The Return Of The Russian Leviathan by Sergei Medvedev

The Blurb On The Back:

Russia’s relationship with its neighbours and with the West has worsened dramatically in recent years.  Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the country has annexed Crimea, begun a way in Eastern Ukraine, used chemical weapons on the streets of the UK and created an army of internet trolls to meddle in the US presidential elections.  How should we understand this apparent relapse into aggressive imperialism and militarism?

In this book, Sergei Medvedev argues that this new wave of Russian nationalism is the result of mentalities that have long been embedded within the Russian psyche.  Whereas in the West, the turbulent social changes of the 1960s and a rising awareness of the legacy of colonialism have modernised attitudes, Russia has been stymied by an enduring sense of superiority over its neighbours alongside a painful nostalgia for empire.  It is this infantilised and irrational world view that Putin and others have exploited, as seen most clearly in Russia’s recent foreign policy decisions, including the annexation of Crimea.

This sharp and insightful book, full of irony and humour, shows how the archaic forces of imperial revanchist have been brought back to life, shaking Russian society and threatening the outside world.  It will be of great interest to anyone trying to understand the forces shaping Russian politics and society today.

You can order THE RETURN OF THE RUSSIAN LEVIATHAN by Sergei Medvedev from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Sergei Medvedev is a Professor in the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.  This is a very readable book (translated from Russian by Stephen Dalziel) first published in Russia in 2017 and published in the UK in 2020 that’s scarily relevant and prescient to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. Through short essays, Medvedev describes what’s driving Putin’s colonialism and how it’s caused by Russia’s failure to reckon with the traumas of its past.

The book is divided into 4 parts dealing with: 

– The War For Space

– The War For Symbols

– The War For The Body

– The War For Memory

Each part contains a series of short essays that revolves around the theme of that part.  There’s some repetition and overlap within the essays, mainly because Medvedev wants to build and reinforce his themes so while I can see that this would be off-putting to some readers (and it would certainly normally be a turn off for me), I actually enjoyed it because it reinforced the messaging.  Medvedev drops academic references (he’s particularly fond of using Foucault as a means of explaining and expanding on some of his points) together Russian literary and cultural references (as you’d expect) throughout the book.  I understood some of the Russian references (and there is a useful glossary at the back) but those I didn’t you can kinda guess what the point is from the context.  

In The War For Space, Medvedev’s essays work around the theme of Putin’s desire for territorial control.  This delves into some things that I was aware of (e.g. the Kremlin’s response to discovering people outside the walls trying to catch Pokémon), the annexation of Crimea, Lugansk and Donetsk how that ties in with the Russian nationalist “greater Russia” while hiding what a disaster the annexation has been for both areas (I was particularly horrified by what Medvedev says about gang rule in those regions) and how for all the talk of Russian greatness, it’s a country whose roads are full of pot holes when they’re not dirt tracks.  This Part is particularly good in terms of explaining Russian government thinking re Ukraine and why they are so invested in what’s happened there.  Certainly you get the sense of Putin’s messaging re Ukraine “Nazification” as being one that, while new to the West, has been building since 2014 with the support of a supine press.  It also explains why Putin may have misjudged the Western reaction and decided that Russia could weather any further sanctions thrown at it.

The War For Symbols focuses on Russia’s militarism and the conduct of its governmental elite.  I enjoyed the details that you get from Medvedev such as the effect that the existence of the Kremlin and those who work in it has on Moscow traffic (made worse by the fact that a centre lane was created specifically for Kremlin VIPs so that they don’t get caught within it).  Also interesting is the chapter on Russia’s love for tanks, which I admit I probably enjoyed because of the recent social media footage showing them getting bogged down in the Ukrainian mud due to poor maintenance and then ignominiously carted off by Ukrainian tractors.  The best chapters though, in terms of getting an insight into Russian government mentality, is the essay on how the Government is constantly building up threats both internal and external to justify their spending and control over everyday life and a later essay on how this ties in with the love that the Russian people have for conspiracy theories – especially globalist conspiracies aimed at destroying Russia.  Medvedev ties all this in with the psychology of a people accustomed to brutality, where the idea of “manly” men is very important – to the extent that violence in every day life (including domestic violence) is something that’s just accepted.

In The War For The Body, Medvedev moves on to the way the Russian Government targets social elements.  Again, there is some foreshadowing here of the 2022 Ukraine invasion where Medvedev notes how the Kremlin viewed the Ukraine as being contaminated by the move to democracy in 2006.  However the main focus of this part is how the Government moved against the LGBTQ+ community (where the complicity of the higher ups in the Russian Orthodox Church is damning) and against women’s rights as well.  Some of this makes for very difficult reading but I did learn a lot, e.g. I had no idea that there was an equivalent “me too” movement in Russia or how brutal the response was to women who shared their stories.  Medvedev also expands on how children are treated, including the effect of a law passed in 2012 to prevent non-Russians from adopting Russian orphans, leaving many to die in orphanages due to the lack of money for treatment.  He also tackles how badly the disabled are treated and how the Kremlin masks this by cynically sending disabled singer Yulia Samoliva so that when Russia was banned (due to the annexation of Crimea), he could use her disability as a propaganda point.

It is the final part THE WAR FOR MEMORY that is probably the most personal in that Medvedev shares his experiences of being in Moscow during the 1991 coup.  In this part, Medvedev looks at the impact of Russia’s history and traumas on the psyche of the population and how it has singularly failed to come to terms with what happened in 1917 (and the following civil war), the impact of World War II, the death of Stalin (which offered an opportunity to break with and examine what happened under his control) and then the collapse of the USSR, which offered a similar opportunity that was, perhaps, missed due to the sudden and dreadful economic collapse.  Medvedev gives a potted history of the key events in Russia’s recent history and explains why there is still a strange nostalgia among some Russians for Soviet style rule, which makes them in turn numb to the authoritarian rule of Putin.  I had no idea that there was such a warmth towards Brezhnev among some parts of Russia or such antipathy towards Gorbachev (who is seen as having led to Russia’s collapse and subsequent weakness).  The chapter on Yeltsin is particularly good, some of which looks back to an earlier chapter in The War For The Body on how important the health of the Russian leader is and how their body essentially becomes the property and business of the people.  Medvedev also explains why Russia’s Nobel prize winning writers such as Svetlana Alexievich are rejected by their nation because they expose the flaws and issues within it and so are seen as being more in the Western camp.

Ultimately I found this to be a really fascinating read and I came away feeling more informed about the situation within Russia and the aims of its Government.  Certainly you get the sense that for all the talk of Putin’s grand strategy, the fact that this would all backfire was certainly foreseeable.  Medvedev points out how every time Russia puts into action grand schemes and territory grabs in order to be seen as a more vital player on the world stage, it ends up making the situation worse for ordinary people.  It is an awful tragedy, made worse by the fact that Putin has decided to make good his threats against Ukraine.  

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