Category: History

It isn’t just Putin — Russia vs. Ukraine

From Wikipedia, here is a description of the views of Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky on Ukraine:

According to many historians, despite the fact that Brodsky had anti-Soviet views, for which he was eventually forced to leave Soviet Russia and emigrate to the United States, he, with all that, had pronounced Russian-imperial views, which resulted in his rejection of the existence of Ukrainians as a nation separate from Russians. According to Russian literary critic and biographer and friend of Brodsky Lev Losev, Brodsky considered Ukraine “the only cultural space with Great Russia”, and the Polish historian Irena Grudzinska-Gross [pl] in her book “Milosz and Brodsky” (2007) Brodsky firmly believed that Ukraine and has always been “an integral part of Great Russia”. According to Grudzinskaya-Gross, “Brodsky’s Russian patriotism is also evidenced by … the poem “The People” and another poem “On the Independence of Ukraine”, attacking Ukraine from imperial and Great Russian positions.”

In 1985, even before writing the scandalous Ukrainian-phobic poem “On the Independence of Ukraine“, he entered into a debate with the Czech-French poet Milan Kundera, in which he showed his Russian-imperial views.

The most famous public manifestation of Brodsky’s Ukrainophobia was the poem “On the Independence of Ukraine”, written, tentatively, in 1992. In this poem, Brodsky sarcastically described Ukraine’s independence in 1991 and scolded Ukrainian independence fighters for abandoning the Russian language. Brodsky did not publish this poem in any of his lifetime collections, and, until his death in 1996, he managed to read only a few times at various Muscovite and Judeophile meetings in America. In particular, there is documentary evidence that Brodsky read this poem on October 30, 1992 at a solo evening in the hall of the Palo Alto Jewish Center and on February 28, 1994 in front of a group of the Russian diaspora at New York University’s Quincy College. Through this poem, critics saw in Brodsky manifestations of Russian chauvinism and accused him of Anti-Ukrainian sentiment and racism.

These views are deeply rooted in Russian culture and history.  Here Brodsky reads the poem in Russian.  He is excited.  Here is a 2011 Keith Gessen New Yorker piece on the poem.  Again, ideas really matter!  And not always for the better.

*Streets of Gold*

In one of our research  projects, we followed pairs of brothers born in Norway, one of whom left for the United States by 1900 while the other remained behind…Brothers who immigrated to the United States earned nearly twice as much as their siblings back home.

That is from the new and excellent Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan.

That was then, this is now

The Red Army collapsed in the first weeks of the war.  This is no criticism of its individual troops.  It is a statement about bureaucratic rule, coercion, lies, fear, and mismanagement.  The problems were not new, nor were they unfamiliar.  Lack of transport, for instance, which was identified by nearly every front-line officer as the reason the retreat turned into a route that June, was a long-standing concern of units based along the Soviet border.  “It is absolutely unknown to us where and when we will receive the motorized transport we need for newly mobilized units”…Spare parts, fuel, and tires were impossible to guarantee.

Circa 1941, that is from the very good Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945.  Do not arrive too readily at conclusions about the current situation in Ukraine!  And Merridale books are in general a good place to read about Russian history.

Television gets you to spend money

Especially on cars (and other durable goods):

I compare growth in retail sales between areas with and without local TV service over the unanticipated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Freeze, which halted the licensing of new TV stations from 1948–52. I find three results that corroborate TV’s long-attributed role in American consumerism. First, during the Freeze, total retail sales in counties with TV access increased by 3–4% more on average than in counties without access. Second, the effect of TV was concentrated in the automobile sector, which alone accounted for a third of the total difference.

Here is the full paper by Woojin Kim, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

What true conservatives should care about

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opening bit:

If you are a true conservative — and I use the term not as Ted Cruz might, but in its literal sense, as in conserving what is of value in the modern world — then you should be obsessed with three threats to the most vital parts of our civilizational heritage, all of which are coming to the fore: war, pandemic and environmental catastrophe.

These three events have frequently caused or contributed to the collapse or decline of great civilizations of the past. After being seriously weakened by pandemics and environmental problems, the Roman Empire was taken over by barbarian tribes. The Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish, who had superior weapons and also brought disease. The decline of the Mayans likely was rooted in water and deforestation problems.

I think of true conservatism as most of all the desire to learn from history. So let us take those lessons to heart.

