Conrad's Counsel
The Russian Autocrat’s Eternal Return

For the Western political observer, Russia judged by common metrics always seems on the verge of being a spent force. As Joseph Conrad reminds us, Russia never seems to vanish from the map, and remains a font of imperialism and war.

Published on: September 15, 2014
Jakub Grygiel is George H.W. Bush Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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  • J Andris

    Let’s look at some points made by the author of this article,that adds little if any to the cacophony of russophobia that passes as serious analysis lately..

    “..a population in decline and in poor health..” By all accounts the demographic situation of Russia is constantly improving with birth rates among ethnic Russians on the rise while the influx of immigrants from Central Asia create a much more favorable image than the one portrayed by western MSM..

    “ economy unable to produce exportable goods..” Well,you mean besides the rocket engines that send US military satellites in space..

    “..a political system propped by kleptocratic autocracy and propaganda..” And a president that enjoys sky-high popularity ratings..It is funny how the role of power interests and lobbyists that effectively degrades american democracy is discarded when we make comparisons with Russia..

    ” Why would Russia risk another prolonged, and perhaps even violent, conflict with a much stronger opponent?” Certainly,the combined power of NATO is not something Russian generals would be keen to face.That said,the neglect of the European armies ever since the end of the Cold War is staggering.Their ability to wage war against even a technologically inferior-to some aspects at least-but decisive opponent that fights for what it considers its vital interests is minimal.And if you think that the american public has become war-averse then just consider the resolve by which Europeans would go to fight and die in the Dnieper(besides the neo-nazi volunteers of the Azov battalion that is)..

    “The will of a 19th century Tsar or a post-modern one, such as Putin, perceives no limits and easily becomes unmoored from reality.” Yet again the same fallacy that probably constitutes the biggest methodological error of proclaimed analysts of Russian politics.Putin is not a tyrant as the West likes to portray him,but rather a politician that needs to balance the various interests of the groups that comprise that vast country..To be more specific,Putin has shown by his actions that he takes into account the limits of the strategic balance very well,and in Ukraine’s case he has been at best reactive to moves made by the West.If anything,the current political elites of Russia have displayed tremendous restraint in their handling of the Ukraine civil war.

    “Undoubtedly a weak state, Russia could still inflict a lot of damage and in some cases it could win because it often selected even weaker, “practically disarmed,” targets..” Hmm..Like Serbia,Afghanistan,Iraq,Libya..Russia fought in the direst of circumstances against successive invasions from the West-and East ever since it came to being as a country..The latest,WWII leaving behind more than 20 million dead and its infrastructure ravaged..You must be a really strange person to consider the Golden Horde,the Teutonic knights,Napoleon or Hitler as weak adversaries..

    “..he only offers a clear and prescient warning that Russia, led by her autocrats, would continue to present problems way beyond its material capabilities and geopolitical constraints…” The only problem Russia presents is the fact that it continues to resist West’s attempts to subdue it..A West that is in denial as to its diminishing standing in the world..

  • זאב ברנזון

    the author is very ignorent of modern russian situation as represented by statistics in 2014 russian demografic and industrial data is superior to most european states anti russian propoganda remainds me of anti israeli propoganda done by blind moralists that ignore real life in the name off discredeted liberal ideals not fundamentally different from marxism in their applicability too real life

  • Burn_the_Witch

    “Above all, Russia’s foreign policy motivations remain in the end undecipherable…”

    It’s not only difficult to finish the article after this line, but the author damages his own credibility with such a comment. A look at the geography and demographics of Russia and the former Soviet Union will reveal a great many things about Russian foreign policy motivations.

    And this author is an associate professor of Advanced International Studies? This basic oversight of geography and demographics (I cannot believe it is ignorance) is an undergrad mistake.

    • adk

      ” A look at the geography and demographics of Russia and the former Soviet Union will reveal a great many things about Russian foreign policy motivations.”

      Care to elaborate? Name a few and tie them to Russia’s geography and demographics.

      • adk

        Hey, Burn!

        Still there? I thought it would be a piece of cake to educate us given your superior knowledge of USSR/Russian geography and demographics.

        Well, maybe not.

  • ShadrachSmith

    There is something about the Rus that have always loved a good tyrant. That isn’t anybody’s fault, that is just who they are.

  • It’s amazing how wrong Conrad was about the Russia of 1905 but how some of his claims would be true in today’s Russia. Broadly speaking, Russian underwent a period of impressive economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization in 1861-1914. By the start of WWI, it had trial by jury, well-enforced property rights, a decent education system, a half-free press, a local self-government system (zemstvo), and a consultative Duma that was hoping to become a legislative body. Of course Russia was riven by social strife because it was changing fast, its deeply archaic peasant culture inevitably clashing with the values of its educated classes. But overall, it kept growing until WWI put an end to that.

    Today’s Russia is just the opposite. There’s no economic growth and no organic population growth to speak of. There’s no rule of law, no independent courts except some civil tribunals, no free press except a few outlets, and no decent education system outside of a large cities. The Duma is the dictator’s puppet parliament. And worst of all, there is little hope because, unlike 1914, the long-term trajectory looks more down than up.

    • JLS1950

      Just a small observation here, Alex. I think the statement (quoted in this article) “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must” is both an over-simplification and actually downright wrong. I think more correctly the strong tend to want to preserve the status quo – even if it means giving up some small part of their strength and privilege (as by power-sharing or through constitutional processes) or limiting their opportunities to express their strength through legal processes and support of social programs – whereas the weak feel they have nothing to lose by supporting the most radical, despotic, dangerous and abusive of “leaders” whether they really believe those persons are going to improve their lot or not: the allure of “change” – no matter what kind – is simply too strong.

  • Bankotsu

    Conrad was a Pole. Most poles are russophobes, so there’s nothing new here on Russia but the usual anti russian drivel.

    There is nothing strange or odd about Russian foreign policy moves, most people who have suffered from western imperialism and colonialism will understand it. I am chinese and I completely understand Putin. There is nothing weird, odd, strange or mystical about Putin’s moves at all.

    Everything is logical to me. I completely, totally, fully and thoroughly approve and support Russia and Vladmir Putin. I wish him and Russia well and hope that Russia will succeed.

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