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RUSOLOGY’S DECLINE: Shevtsova and Dishonest Debate

photo lies

by Gordon M. Hahn 

[previously published in August 2013 on]

Recent writings by Russia analysts display a worrying trend of falsification and distortion. This marks an overall degeneration in what might be called professional “Rusology” or the study and analysis of contemporary Russian politics, economics, society, and culture. Recent distortions go beyond a ‘mere’ misrepresentation of the facts on the ground in Russia. Rather, we see attempts by some politicized analysts to misrepresent the work of those with whom they have disagreements. This devolution represents a larger intellectual dishonesty in current political discourse wherein reasoned, fact-based argumentation is replaced by inexact or even non-existent sourcing in one’s own work.

Thus, Russian analyst Liliya Shevtsova recently wrote the following:

Take a look at yet another “artist” producing an optimistic portrait of the Russian landscape: Gordon M. Hahn. Here is how he tells his own ‘history of Russia’ (keeping in mind that in fact that he wrote all this long after it was clear who Medvedev was and where Putin is heading). ‘Medvedev’s presidency was marked by a political thaw and significant liberalizing reforms,’ (!) Hahn writes.  After the rigged elections and Putin’s return to the Kremlin, Hahn insists that Russia has experienced a ‘return to democratization and market reforms… After the elections, the new Duma began to function more democratically… The Kremlin has responded [to the protests] by expanding the space for political expression, participation and competition’” (Liliya Shevtsova, Russia XXI, Carnegie Endowmwnt for International Peace, p. 74-75).

Whenever one reads quoted text presented in broken pieces, the reader should, at a minimum look up the original. Ms. Shevtsova conveniently leaves out of my commentary all textual and temporal context. She claims that I wrote this “long after it was clear who Medvedev was and where Putin is heading.” She omits the date of my article and any and all scholarly apparatus (footnotes or title, so readers can check for themselves).

For the record, I wrote the commentary before Putin’s inauguration, and it was published just five days after the inauguration (see Gordon M. Hahn, “Perestroika 2.0 and the Moscow Spring,” Fair Observer, 11 May 2012).  Thus, the article covered some four years of Medvedev’s reforms from 2008-2012 (that included more open political discussion in Russian state media and attempts to liberalize the police and numerous aspects of Russian law). The same article of mine (and several previous ones) detailed Medvedev’s major reforms of the political system initiated and passed into law from late December 2011 before Putin’s inauguration in May 2012. After the December 2011 Duma elections and the demonstrations, Medvedev introduced a series of far-reaching reforms of Russia’s political system: elimination of the requirement that political parties gather signatures to run in parliamentary election at the federal, regional, city, and district level; a sharp reduction in the number of signatures needed to register presidential candidates for parties (from 1 million to 100,000) and independent (from 2 million to 300,000); a sharp reduction in the number of members a party needs to be registered and a streamlining of the signature and registration process; a restoration of direct elections of regional governors abolished by Putin in 2004 (but with a non-mandatory presidential ’filter’ or vetting process and a mandatory municipal ’filter’). Only one of these reforms of the political system was diluted by Putin – the gubernatorial election reform – through the establishment noted ‘filters’.

Thus, it is Ms. Shevtsova who is being ‘artistic’ when she says I was wrong in writing in my 11 May 2012 article that “Medvedev’s presidency was marked by a political thaw and significant liberalizing reforms.” Shevtsova can deny that these reforms occurred or that they are devoid of meaning. However, in doing so, she not only ignores the facts but she deprives the Russian opposition of its first victory in forcing Putin to liberalize.

It is another matter that after Putin’s inauguration, he began to slowly tighten the screws. The crackdown includes: trials of some opposition figures on questionable charges of economic crime and corruption, an overly burdensome NGO law, a reversal of much of Medvedev’s ‘glasnost’ regarding state media, the re-criminalization of slander, and the criminalization of gay propaganda aimed at children and speech that offends religious believers.

However, even these retrenchments have touched neither Medvedev’s political system reforms nor some of his other police, prison, and legal reforms; hence a later assertion of mine that Shevtsova also distorts: “True, Mr. Hahn was soon forced to admit that Putin has begun to act in a way that is not quite in keeping with democratic values, but he continues to insist that this does not mean ‘that the thaw will not be rolled back entirely or even stopped.’” Here, she distorts my position by jumping to a different article of mine. Here is what I wrote in full: “The above CAN mean that the thaw will not be rolled back entirely or even stopped” (Gordon M. Hahn, “Putin’s Return and the Thaw’s Fate,” Russia – Other Points of View, 14 August 2012). Ms. Shevtsova conveniently left out my important qualifier – the word ‘can’ – emphasized by me above.

