Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ukraine's Orange Blues

Alexander J. Motyl, worldaffairsjournal.org

Motyl image from entry
Via AH on Facebook

The most striking thing about Lviv, Kyiv, and a number of small towns and villages I’ve recently visited is their normalcy. Walk down the streets or dirt roads and you’d never think Ukraine’s economy is depressed and that the country is at war. A village church I visit is full of people dressed in their Sunday best. Lviv’s cafes are packed. Kyiv’s main drag, the Khreshchatyk, is as fashionable as before Russia’s onslaught.“Putin as the promoter of Ukraine’s reforms?” I say. 

But that’s just the outward appearance. Talk to people and their current or impending economic travails—inflation, stagnant wages, corruption, and the growing cost of gas and electricity—quickly come to the fore. Talk a little longer and the war in the east soon becomes a topic of conversation.
The appearance of normalcy is both a façade and a coping mechanism. People know full well that times are hard and that soldiers are dying—usually one or two a day, sometimes up to four or five a day. They know that Vladimir Putin and his proxies are threatening to unleash a devastating war against Ukraine and kill thousands more.
Ukrainians seek to live as normally as possible, as if all were well. In their memoirs, Soviet gulag inmates claimed to do the same, trying to recreate some semblance of everyday familiarity in their otherwise dreadful lives. A friend tells me he only reads the good news. Another focuses all her attention on her grandchildren. A villager worries about the tomatoes she’s planted.
“Putin as Ukraine’s nation builder?”
“Exactly,” my interlocutor smiles. “But we still have a long way to go. True, Russian speakers have now been integrated into the nation, but the language question still remains. It’s just been bracketed for the time being. The problem is that Russian speakers still don’t get that Ukrainian speakers also have rights. They assume everyone should naturally prefer Russian.”
I witnessed an example of this mind-set the day before. A friend and I went to a popular Kyiv coffee shop. She asked the young boy serving us to speak Ukrainian. When asked politely, wait staff invariably switch to Ukrainian. This one refused. “Why?” she asked. “Can’t you speak Ukrainian?” “I can,” he responded, “but I won’t.”
His behavior strikes me as incomprehensible. If addressed in English, he’d probably respond in broken English. Address him in an “inferior” tongue, however, and he’ll refuse to use it, even though he knows how. I know the comparison is overdrawn, but I can’t help think of what blacks must have experienced when they were refused service in the Jim Crow South.
What mystifies me, however, is why some kid should make such a big deal of language use. “In America,” I explain to him afterwards, “waiters try to adapt to clients’ cultural and linguistic preferences because they know that’ll get them a bigger tip.” “Sorry,” he says—in Russian.
Almost everyone in Ukraine believes that absolutely nothing has changed in the last year. The “absence of reform” has become a mantra. The pervasiveness of the view is understandable. People’s lives have gotten worse, and may get even worse before they start to improve. The press has become freer and reports constantly on official malfeasance, creating the impression that corruption is on the rise. The war in the Donbas looks like it’s going to be permanent. And the government has poorly communicated its intentions—thereby underscoring Ukrainians’ innate mistrust of the authorities.
A journalist points to Mikheil Saakashvili’s “brilliant” image-building in Odessa Province, which, as its newly appointed governor, he’s promised to clean up. Georgia’s former president has even taken to using public transport to commute to work. Why doesn’t Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, occasionally visit some popular eatery and have a plate of potato pierogis with the common folk? I ask. “Good question,” she says.
A businessman in Lviv tells me things are changing. “They’re not demanding bribes as brazenly as before [JB comment -- progress at its incremental best ... ],” he says. “The fear of getting caught or exposed in the media seems to be having some effect.” Local budgets are also being increased, and the result is much-needed repairs to Ukraine’s awful roads. A resident of a dreadfully depressed Western Ukrainian town notes that one of its pockmarked roads is finally being fixed [JB: Evidently the USA "advisers" on getting this "issue" fixed were not based in Washington, D.C. :)].
People’s patience is wearing thin, or so they say. Reforms have taken place—in education, in law enforcement, in the army, and in the economy—but their immediate effect on people’s lives has been either insignificant or negative. A radical decentralization of authority and budgets is in the works, but it won’t be fully complete for another two years  [JB: Compare this to the statement in the last paragraph ... seems "years" is fungible.]
A university administrator in Lviv tells me that “Poroshenko could be ousted by the end of the year, especially as winter approaches and people find they have no money to pay their bills.” In contrast, the Kyiv-based analyst doesn’t expect a third Maidan. “There’ll be localized demonstrations, but there’s none of the deep moral outrage that led to the Orange and Euro revolutions.”
“For all its faults, the current government is nothing like the Yanukovych regime,” an American journalist tells me, speaking of the previous government. “We could easily trace the lines of theft and corruption under [Viktor] Yanukovych. There’s no evidence of anything like that at present.”
An article in the Ukrainian-language weekly Tyzhden notes that, when it comes to the economy, people believe either that “all is lost” or that “we’ve won.” In fact, the author argues, both claims are true. Macroeconomically, Ukraine is on the way to recovery. Microeconomically—which is where the average citizen lives—life has gotten harder. [JB comment -- What a distinction! ]
That dialectic is evident in all aspects of Ukrainian life.
Ukraine is changing, rapidly and significantly—partly as a result of the Maidan revolution, partly as a result of Putin’s mad war, partly as a result of pressure from Ukrainian civil society, partly as a result of pressure from the West, and partly as a result of the efforts of Ukraine’s “ambivalent” elites. [JB - How I wish, given my admiration for the Ukrainian people, especially the younger generation, that this can be their future.]
But change is always disruptive, even, or especially, if its ultimate effect is positive. And change is always viewed as either insufficient or excessive.
The griping in Ukraine will continue. The elites will continue to move the country in the right direction—too slowly for some, too quickly for others. In about a year or two, I’m betting Ukraine won’t just look normal. It’ll actually be normal [which, arguably, it hasn't been for over a thousand years. But, more important, what does the professor mean by "normal"? Life in New Brunswick, New Jersey?].