Two further points:

1. I don’t think of this as existential risk, rather humanity could be set back very considerably, with uncertain prospects for recovery.  In the median year of human history, economic growth is not positive.  A few thousand years of “Mad Max” would be very bad.

2. I think you should aspire to be more than just a “true conservative.”  You should be a liberal too!  So there is more to the picture than what the column outlines.  Nonetheless I see it as a starting point for reformulating a morally serious conservative movement…


*Blood and Ruins*

The author is Richard Overy and the subtitle is The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945.  There are two categories of Richard Overy books, the good and the tremendously good.  So far this book falls into the latter camp, noting that some of the introductory material (while fine) was excessively familiar to me.  The eventual focus is on North Africa, the Turkey-Persia region and the Caucasus, how Japan ran its new colonies, how the British empire started collapsing, and much more along those lines.  The history of the war is told through what are usually regarded as the peripheries, though Overy makes us rethink that as well. I am only on p.240, but so far this one is strongly recommended.

As a general rule you can never read enough good books about World War II, even after you feel you have read enough good books about World War II.  Its lessons never go stale, and the scope of the war itself has attracted remarkable talents to write about it.

My excellent Conversation with Roy Foster

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the episode summary;

Roy joined Tyler to discuss why the Scots got off easier than the Irish under British rule, the truths and misconceptions about Ireland as a policy laboratory for the British government, why spoken Irish faded more rapidly than Welsh, the single question that drove a great flowering of Irish economic thought, how Foster’s Quaker education shaped his view of Irish history, how the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Rising cemented the rift between the Northeast and the rest of the country, what went wrong with Irish trade policies between the 1920s and 1970s, the power of Irish education, why the re-emergence of The Troubles in the 1960s may not have been as inevitable as many people believe, the cultural effects of Ireland’s pro-Allied neutrality in World War II, how Irish visual art is beginning to be looked at in a similar way to Irish literature, the social and economic changes of the 1970s that began to radically reshape Irish society, the reasons for Ireland’s openness to foreigners, what Irish Americans misunderstand, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: If we think of the 19th century, as you know, I think it’s in 1831 that free universal schooling comes to Ireland. Are there ways in which, in the 19th century, Ireland is more modern than Britain?

FOSTER: That’s a very interesting and subtle question.

There is a theory that Ireland is used as a laboratory for British government and that they will apply further afield, in India and the Caribbean, models and lessons that they’ve learned in Ireland, which is sometimes referred to as Britain’s oldest or England’s oldest colony.

I have a slight problem with that, because Ireland is a very special kind of colony, if it’s a colony: it’s a metropolitan colony. The original inhabitants remain, one could say, in a far stronger position than in many of the areas of the British Empire, where they are effectively either enslaved or wiped out. But the point is really that what’s happening in Ireland in the 18th and 19th century is, as I’ve said earlier, a kind of dispossession.

But at the same time, there are elements — and this is true from the Act of Union, which abolishes the old, very elite Irish Parliament in 1800 — there are elements of experimentation in the British government of Ireland which aren’t (I have to say this) entirely malign, and you zero in on education. The attempt that was being made in the early 1830s was to introduce a nondenominational form of primary education for the Irish people.

Ireland being Ireland, it was rapidly denominationalized: the Catholics used it for their purposes and the Protestants used it for their purposes. But the theory of it was that you had to overcome the religious differences, which by the early 19th century seemed to dictate everything that was happening in Ireland.

The great novelist William Thackeray, who was married to an Irish woman, said when he did a tour of Ireland and wrote his Irish Sketch Book, “Where to get at the truth in this country: it is not possible. There are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth.” By the early 19th century, this seemed all too true.

Substantive throughout, in my view one of the very best CWTs in some while.

U.S.A. fact of the day

The Census data shows that of the nation’s 10 largest cities in 1950, only New York City and Los Angeles went on to have larger populations in 2020. The other eight — Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, St Louis, Washington, D.C., and Boston — all saw their populations fall in the following seven decades.

Here is the full article, about newly released Census data from 1950.  Via Mike Doherty.

Formative experiences matter over long periods of time

Formative experiences shape behavior for decades. We document a striking feature about those who came of driving age during the oil crises of the 1970s⁠—they drive less in the year 2000. The effect is not specific to these cohorts; price variation over time and across states indicates that gasoline price changes between ages 15–18 generally shift later-life travel behavior. Effects are not explained by recessions, income, or costly skill acquisition and are inconsistent with recency bias, mental plasticity, and standard habit-formation models. Instead, they likely reflect formation of preferences for driving or persistent changes in its perceived cost.

That is from a newly published paper (AEA gate) by Christopher Severen and Arthur A. van Benthem.

That was then, this is now, again Russia/Ukraine edition

Circa 1919, with Ukraine under siege from the Bolshevik armies:

Things, however, did not soon improve.  Again to take the case of Odessa, by the end of April electricity was running out.  “Thus in one month they have brought chaos to everything,” Bunin snarled, “no factories, no railroads, no trams, no water, no bread, no clothes — no nothing!”  In fact the Bolsheviks had inherited the chaos and the crisis; they also inherited — and exacerbated — the free-wheeling brutality displayed on all sides and of which…they were the beneficiaries.  To this kind of panache they applied a new moral calculus.

That is from Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921, which as noted yesterday is quite a good book, especially for viewing the Bolshevik Revolution through the eyes of what became the broader Soviet empire.

That was then, this is now: Russia/Ukraine edition

What became known as “the first Soviet conquest of the Ukraine” was achieved without much resistance. The Ukrainian soldiers who had pledged allegiance to the Rada in summer 1917, while still part of the Imperial Army, were now back in their villages.  Petliura had poorly trained men at his disposal, mostly the so-called Free Cossacks (Vilne kozatsvo), some of whom found the Bolshevik appeal more attractive and changed sides.  In abandoning the city, Petliura’s followers not surprisingly had executed as many of the renegades as they could get their hands on.  Once in possession of Kiev, Colonel Murav’ev introduced his own reign of terror.

That is from Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War 1914-1921, which is in general a very useful book.

*Amongst Women*

That is the title of a 1990 Irish novel by John McGahern, well-known in Ireland but as of late not so frequently read outside of Ireland.  In addition to its excellent general quality, I found this book notable for two reasons.  First, it focuses on the feminization of Ireland, being set in the mid-century decades after independence.  An IRA veteran slowly realizes that the Ireland he fought for — a place for manly men — was a figment of his civil war imagination, and not an actual option for an independent, modernizing Ireland.  The latter will be run according to the standards and desires of women, and actually be far more pleasant, whether or not Moran likes it.  Second, the book is an excellent illustration of the importance of context for reading fiction.  The story reads quite differently, depending how quickly you realize the protagonist is an IRA veteran with his wartime service as a fundamental experience.  Few readers will know this from the very beginning, but I suspect many Irish readers — especially older ones — will figure this out well before they are told.  In general, the very best fiction is context-rich, and this is one reason why many people may not appreciate all of the literary classics.

That was then, this is now, Russian political economy edition

From Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon:

Though all four continental great powers were in theory absolute monarchies, no one doubted that the power of The Russian emperor was more complete than that of his French Austrian or even Prussian peers.  He could make laws and tax his peoples without their consent, and no laws protected even his most aristocratic subjects against his arbitrary whims.  By contrast, especially in France and Austria, aristocratic assemblies and judicial institutions inherited from medieval feudalism inhibited a monarch’s power, as indeed did the ethos of the social elites, including sometimes of the monarchs themselves and their relatives.  Other factors also enhanced the power of the Russian autocrat.  For examples, in Protestant Europe the previously enormous landholdings of the Catholic church had been confiscated during the Reformation and had mostly fallen into the hands of the aristocracy.  In eighteenth-century Catholic Europe most of these lands were still held by the Church.  In Russia, however, the monarchy had confiscated the vast wealth of the Orthodox Church by the 1760s and largely held on to it for itself.  That was one key reason why by the 1790s more than 40 per cent of the entire serf population “belonged” not to private landlords but to the crown.


The Russian army traditionally fought with a higher ratio of artillery to infantry than was the case elsewhere in Europe.


The Russians instead soon overran the principalities of Moldova and Wallachia, and made their acquisition the key war aim.

I found this book very useful for understanding the mindset of Putin and some of the other Russian elites.  For instance, none of the characters in this earlier history seemed to regard the national borders of the status quo as anything close to sacrosanct.

Letters of Marque and Reprisal

Brooking, Charles; Commodore Walker’s Action: The Privateer ‘Boscawen’ Engaging a Fleet of French Ships, 23 May 1745; National Maritime Museum;

Representative Lance Gooden (R, TX) introduced a bill to authorize the President of the United States to issue letters of marque and reprisal against certain Russians.