Moreover, the overall context of my article is confounded by another of Shevtsova’s distortions. She ignores what I wrote directly before the sentence just quoted above, denying it context and thus distorting its meaning. It reads as follows: “Of course Medvedev is chairman of the United Russia party that pushed through all this new ‘Putin 2.0’ legislation through the Duma before Putin signed it.  This raises once more the thorny issue of the Putin-Medvedev tandem and whether they see eye-to-eye on all issues––or Medvedev is the liberal to Putin the traditionalist.  Does Medvedev support these counter-reforms that are rolling back some of his key early reforms?  If not, he has not said so.  If Medvedev is responsible for the thaw’s deceleration now, should Putin have been credited with the earlier thaw during Medvedev’s presidency?  If Medvedev the liberal differs significantly from Putin the traditionalist, how long can a regime split at the top be avoided if Putin continues to limit the thaw or moves to a full-scale crackdown and retrenchment?  Signs of increased tension between the liberal and traditionalist camps already are being initiated by the traditionalists against Medvedev as liberals defect from the regime in protest against the return of Putin and counter-reform.  For now, therefore, Putin seems constrained in his actions for fear of a greater regime split and larger exodus by liberals and opportunists” (Hahn, “Putin’s Return and the Thaw’s Fate”).  Thus, I was arguing here that Putin would be constrained from a broad crackdown rather than the more surgical one he began because he needs to keep anymore liberals from defecting from his regime.

This provides context for the next part of my comment also presented Ms. Shevtsova in distorted fashion. She writes: “Putin and Medvedev, he argues, ‘would prefer a gradually imposed transition,’ but they are ‘likely to be forced into moving more rapidly or even negotiating a transition pact with opposition moderates.’ In fact, Russia after the election has proceeded in precisely the opposite direction!” (Shevtsova, Russia XXI, p. 75).  Here Shevtsova once more presents my remarks out of context to make it appear that I was discussing Putin’s overall preference; that is, that I was saying that Putin would prefer a gradually imposed transition to democracy rather than anything else, including the soft authoritarian status quo or increasing authoritarian-ization. In fact, I was arguing that Putin would prefer a democratic transition that he would impose over being overthrown in a revolution or being forced to negotiate a transition pact with the opposition.

Here are my two paragraphs and an additional sentence enveloping the quote cherry-picked by Shevtsova:

“Russia has entered a transformational stage that will be marked by growing political struggle. Thus far, the Kremlin has responded by expanding the space for political expression, participation, and competition. However, transformational periods are meta-stable and highly contingent. Numerous factors – economic stability, the correlation of political forces and leadership, the unity of the ruling group(s), the strength and effectiveness of state and societal institutions, changes and continuity in political culture, and the international environment – can tip the scales. Things can tilt in the direction of a transition to democracy imposed by the ruling group – as occurred in Taiwan, South Korea, and Mexico in the 1990s – or one negotiated by moderate regime and opposition forces, as occurred during the Polish and Hungarian transitions from communism and the Spanish transition from Franco-ism.

“Although Putin and Medvedev would prefer a gradually imposed transition, they are likely to be forced into moving more rapidly or even negotiating a transition pact with opposition moderates. Indeed, transition began with the negotiations and minor compromises made by Medvedev with the opposition over the details of his re-democratization legislation. Whether those talks continue depends on the above-mentioned factors. One danger is the coalition-al nature of revolutionary movements and the presence of significant nationalist and communist elements within the ‘white ribbon’ nascent revolution from below. If things turn violent, then devolution into revolution or authoritarian restoration becomes more possible.

“If not, as societal demands for democratization grow, the Kremlin will face a stark choice: a full and rapid imposed transition to democracy, vs. a revolution from below that can only be quelled by force and more authoritarianism” (Hahn, “Putin’s Return and the Thaw’s Fate”).

Words matter. One word can matter. Since Ms. Shevtsova has been working in the field for many years, she is certainly aware of this. Perhaps she read my articles too quickly and was tired. Perhaps. More likely, it seems Ms. Shevtsova represents the epitome of the present decay in political discourse and rusology. She goes through some real contortions to present my analyses out of context, while ignoring the clear and obvious intent of my words as revealed by paragraphs preceding the extracted quotes. This forces me to conclude that her distortions were quite deliberate.

Rather, than distortions, I hope Ms. Shevtsova will find the courage she presently lacks and turn to an honest debate over these crucial issues. Anywhere at any time, Ms. Shevtsova. Some worthwhile questions to debate include: Were the political atmosphere and political system more free and open than they were at the end of Medvedev’s presidency (6 May 2012) than before (7 May 2008)? Are they more free and open today (August 3, 2013) than at the end of Medvedev’s presidency? I can answer these and other questions without ‘artistry’ and distortions. The question is whether Ms. Shevtsova is capable of doing the same?


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.),; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.),; a contributing expert for Russia Direct,; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.); and an analyst and consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California),

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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