More from World Affairs

The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System

[JB note: An important article on a notable recent academic/military boondoggle -- or "science" shamelessly (for money) at the service of power, also known in another context/era as La Trahison des Clercs.]

image from

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The most expensive social science program in history–the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS)–has quietly come to an end. During its eight years of existence, the controversial program cost tax payers more than $725 million. The Pentagon distributed much of the funding to two large defense firms that became the HTS’s principal contractors: BAE Systems and CGI Federal.

HTS supporters frequently claimed that the program would increase cultural understanding between US forces and Iraqis and Afghans–and therefore reduce American and civilian casualties. The program’s leaders insisted that embedded social scientists were delivering sociocultural knowledge to commanders, but the reality was more complex. HTS personnel conducted a range of activities including data collection, intelligence gathering, and psychological operations. In at least one case, an HTS employee supported interrogations in Afghanistan (Weinberger 2011).

The program also served a more insidious function: It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public–especially those with liberal tendencies–that the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role. It appeared to demonstrate how US forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation. Department of Defense photos portrayed HTS personnel sitting on rugs while drinking tea with Afghan elders, or distributing sweets to euphoric Iraqi children. Here was a war that Americans could feel good about fighting.

When HTS was first announced in late 2006, I followed its development with concern. Along with many other anthropologists, I opposed the program because of the potential harm it might bring to Iraqi and Afghan civilians–and to future generations of social scientists who might be accused of being spies when conducting research abroad.

Apart from anthropologists, HTS had other critics. A small but vocal group of military officers publicly criticized the program, noting that it was “undermining sustainable military cultural competence” (Connable 2009) and that in practice, “the effectiveness of the HTTs [human terrain teams] was dubious at best” (Gentile 2013). Yet despite these criticisms, the program grew exponentially. At its peak in 2010, HTS employed more than 500 people ranging from career academics with PhDs to retired Special Forces personnel. Over the next few years, more than 30 “human terrain teams” (HTTs) were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the program’s annual budget exploded to more than $150 million.

Then in 2014, an odd thing happened. News reports and official statements about HTS virtually disappeared. Its slick website was no longer updated. HTS’s boosters fell silent. And when I tried phoning its headquarters at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas earlier this year, no one answered the phone.

I became curious about the fate of HTS. I heard conflicting accounts from military social scientists, former employees, and journalists who had written about it in the past. A few claimed that the program had ended–as did Wikipedia’s entry on the Human Terrain System. However, none of these sources included concrete evidence confirming its termination.

In an effort to verify the program’s official status, I contacted the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which was HTS’s home since its inception. I had resisted contacting TRADOC because in the past, my inquiries had gone unanswered. But earlier this month, I decided to try once more.

To my surprise, I received a response from Major Harold Huff of TRADOC’s Public Affairs Office. In a two-line email message sent to me last week, Huff confirmed that HTS had indeed ended on September 30, 2014. In order to get a better understanding of HTS’s hasty demise, let us review its history.

Embedded Social Science

HTS was launched in June 2006 as a program designed to embed five-person teams with Army combat brigades. According to the original HTS blueprint, each team would combine military personnel with academically trained cultural specialists–preferably social scientists with graduate degrees. Early in 2007, the first HTT was deployed to Khost, Afghanistan where it was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade. By the end of the year, four more teams were deployed across the country.

The program’s principal architect was cultural anthropologist Montgomery McFate.

McFate image from

For the first four years of the program, she and retired Army Colonel Steve Fondacaro (who was hired as HTS’s manager) tirelessly promoted the program. Their PR blitz included front-page stories in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and dozens of articles in magazines and militarizingculturenewspapers. The corporate media generally described HTS in glowing terms, and occasionally journalists portrayed McFate as a bohemian bad girl. One infatuated reporter described her as a “punk rock wild child. . .with a penchant for big hats and American Spirit cigarettes and a nose that still bears the tiny dent of a piercing 25 years closed” (Stannard 2007). McFate was the perfect shill.

