An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Monday, September 10, 2018
Music: current count 30295  rated (+34), 271  unrated (-7).
Pretty average week, maybe skewed a bit more than usual toward jazz, as I continued adding jazz albums to my Music Tracking file (up to 2062 records now, 913 of them jazz). As the week started, I was still playing catch up with the late Randy Weston. After that, new adds to the tracking file steered me to various jazz artists -- Gordon Grdina, Tord Gustavsen, Scott Hamilton, Uwe Oberg. Also made a dent in my incoming queue. Only three non-jazz albums this week -- two from Christgau (who also noted Kali Uchis' Isolation as an HM, but I have it at A-).
I'm not expecting to get much work done this coming week. My late sister's big art project will be dismantled toward the end of the week, and either packed up and hauled somewhere (still, as far as I know, undetermined) or tossed into the trash. Some relatives are likely to show up for this, but I don't have any details. (I'm feeling really out of the loop here.) This summer has been an awful slog for me. Don't know whether I'll be relieved or shattered when the week is over.
Meanwhile, I've dropped the ball on my server project, and for that matter on long-delayed maintenance work on Robert Christgau's website. Probably won't make much progress there until this week's dust settles, but I've started to think about the tasks again, after blanking out a week ago.
Still reading books on Russia, although nothing new is quite as enlightening at David Satter's 2003 book, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. Satter's more recent The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep reprises his sensational charge that the FSB was responsible for the 1999 terror bombings of apartments in Moscow (pictured) and elsewhere, providing the perfect provocation for Putin to demolish Chechen independence and consolidate his grip on Russian political power. Of course, this sounds much like so many 9/11 conspiracy theories, especially with its cui bono rationales, but it's hard to imagine how else an unknown insider like Putin could have overcome the morass Boris Yeltsin's presidency had left Russia in. I'm midway through the book, just reading about the massacres in the Moscow theater and the Beslan school. Satter suggests these terrorist attacks may also have been guided by the FSB as provocations -- by this point support for the Chechen War was again flagging, so they laid the ground for another round of Russian escalation -- but thee's less evidence and rationale behind those charges. Later chapters should move on to the Ukraine crisis in 2014, but they are bound to be brief.
Masha Gessen, in The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, follows several (mostly) elite families from Glasnost on -- some semi-famous, most liberal dissenters but also neo-fascist ideologist Alexander Dugin (you might think of him as Putin's Steve Bannon). I think the key thing here is that while she doesn't excuse Yeltsin and Putin, she sees the return to totalitarianism as a mass preference rather than as something the leaders inflicted on the people. Reading the book, it occurred to me that the main reason for this was that 70 years of Communist rule had left people so cynical about the left critique of capitalism that it's since been impossible to form a significant democratic socialist opposition to the self-dealing oligarchy that took over with Yeltsin.
The least satisfactory book is Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, although I did find useful how he tracked Gessen's history from a slightly broader perspective. Snyder is a historian who has specialized in the war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to control Eastern Europe (his big book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), but he's never rasped the difference between fascism and communism, so he readily falls for the Cold War ploy of treating both as totalitarianism, making it easy to see Putin as the unification of both evils. He even finds a forgotten philosopher, Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) as the key ideologist behind Putinism. (Gessen, on the other hand, starts with psychological studies of Homo sovieticus, ties them to the "authoritarian personality" studies of Adorno and Arendt, and charts how those traits have persisted under Putin.) Snyder likes to call the Ilyin-Putin idea "the politics of eternity" -- sounds a bit like thousand-year Reich extrapolated to infinity, but smells more like bullshit.
Gessen, by the way, has a piece I should have mentioned yesterday, The Undoing of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin's Friendship, and How It Changed Both of Their Countries. Clinton's decision to bomb what was left of Yugoslavia over Kosovo offended Yeltsin, both by harming an important relationship for Russia and by making Russia look weak and helpless when faced with American hostility. It also re-established NATO as a counter-Russian threat, and set a precedent for the US to unilaterally start wars elsewhere (e.g., Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003). It also changed Russia:
One thing that should be clear by now is that Clinton and other independent western actors like George Soros actively intervened in Russian politics in the 1990s, in support of Yeltsin, they never cared the least for the welfare of Russia, or even for making their supposed friendly politicians look good. Clinton just assumed that Russia would never be a problem again, no matter how much popular enmity he caused. Bush and Obama took much the same tack with Putin, who actually did a pretty decent job of humoring them as long as that proved possible, but in the end, sure, he pushed back. My evolving view of Putin is that he is a smart, canny politician, careful to maintain his popularity as well as his hand on the levers of power in Russia. But, unlike Snyder, I don't see him as a person of strong ideological conviction. It's true that he embraces various conservative/nationalist positions, but most likely because that's where his natural political base is. He exercises a discomforting degree of control over the media and all forms of political discourse, and he has done some unsavory things with his power, but he also seems to have some sense of limits, unlike many dictators we can recall. In short, he seems like someone the US can work with, and that would be better for all concerned than the recent spiral of escalating offenses.
Still, one should be clear about the ways of power, in Russia, in the United States, everywhere. Change what you can, and don't get suckered into projects that can only make matters worse (e.g., ones involving real or even just mock war).
Recommended music links:
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Old music rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week: