Category: History

*The Restless Republic*

The author is Anna Keay and the subtitle is Britain Without a Crown, of course covering the 17th century British interregnum without a king.  Here is one relevant bit:

The rise of the newspapers was itself an aspect of the explosion in publishing which took place in the mid-seventeenth century.  In the year 1500 just over fifty books were printed in England, in 1600 the number was 300, come 1648 more than 2,300 titles poured off the presses in a single year.  Perhaps 30 percent of all men and 10 per cent of all women could read, and over double those percentages in the capital, a readership now offered an addictive weekly news fix that involved them as never before in the turbulent goings on of their kingdom.

One of my ongoing projects is to brush up on my seventeenth century European history, out of fear that it may be an especially relevant era right now.  The Keay book I found excellent throughout, especially her treatment of the Levellers, Sir William Petty, and more generally how the Irish and English histories of that time intersect.

Sentences to ponder

EZRA KLEIN: Something you’ve said in different venues is that Putin’s essays, speeches about Ukraine are less revealing about the nature of Ukraine than they are about the nature of Russia. You wrote, “what is most striking about Putin’s essay is the underlying uncertainty about Russian identity. When you claim that your neighbors are your brothers, you are having an identity crisis.” Can you talk a bit about what’s being revealed, or for that matter, confused here about Russian identity?

TIM SNYDER: I think Russian national identity is extremely confused and you can understand the need for Ukraine as a kind of shortcut, as a kind of way of resolving all these problems. Because you can say, well, I mean, this is a kind of dumb analogy, but you can say, well, the only problem with my life is I don’t have somebody else, you know? But anybody who says that is probably incorrect. And what Putin is saying — if we kind of reduce all the philosophical stuff down to a very simple proposition, he’s saying, Russia is not itself without Ukraine.

But if you’re not capable of being yourself without attacking and absorbing, violently, someone else, some other country, the real question might be about you, the real question might be about how you see the world, how you’re living in the world. So I think there’s a serious problem with Russian national identity.

Here is the full NYT dialogue.

Clash of Civilizations?


Samuel Huntington, the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theorist, had this to say in a 1993 issue of ‘Foreign Affairs’: “If (the concept of) civilization is the key, then the probability of violence between Russians and Ukrainians should be low.” The moral of the story, for me, is that with this military intervention by Russia in Ukraine, we have definitive proof (because we have many others) that the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory does not work, even though it inspires many thinkers in geostrategy. The idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union was irreversible and that we were now heading for a ‘Christianity versus Islam’ confrontation is collapsing and we can see that it has never played a role in Putin’s vision. Since Catherine II, Russia has always integrated Muslims into the Empire. And Putin has an imperial vision, he is definitely not having a religion based geostrategy, as some of the European right and extreme right believed.

The facts were quite clear. Among Putin’s four military interventions in the former Soviet space, three targeted Christian and Orthodox countries.

That is from an interview with Olivier Roy, via Alexander Le Roy.

US Pandemic Policy: Failures, Successes, and Lessons

My talk at Bowling Green State University on US Pandemic Policy: Failures, Successes, and Lessons

This was not a black swan event. This was an entirely predicted and predictable event. We knew it was going to happen….And yet, we weren’t ready.

I am told that my talk made many people angry (not at me, natch).

Kotkin on Russia and the West

A great interview with historian Stephen Kotkin. Kotkin has some some thoughts on the Kennan, Mearsheimer, Kissinger, Hill, Service et al. view that expanding NATO was a precipitating event in the Ukraine-Russia war which are well taken, albeit he fails to think on the margin. Much more important is his full throated defense of the West. Just a few months ago a defense like this would have been branded as right-wing agitprop and the author attacked for not being woke to the evils of capitalism. But Putin has reminded the West of its virtues.

How do you define “the West”?

The West is a series of institutions and values. The West is not a geographical place. Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European. “Western” means rule of law, democracy, private property, open markets, respect for the individual, diversity, pluralism of opinion, and all the other freedoms that we enjoy, which we sometimes take for granted. We sometimes forget where they came from. But that’s what the West is.

And yet, as corrupt as China is, they’ve lifted tens of millions of people out of extreme poverty. Education levels are rising. The Chinese leaders credit themselves with enormous achievements.

Who did that? Did the Chinese regime do that? Or Chinese society? Let’s be careful not to allow the Chinese Communists to expropriate, as it were, the hard labor, the entrepreneurialism, the dynamism of millions and millions of people in that society.

On a kind of natural resource curse:

…in Russia, wealth comes right up out of the ground! The problem for authoritarian regimes is not economic growth. The problem is how to pay the patronage for their élites, how to keep the élites loyal, especially the security services and the upper levels of the officer corps. If money just gushes out of the ground in the form of hydrocarbons or diamonds or other minerals, the oppressors can emancipate themselves from the oppressed. The oppressors can say, we don’t need you. We don’t need your taxes. We don’t need you to vote. We don’t rely on you for anything, because we have oil and gas, palladium and titanium.