HTS’s meteoric ascent paralleled and was accelerated by the rise to power of General David Petraeus, who was a staunch supporter. As a commander in Iraq, Petraeus became known for an unusual strategy that relied upon “securing” the population by interacting with civilians and paying off local tribal leaders in exchange for political support. This “population-centric” approach became known as the Petraeus Doctrine and was welcomed by some Army officers. Many Pentagon officials (particularly Defense Secretary Robert Gates) were impressed with the strategy, which was soon codified when Petraeus oversaw the publication of a new Army field manual, FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency warfare had an air of theoretical legitimacy–indeed, Petraeus surrounded himself with a team of advisors with doctoral degrees in political science and history. These men referred to counterinsurgency as “the graduate level of war.”

Many brigade commanders fell into line once the Petraeus Doctrine was established as the Army’s preferred method for fighting insurgents. Criticizing counterinsurgency–or HTS for that matter–was a bad move for officers seeking to advance their careers. Congressmen and women generally liked the new approach because it appeared to be succeeding (at least in Iraq) and because many viewed it as less lethal. And HTS fit perfectly with the narrative that Petraeus had crafted with the help of compliant reporters: counterinsurgency is the thinking man’s warfare.

However, HTS encountered a series of obstacles. As mentioned above, the program met organized resistance from academic anthropologists. Less than a year after the first HTT was deployed to Afghanistan, the American Anthropological Association issued a sharply worded statement in which it expressed disapproval of the program. An ad hoc group, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, succeeded in gathering the signatures of more than 1,000 anthropologists who pledged to avoid counterinsurgency work.

HTS was also beset by tragedy. Between May 2008 and January 2009, three employees of the program–Michael Bhatia, Nicole Suveges, and Paula Loyd–were killed in action. Some suggested that in its rush to supply the Army with social scientists, BAE Systems (which had been granted large contracts to manage HTS) was not providing personnel with sufficient training.

It soon became clear that BAE Systems was on a hiring binge and was inadequately screening HTS applicants. Most of the academics who were hired had no substantive knowledge of Iraqi or Afghan culture. Very few could speak or understand Arabic, Pashto, Dari, or Farsi. But the pressure was on–the Army needed “human terrain analysts” ASAP and was willing to pay top dollar to get them. Vanessa Gezari nicely summarizes the results of these bizarre hiring patterns:

Some were bright, driven, talented people who contributed useful insights–but an equal number of unqualified people threatened to turn the whole effort into a joke. The Human Terrain System–which had been described in the pages of military journals and briefed to commanders in glowing, best-case-scenario terms–was ultimately a complex mix of brains and ambition, idealism and greed, idiocy, optimism, and bad judgment. (Gezari 2013: 197)

As early as 2009, reports of racism, sexual harassment, and payroll padding began to emerge, and an Army investigation found that HTS was plagued by severe problems (Vander Brook 2013). To make matters worse, the investigators found that many brigade commanders considered HTTs to be ineffective. In the wake of these revelations, Fondacaro and McFate resigned from the program. Army Colonel Sharon Hamilton replaced Fondacaro as program manager, while anthropologist Christopher King took over as chief social scientist.

But by this point, HTS was making a transition from “proof-of-concept” to a permanent “program of record”–a major milestone towards full institutionalization. As a Pentagon correspondent told me, once such programs become permanent, “these things never really die.” This makes HTS’s recent expiration all the more perplexing.

Downward Spiral

Given its spectacular growth and the Army’s once insatiable demand for embedded social scientists, one might ask: Why did HTS fall into a downward spiral?

One reason had to do with the scheduled pullout of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. As early as 2012, HTS’s management team was desperately searching for a way to market the program after a US troop withdrawal:

With Iraq behind it and the end of its role in Afghanistan scheduled for 2014, the operative term used by US Army Human Terrain System managers these days is “Phase Zero.” The term refers to sending small teams of Army human terrain experts to gather information about local populations–their customs and sensitivities–perhaps in peacetime and certainly before areas boil over into a conflict that might require a larger number of US forces. Human Terrain System advocates see Phase Zero as a way for the program to survive in a more austere military (Hodges 2012).

Apparently, none of the military’s branches or combatant commands were interested in funding the program beyond fiscal year 2014. Perhaps HTS’s reputation preceded it. In an email message, an Army reserve officer told me that “like the armored vehicles being given to police departments, they [HTS personnel] are sort of surplus. . .mostly looking for customers.”

Others employed by the military have recounted similar stories. For example, an anthropologist who works in a military organization (who asked not to be named and was not speaking in an official capacity) noted, “many military personnel did express objections to the program for a variety of reasons. They just expressed their critiques internally.”

Another factor that undoubtedly damaged HTS’s long-term survival was Petraeus’s spectacular fall from grace during his tenure as CIA director. “From Hero to Zero,” reported the Washington Post after his extramarital exploits and reckless handling of classified information were publicized (Moyer 2015). In the aftermath of the Petraeus-Broadwell affair, some journalists began to acknowledge that their enthusiasm for counterinsurgency warfare was due in large part to “hero-worship and runaway military idolatry” centered around Petraeus’s personality cult (Vlahos 2012). In a remarkably candid confession, Wired magazine’s Spencer Ackerman (2012) admitted:

the more I interacted with his staff, the more persuasive their points seemed. . .in retrospect, I was insufficiently critical [of counterinsurgency doctrine]. . .Another irony that Petraeus’s downfall reveals is that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realizing it.

