordinary willingness to give the Stalin regime the benefit of the doubt. The argument that Stalin never planned to rule by terror but simply reacted to events and let them spin out of control — made, inter alia, by Miami (Ohio) University historian Robert Thurston in the 1996 book Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia — is ironically quite similar to David Irving’s claims about the Nazi murder of the Jews.

So, in fact, Guillory complaint about excessive readiness to credit claims of Russian wrongdoing points to the exact opposite: a reluctance to recognize atrocities committed by Russia or some other “Other,” motivated by fear of making these societies look, God forbid, “abnormal.” Or fear of, God forbid even more, admitting that Western and Western-modeled governments, for all their significant flaws, are the closest we’ve got to a standard of democracy, modernity, and enlightenment.

Guillory’s fretting about the Guardian editorial is especially ironic since there is little doubt that The Guardian would not hesitate to use equally harsh language about, say, Bush’s America.

To answer Guillory’s question: who, in this statement, is the measurement for what is “modern” and “democratic”? I would suggest, for starters, any government that does not either murder or muzzle its critics.

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