The Petraeus-Broadwell scandal ripped away the shroud of mystique that had enveloped counterinsurgency’s promoters. Perhaps HTS unfairly suffered from the collateral damage–but then again, the program’s architects had conveniently cast their lot with the Petraeus boys. (Mark Twain might have said of the situation: You pays your money and you takes your choice.)

By 2013, a fresh wave of criticism began to surround HTS. Anthropologists continued their opposition, but HTS’s newest critics were not academics–they were investigative journalists and an irate Congressman. USA Today correspondent Tom Vanden Brook published a series of excoriating articles based upon documents that the newspaper had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Independent reporter John Stanton cultivated a network of HTS insiders and published dozens of reports about the program’s seedier aspects. Journalist Vanessa Gezari was another critical observer. After several years of careful research, she published a riveting exposé in 2013, entitled The Tender Soldier. In it, she tells readers: “I wanted to believe in the Human Terrain System’s capacity to make the US military smarter, but the more time I spent with the team, the more confused I became” (Gezari 2013: 169). And later in the same chapter: “The Human Terrain System lied to the public and to its own employees and contract staff about the nature of its work in Afghanistan. . .[it] would prove less controversial for what it did than for its sheer incompetence” (Ibid.: 192).

As if these critiques were not enough, US Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, launched a one-man crusade against the program. His frustration was palpable: “It’s shocking that this program, with its controversy and highly questionable need, could be extended. It should be ended,” he said in early 2014. The pressure was mounting.

Another problem facing HTS was the broad shift in Pentagon priorities, away from cultural intelligence and towards geospatial intelligence. As noted by geographer Oliver Belcher (2013: 189), the latter “marks a real move towards conducting human terrain intelligence at a distance within strategic centers of calculation in Washington, DC and Virginia.” Counterinsurgency was a passing fad. “The US military has a strong cultural aversion to irregular warfare and to devoting resources to sociocultural knowledge,” according to researchers at National Defense University (Lamb et al. 2013: 28). This, combined with HTS’s record of incompetence, undoubtedly emboldened those opposing the idea of incorporating social science perspectives in the military.

By 2014, the rapidly growing fields of computational social science and predictive modeling had become fashionable–they aligned neatly with the Obama administration’s sweeping embrace of “big data.” Many Pentagon planners would prefer to collect data from mobile phone records, remote sensors, biometric databases, and drones equipped with high-resolution cameras than from human social scientists with dubious credentials. (For fuller coverage of predictive modeling programs, see my article “Seeing into Hearts and Minds” in the current edition of Anthropology Today). In the words of Oliver Belcher (2013: 63), “It’s algorithms, not anthropology, that are the real social science scandal in late-modern war.”

Postscript: Life After Death for HTS?

The final days of HTS’s existence were ugly. By one account, its last moments were tumultuous and emotional. It seems that HTS still had true believers among its ranks–employees who were in denial even as the plug was being pulled. Someone familiar with the situation described those on the payroll at the time of closure as “angry, shocked, bitter, retaliatory. . .The last 3-4 months involved some of the most toxic culture of embittered people I have ever witnessed.”

Although HTS has officially ended, questions still remain about its future. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2015 allows the Army to carry out a “Pilot Program for the Human Terrain System. . .to support phase 0 shaping operations and the theater security cooperation plans of the Commander of the United States Pacific Command. . .this section shall terminate on September 30, 2016” (US Congress 2014: Section 1075).

Furthermore, a March 16, 2015 letter from Army General Ray Odierno to US Representative Nita Lowey includes HTS on a list of unfunded requirements for fiscal year 2016. Odierno’s letter describes HTS as an unfunded program to be used by the Pacific Command as suggested in the NDAA. Yet no job advertisements have been posted to recruit employees for the program. Only time will tell if HTS will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes, or if it has truly disintegrated.

Some argue that HTS was a good idea that was badly mismanaged. It would be more accurate to say that HTS was a bad idea that was badly mismanaged. Cultural knowledge is not a service that can be easily provided by contractors and consultants, or taught to soldiers using a training manual. HTS was built upon a flawed premise, and its abysmal record was the inevitable result. The fact that the program continued as long as it did reveals the Army’s superficial attitude towards culture.

Viewed with a wide-angle lens, it becomes clear that HTS had broader social significance. The program encapsulated deep cultural contradictions underlying America’s place in the world after 9/11–contradictions that continue haunting our country today. In Vanessa Gezari’s words:

[HTS] was a giant cultural metaphor, a cosmic expression of the national zeitgeist: American exceptionalism tempered by the political correctness of a postcolonial, globalized age and driven by the ravenous hunger of defense contractors for profit. If you could have found a way to project on a big screen the nation’s mixed feelings about its role as the sole superpower in a post-Cold War world, this was what it would have looked like. (Gezari 2013: 198)

A great deal can be learned by examining the wreckage left behind in the wake of HTS. From one perspective, the program can be interpreted as an example of the ineptitude, incompetence, and hubris that characterized many aspects of the US-led invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As historian Niall Ferguson has observed, the US is an empire in denial. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that wars of imperial conquest would be couched in terms of “cultural awareness” and securing “human terrain.” From another perspective, HTS represents the perverse excesses of a military-industrial complex run amok, a system that caters to the needs of the defense industry and celebrity generals rather than the needs of Iraqis or Afghans.

We would be far better off if more government-funded social science was used to build bridges of respect and mutual understanding with other societies, rather than as a weapon to be used against them.

Roberto J. González is professor of anthropology at San José State University. He has authored several books including Zapotec Science, American Counterinsurgency and Militarizing Culture. He can be contacted at roberto.gonzalez@sjsu.edu.


Ackerman, Spencer. 2012. How I Was Drawn into the Cult of David Petraeus. Wired.com, November 11.

Belcher, Oliver. 2013. The Afterlives of Counterinsurgency: Postcolonialism, Military Social Science, and Afghanistan, 2006-2012. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of British Columbia.

Connable, Ben. 2009. All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System Is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence. Military Review (March-April 2009), 57-64.

Gentile, Gian. 2013. Counterinsurgency: The Graduate Level of War or Pure Hokum? e-International Relations, August 3.

Gezari, Vanessa. 2013. The Tender Soldier. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hodges, Jim. 2012. US Army’s Human Terrain Experts May Help Defuse Future Conflicts. Defense News, March 22.

Lamb, Christopher et al. 2013. The Way Ahead for Human Terrain Teams. Joint Forces Quarterly 70(3), 21-29.

Moyer, Justin Wm. 2015. General David Petraeus: From Hero to Zero. Washington Post, April 24.

Stannard, Matthew. 2007. Montgomery McFate’s Mission. San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, April 29.

US Congress. 2014. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015.

Vander Brook, Tom. 2013. Army Plows Ahead with Troubled War-Zone Program. USA Today, February 28.

Vlahos, Kelley. 2012. Petraeus’s COIN Gets Flipped. The American Conservative, November 19.

Weinberger, Sharon. 2011. Pentagon Cultural Analyst Helped with Interrogations. Nature, October 18.

The Man Who Predicted Putin

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Vladimir Voinovich, Russia’s 82-year-old satirist, on why the rise of a KGB man was inevitable but why Russia’s decline and fall into authoritarianism doesn’t have to be.

Russian writers are fond of quoting the words of 20th-century poet and literary scholar Kornei Chukovsky: “In Russia, one should live a long life.” Novelist, poet and essayist Vladimir Voinovich, born in 1932 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, has certainly fulfilled that precept: He has lived long enough to see the end of Stalinism and of the Khrushchev “thaw,” the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of a neo-authoritarian Russian regime under Vladimir Putin. (And a once-unthinkable de facto war between Russia and Ukraine—an especially bitter irony since, as a boy, Voinovich was living in Ukraine when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.)
He lived long enough to go from successful Soviet writer to dissident, pariah and exile; to return triumphantly to a new Russia that welcomed him and his work; and then to find himself a dissident and semi-outcast once again as Putinism gathered strength.
At 82, Voinovich is still going strong.  He recently rewrote his 1985 play Tribunal, which satirized Soviet-era trials of dissidents, to update it for the Putin era. He is working on a new book (though he is tight-lipped about its content). Last week, he completed a trip to the United States where he gave readings for Russian speakers in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and several other locations.
Voinovich’s body of work, which includes novels, short stories, fables, poems, and essays, weaves a rich and vivid canvas of Soviet and post-Soviet life. His World War II epicThe Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin and itssequels, follows a bumbling and simpleminded but goodhearted Soviet Army soldier from 1941, when he is stranded in a village on assignment to guard a broken-down airplane shortly before the German invasion, to 1990, when he visits the USSR as a thriving American farmer, having found unexpected fortune as a postwar refugee.
The trilogy, translated into many languages—the English version, published in 1979, was hailed in the New York Times as a masterpiece of “socialist surrealism” and the “Soviet Catch-22, as written by a latter-day Gogol”—is a scathing satire, both realist and fantastic, that skewers the communist system and the Soviet myth of the “Great Patriotic War”; but the absurdist humor always coexists with a deep humanity.
“Russia is beating itself bloody.”
Other notable Voinovich works includeThe Ivankiad, the darkly hilarious true story of Voinovich’s fight for a new apartment that was also coveted by a Party apparatchik; The Fur Hat, the tragicomic fictional tale of a mediocre Soviet writer whose frustration with the lack of respect the state accords him for his loyal service turns to rebellion; andMonumental Propaganda, a Chonkinspinoff whose anti-heroine, devout Stalinist Aglaya Revkina, rescues her town’s deposed Stalin statue and takes it home. (A superb 2010 memoir, Self-Portrait: The Story of My Life, sadly remains unavailable in English.)
But in recent years, no other Voinovich book has received as much attention as his 1986 dystopian satire, Moscow 2042.  The novel’s narrator, a Russian émigré writer who is clearly Voinovich’s own alter ego, travels forward in time to find a Moscow that boasts of achieving utopia—and that has uncanny parallels to today’s Russia: Soviet-style features combined with traditional religiosity and a ruler with a KGB past that resembles Putin’s biography in some startling details. (In one indication of the book’s relevance, it is being translated into Ukrainian.) Speaking to a Russian-Jewish émigré audience in Fair Lawn, N.J., last Sunday, Voinovich joked, “Next time, I’ll write a utopia. People keep saying that all the bad things I write come true, so I’m going to write something good.”
During his stay in the New York area, Voinovich met with The Daily Beast to talk about ways to predict the future, the causes of Putin’s popularity, Russia’s missed opportunity to choose freedom, and what the West needs to understand about Russia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vladimir Voinowitsch 26.09.1932-Writer, Russia- 1986 (Photo by Rudolf Dietrich/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Vladimir Voinowitsch (Rudolf Dietrich/ullstein bild via Getty)
TDB: I’ll start with a question that you must hear a lot. Back in the 1980s, you wrote a book called Moscow 2042, which is probably your most talked-about book right now because it is believed that you predicted a great deal of what is happening today. Do you think it really is a prophetic novel—and how did you manage that?
Voinovich: Maybe I should be modest and say, “No, no, of course not,” but considering that in my future, the state is ruled by a former KGB resident in Germany, and that he was part of a plot of angry KGB generals, a hero of “the August Revolution”—it’s  almost forgotten now, but there was the coup in August ’91—and a hero of “the war in Buryat-Mongolia,” which could substitute for Chechnya… I think it’s pretty close. Besides, I’ve also got the merger of state, KGB, and church in that book.

How did it come about? I first got the idea in 1982. At first I wanted to set it fifty years in the future, and my first draft was titled “Moscow 2032.” Then I decided to move it forward by another ten years.
Generally, if you look at present-day trends, you can predict the future. Very few people do that, because I’ve been told that only 3 to 5 percent of people are aware of being a part of history; the overwhelming majority think things will always be the way they are now. When Stalin was alive, most people could not imagine that he would ever die. Same under Brezhnev.
When I was leaving the Soviet Union [in 1980], I said that in about five years cardinal changes would begin. I didn’t know what kind of changes; I didn’t think the Soviet Union would collapse—I wasn’t thinking in such terms. But I thought there would be drastic political changes. When I said that on the Voice of America, a friend wrote to me, “How can you say that! You know we have senile old men at the top and they are never going to die out, you know we’ve got a war in Afghanistan going on, the situation with food is a disaster, and you say there are going to be changes!” I replied, “That’s why there are going to be changes—because the Soviet regime has reached such a state of idiocy, there’s no way out.”
At the same time, I could see that people were going to church in droves; even members of the Communist Party were getting baptized, baptizing their children and so on. Religion was playing a greater and greater role, and it was clear that the state would eventually try to co-opt it for its own needs. I could also see that the KGB was assuming an increasingly important role in society. The country was being ruled by uneducated, incompetent people; they needed competent aides, and the KGB was a natural source. [KGB agents] had a better education than most others; they knew foreign languages, and they had a better understanding of the situation—the ones from the domestic sections of the KGB had a better grasp on internal affairs, and the spies had some knowledge of how the West works. The KGB elites were getting closer and closer to the men in power, and it was obvious that someday they would take power themselves and start to rule. In fact, even in those days, while I was writing the book, [Yuri] Andropov appeared on the scene—the KGB chairman who became the General Secretary—and then Putin came along.
So, all these predictions—I don’t believe in parapsychologists or psychics, but I do believe that one can make logical deductions.
Today, people ask me: So, we’ve reached that point—what now?
TDB: That’s exactly what I was going to ask: What does your historical vision tell you now?
Voinovich: Until recently, I had a very pessimistic forecast—and things also seemed very murky. But after all these recent events—“Crimea is ours!,” Donbas, all that—I realized I could get back into the business of forecasting. Until now, I didn’t feel up to it. I actually was wrong about one thing: I predicted that Putin would be forced to leave [soon], but he’s still there. Generally, once again—this time not in seventy years but in a very short time—the President and the Duma have reached the stage of such idiocy that they are constantly taking actions which are not simply pointless but harmful, to Russia itself.
The annexation of Crimea did undermine Ukraine to some extent, but less than it did Russia; this is a case in which the victim wins. Ukraine got rid of a region that requires massive subsidies and received international sympathy; meanwhile, Russia bit off this chunk it can’t chew. Then it moved on to eastern Ukraine; at first, it seemed as if things would develop along the same scenario as in Crimea—the Donetsk and Luhansk regions would fall, and then [the rest of] “Novorossiya,” and Ukraine would be reduced to a fraction of itself. And now it’s turned into a festering sore that is draining both Ukraine’s strength and Russia’s.
It’s a no-exit situation. Which is why the insanity continues, and the President and the Duma continue to pass legislation that hurts Russia itself. For instance, responding to sanctions from the West with counter-sanctions that hit Russia hardest. Russia is beating itself bloody.
“I think today's reactionary policy will end in total failure and the need for a newperestroika; there will be a ‘time of troubles,’ which may well end in the disintegration of Russia.”
Besides, there’s always a pendulum effect, not just in Russia. Here [in the U.S.] the Democrats can have the White House for two terms, five terms—but eventually the Republicans will take over and turn the clock in a different direction. But here, [the change] is not that drastic; in Russia, it is. There was Stalin, and then liberalization under Khrushchev. It was inevitable; it wasn’t just because Khrushchev was such a nice guy. Even the Communist Party leadership realized that liberalization was necessary because the country was becoming ossified. After Khrushchev, there was a new chill, because the new people in power thought Khrushchev had gone too far; under Brezhnev, there was a much milder form of Stalinism, and it continued until Gorbachev. From Gorbachev to Yeltsin, the pendulum swung one way; now, Putin has pushed it very far [in the opposite direction], and the backlash is inevitable. So I think the year 2042 could be quite interesting.
Specifically, I think today’s reactionary policy will end in total failure and the need for a new perestroika; there will be a “time of troubles,” which may well end in the disintegration of Russia.
TDB: I know it’s difficult to answer “What might have been” hypotheticals, but based on your perception of historical processes, how inevitable was it that Russia found itself on such a wrong path after the collapse of communism? I’m sure you remember that when the Soviet Union ended, there was a surge of hope both in Russia and the West; it was widely believed that Russia was about to join the community of civilized nations, that it would have democracy. And then, of course, it all turned out very differently. Do you think this could have been avoided?
Voinoivch: As a matter of fact, I think it was not inevitable. Sometimes there are historical moments when a country’s course could be turned one way or the other, when fate can be escaped. To go back in history a bit: Khrushchev could not abolish the Soviet system, he could only soften it, and then Brezhnev could tighten the screws again. Gorbachev couldn’t really do anything, either. Starting with Yeltsin, there was a new situation; but even Yeltsin was still tied down. Then, Putin came to power. If a different kind of person had been in his place—someone more like Thomas Jefferson—at that point, anything was possible. When people say: oh, that’s just the way Russians are—no, they’re not. Russians come [to the United States] and work just like Americans do, and invent Google and things like that. A great deal depends on the people in power.
If Putin and those around him had been smart enough to go in a different direction… The country was ready. The conditions were extremely favorable—with oil prices as high as they were, it was possible to do anything. It was possible to solidify democracy. [After the Yeltsin years] people began to think that democracy is a disaster, that democracy equals misery. Putin got a lucky break—and he used it the KGB way. He turned out to be a wily KGB man, not a wise statesman.
People sometimes ask: Is Putin a clever man? Yes, he’s clever in his own way, when it comes to political intrigue, and he’s got a good head for numbers. But as soon as he took office, the first thing he did was to institute a new anthem based on the old Soviet one; that was a very major step, not a petty issue. He began at once to appeal to people’s basest instincts. It is true that people in Russia are used to obedience. There was a poll on the anthem, but it was formulated in such a way as to get the preferred result. Then [the independent television channel] NTV was strangled, then there was more in the same vein. Finally, power has gone to his head. He got lucky with the [Sochi] Olympics—it didn’t fail, it was a great spectacle—and then he thought, “Why not grab Crimea?” And ended up getting stuck. If he had been a wise man, he wouldn’t have done that. Of course, then he wouldn’t have held the Olympics, either. [laughs]
TDB: Speaking of Putin, a literary question: In the epilogue of Monumental Propaganda, which was published in 2000, one of your characters speaks of a would-be dictator who is already rehearsing for his role. Then, in the final scene, the narrator drives by the empty pedestal where the Stalin statue used to stand—the one your heroine, Aglaya, took home—and thinks he can see a shadowy figure forming on it. Were you thinking of Putin at the time?
Voinovich: No, not yet; but I was thinking of someone like Putin.
TDB: You even described him as short and stocky…
Voinovich: They say that generally, rulers—dictators—tend to be short, like me. It gives them an inferiority complex; when they were kids, they wanted to be big and to crush the small, but they were small themselves. Lenin was short, Stalin was short, Putin…
TDB: So you turned out to be a prophet once again?
Voinovich: Not quite; I also wrote that he would be [indifferent to material things]. A real dictator usually isn’t interested in money or women, just pure power. But Putin—I don’t know about women, but it looks like he definitely likes money quite a bit, and I think that’s gotten him in trouble too, with all the loot he’s handed out [to his cronies]. He’s painted himself into a corner; he has committed so many sins and crimes, he has no choice but to hold on to power. No matter how he leaves, his policies will definitely be condemned as bad and wrong, and everything will be blamed on him, just as he now blames Yeltsin. It could be done by someone who, at this moment, is professing boundless love for Putin.
TDB: On the subject of boundless love, what do you think of Putin’s 86 percent approval rating? Is it genuine or inflated?
Voinovich: As we know, the love of the masses is fickle. It will end, burst like a bubble, and very quickly too. For now, they keep feeding it, adding more fuel; but the firewood is running out. People are already hearing reports of Russians being killed in Ukraine; they go shopping and probably ponder the way [things are getting worse]. I think that right now, this rating is being artificially maintained—but not for long.
Most people consume information passively—whatever they’re being fed. Right now, they’re being fed Russian television, which tells them that in the 1990s there was a terrible catastrophe, that before that life had been all right, and then when Putin came… many people say, “I’ve never lived as well as I’m living under Putin.” And that’s true; there has never been such a level of affluence.
The Communist Party spent most of its wealth on weapons and on supporting communist movements and terrorist groups worldwide; it was also really bad at management. Today, even the capitalism we have in Russia, however distorted and ugly, gives us a far more functional economy. Besides, there is no more spending on ideology; of course there are a lot of corrupt public officials, but even they can’t plunder everything. Oil prices are sky-high; so, in the large cities where revolution could happen and which shape the country’s course, the average person earns over $1,000 [a month]. It has never been this good.
“Putin is today's Stalin.”
But now, it looks like people will have to tighten their belts, and some are already having doubts. As for the rest of Russia, which was and is mired in poverty, it has no effect on the political climate whatsoever; the only thing it has an effect on is vodka sales.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of time. Remember what [Soviet-era poet Alexander] Galich wrote about Stalin: “It turns out our father was/No father, just a bitch.” Some day, they’ll say the same thing [about Putin].
TDB: Right now, we are now seeing a revival of the Stalin cult in Russia; why do you think that is?
Voinovich: It is very clearly being encouraged from above, and it’s a way of encouraging the cult of Putin. The message is that people of this type are the only ones who can govern the country properly.
TDB: In the Stalin era, there was a propaganda slogan, “Stalin is today’s Lenin.” And now—
Voinovich: And now, Putin is today’s Stalin.
TDB: Many people say that what’s happening in Russia right now is actually worse and more vile than under the Soviet system, at least in the Brezhnev years. What’s your opinion on that?
Voinovich: In some ways, it is worse today [because public apathy is more depressing]. Under the Soviet system, what was happening could at least be explained as the product of years of communist terror; people lived in fear, they were used to this. In some ways, of course, it was worse then; if I had given this kind of interview on a trip abroad, I would have been clapped in handcuffs as soon as I got back. Today, my books are still being published; under the Soviet regime, that was impossible.
But the freedoms we have are just leftovers. Freedom of travel, which was completely nonexistent in the Soviet Union; artistic freedom—so far, that’s doing fine too, virtually everything can be published. Although with some books that are too edgy politically, or are especially undesirable, the authors are already running into difficulties—[satirist Victor] Shenderovich, for instance. Theaters that produce provocative plays, or clubs [that host undesirable events] often find themselves on the receiving end of fire safety inspections and fines.
TDB: Do you feel safe in Russia at this point?
Voinovich: I wouldn’t say that. I do speak out, and I know that any statement which rubs them the wrong way is being noted somewhere. I also think that I am now an old man, so maybe I’ll give them what they want the natural way. Back when they tried to poison me, in 1975, I was forty years old, and a KGB man said to me, “You know, when a person is seventy, that’s one thing, but to meet one’s end at your age…”
At this point, though—I remember a man saying to me once, in a different context, “No one can take away my fifty years.” I can say that no one will take away my eighty-two years. And if they do take something away—well…
TDB: Can you envision being forced to leave Russia once again?
Voinovich: I can, even more than I envisioned it back then. At this point, I don’t care much where I live. I don’t feel as attached to Russia’s native woods as I was once. I used to dearly love Moscow, even though I wasn’t born there; but now, it’s [changed so much that] it’s a strange city for me. I had a bond with my friends, but most of them are gone; I haven’t made new ones, and the ones that I do have are mostly in Germany and in America.
TDB: Is there anything about what’s happening in Russia that the West doesn’t understand and needs to understand?
Voinovich: I’m not sure. I think that right now the West understands Russia better than before and feels a much greater wariness toward it. I think that, if anything, Russia’s sinister nature is exaggerated, in that most contemporary analysts in the West can’t even imagine that Russia could be different. I think it can, with a different turn of events.
They say, Russians are this, Russians are that—that’s what they were like because the regime never changed. When the regime changed in Japan, the Japanese changed; Russians too can change, as long as the conditions for it are present once again. Today, we are on the verge of a very uncertain situation when either everything will end in catastrophe, or [better] people will come to power.
Russia may soon get another chance to move closer to the West, to make a step—I do believe the first step toward democracy was made in the 1990s, and perhaps the next step can happen now. If this happens, the West needs to see it in time and support it in an intelligent way. Of course there were many people in the West—[George] Soros and others—who did try to support what was happening in the early ’90s. Unfortunately, as [19th-century liberal essayist Alexander] Herzen wrote, “Russia took up arms and defended her slavery.”