On why the stupid get on top:

You have to remember that these regimes practice something called “negative selection.” [In a democracy, AT] You’re going to promote people to be editors, and you’re going to hire writers, because they’re talented; you’re not afraid if they’re geniuses. But, in an authoritarian regime, that’s not what they do. They hire people who are a little bit, as they say in Russian, tupoi, not very bright. They hire them precisely because they won’t be too competent, too clever, to organize a coup against them. Putin surrounds himself with people who are maybe not the sharpest tools in the drawer on purpose.

That does two things. It enables him to feel more secure, through all his paranoia, that they’re not clever enough to take him down. But it also diminishes the power of the Russian state because you have a construction foreman who’s the defense minister [Sergei Shoigu], and he was feeding Putin all sorts of nonsense about what they were going to do in Ukraine. Negative selection does protect the leader, but it also undermines his regime.

On the importance of error correction:

…Finally, you’ve given credit to the Biden Administration for reading out its intelligence about the coming invasion, for sanctions, and for a kind of mature response to what’s happening. What have they gotten wrong?

They’ve done much better than we anticipated based upon what we saw in Afghanistan and the botched run-up on the deal to sell nuclear submarines to the Australians. They’ve learned from their mistakes. That’s the thing about the United States. We have corrective mechanisms. We can learn from our mistakes. We have a political system that punishes mistakes. We have strong institutions. We have a powerful society, a powerful and free media. Administrations that perform badly can learn and get better, which is not the case in Russia or in China. It’s an advantage that we can’t forget.

And most importantly, we need to blaze a path to de-escalation.

The problem now is not that the Biden Administration made mistakes; it’s that it’s hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations. There is pressure on our side to “do something” because the Ukrainians are dying every day while we are sitting on the sidelines, militarily, in some ways. (Although, as I said, we’re supplying them with arms, and we’re doing a lot in cyber.) The pressure is on to be maximalist on our side, but, the more you corner them, the more there’s nothing to lose for Putin, the more he can raise the stakes, unfortunately. He has many tools that he hasn’t used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation from the maximalist spiral, and we need a little bit of luck and good fortune, perhaps in Moscow, perhaps in Helsinki or Jerusalem, perhaps in Beijing, but certainly in Kyiv.

A great interview. Read the whole thing.

The cultural evolution of love in literary history

Since the late nineteenth century, cultural historians have noted that the importance of love increased during the Medieval and Early Modern European period (a phenomenon that was once referred to as the emergence of ‘courtly love’). However, more recent works have shown a similar increase in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Indian and Japanese cultures. Why such a convergent evolution in very different cultures? Using qualitative and quantitative approaches, we leverage literary history and build a database of ancient literary fiction for 19 geographical areas and 77 historical periods covering 3,800 years, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Modern period. We first confirm that romantic elements have increased in Eurasian literary fiction over the past millennium, and that similar increases also occurred earlier, in Ancient Greece, Rome and Classical India. We then explore the ecological determinants of this increase. Consistent with hypotheses from cultural history and behavioural ecology, we show that a higher level of economic development is strongly associated with a greater incidence of love in narrative fiction (our proxy for the importance of love in a culture). To further test the causal role of economic development, we used a difference-in-difference method that exploits exogenous regional variations in economic development resulting from the adoption of the heavy plough in medieval Europe. Finally, we used probabilistic generative models to reconstruct the latent evolution of love and to assess the respective role of cultural diffusion and economic development.

Speculative, that is a new paper by Nicholas Baumard, Elise Huillery, Alexandre Hyafil, and Lou Safra.

I Booked an Airbnb in Kyiv

I booked 5 nights at an Airbnb in Irpin, a heavily bombed city near Kyiv.

I’m not going. (And I told the host I wasn’t going).

The host replied:

Любі друзі дякуємо за допомогу. На ці гроші ми зможело допомогти сімьям які залишились без будинків. Дякуємо

Dear friends, thank you for your help. With this money we were able to help families left homeless. Thank you

It’s a very strange world in which you can book an apartment in a bombed city thousands of miles away.

Would this form of charity pass the Givewell test? Probably not. Still I am glad to have done it. Not to make light of the situation, but the look on my wife’s face when I told her I had booked an Airbnb in Kyiv was priceless.

An index for state capacity

This paper contributes to the literature on state capacity by developing a method that yields an index of state capacity with far more comprehensive data coverage across time and countries than has been possible previously. Unlike narrower measures of fiscal capacity or legal capacity, the index is more comprehensive, using data from the Varieties of Democracy dataset on fiscal capacity, a state’s control over its territory, the rule of law, and the provision of public goods used to support markets. Like the previous literature, it demonstrates that the historical prevalence of warfare predicts state capacity. Several exercises are performed to demonstrate the validity of the index in measuring state capacity.

That is from a newly published paper by Colin O’Reilly and Ryan H. Murphy, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Anti-Russia sentiment is the new McCarthyism

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column:

The Metropolitan Opera of New York has announced it will no longer stage performers who have supported Russian President Vladimir Putin. Carnegie Hall has done the same, and the Royal Opera House in London is canceling a planned Bolshoi Ballet residency. I expect more institutions to follow suit. Russia’s contemporary art scene, already financially struggling, fears ostracism from museums and collectors, mostly because of Putin’s recent actions.

Unwise, says I.  And:

It is simply not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation. What about performers who may have favored Putin in the more benign times of 2003 and now are skeptical, but have family members still living in Russia? Do they have to speak out?

Another question: Who exactly counts as Russian? Ethnic Russians? Russian citizens? Former citizens? Ethnic Russians born in Ukraine? If you were an ethnic minority born under the Soviet Union, your former Soviet passport may have explicitly stated that you were not Russian.

And what about citizens of Belarus, which according to some reports is planning to send troops into Ukraine? Might they be subject to such strictures as well? How about citizens of China, which abstained from the United Nations vote condemning Russia’s invasion? Which wars are performers from Rwanda or Democratic Republic of the Congo required to repudiate?

When exactly is this ban supposed to end?

And to close:

If anything, the McCarthyism of the 1950s is a bit more explicable than the cancel culture of the present. At least it was trying to address what was then considered a great threat. That said, McCarthyism is not a practice America should want to revive. Witch hunts, by their very nature, do not bring out the best in people, Americans very much included.

I guess we will really see who is against cancel culture and who is not.

*The Affirmative Action Empire*

The author is Terry Martin of Harvard, and the subtitle is Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939.  This is an excellent book for understanding how some of the current Russia vs. Ukraine issues are rooted in Bolshevik times.  Here is one excerpt:

This understanding of nationalism led Platakov to support the only apparently logical response: attack nationalism as a counterrevolutionary ideology and nationality itself as a reactionary remnant of the capitalist era.  Lenin and Stalin, however, drew the exact opposite conclusion.  They reason as follows.  By granting the forms of nationhood, the Soviet state could split the above-class national alliance for statehood.  Class divisions, then, would naturally emerge, which would allow the Soviet government to recruit proletarian and peasant support for their socialist agenda.  Lenin argued that Finnish independence had intensified, not reduced, class conflict.  National self-determination would have the same consequences within the Soviet Union.


As a nationalized entity, the Soviet Union can best be described as an Affirmative Action Empire…The Soviet Union was the first country in world history to establish Affirmative Action programs for national minorities, and no country has yet approached the vast scale of Soviet Affirmative Action.

The goal of course was to limit the emergence of non-Russian nationalism, not to boost the fortunes of the ethnic and national minorities themselves.

*Oceans of Grain*

A good book, think of it as a more general (non-technical) economic history of wheat, authored by Scott Reynolds Nelson.  The sad thing is the book’s subtitle: “How American Wheat Made the World” — yes it covers America, but a lot of the book, and I would say its best parts, focus on Russia and Ukraine.

I guess the publisher figured American readers don’t care that much about Ukraine?  Here is one excerpt:

Before Odessa [which had just been described as a major grain port], the Russian Empire had expanded slowly and defensively, one line of forts at a time.  After Odessa, Russia — just like the United States — possessed foreign exchange and could expand dramatically.  Wheat exports allowed the Russian Empire to fund its foreign wars, and so it surged into Poland, across the Caspian Sea, and toward China.  Nothing seemed capable of stopping the yeasty, kvassy expansion of the Russian Empire.  In fact, the spread of a different invisible creature, an invisible water mold, would further entrench Odessa as Europe’s city of wheat.

And this:

Fish sandwiches emerged as a regular meal for workers in Britain around 1870 once American grain arrived; a decade later this became fish and chips.

A fun book for me.

Putin as a man of ideas

Commentators are drawing lessons from the conflict in Ukraine, but they are missing one key point. Above all, the Russian attack and possible dismemberment of Ukraine reflects the power of ideas.

Read the English translation of the Putin speech to justify Russian’s actions in Ukraine. It is striking how much Putin cites history, going as far back as the 17th century, to justify the Russian incursion.

One of Putin’s core views is that Ukraine is not a legitimate country in its own right. He is clear about this claim and its import: “So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” Putin himself published a July 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which goes further back yet and discusses Ancient Rus.

Putin’s speech immerses the audience in detail, citing the history of Stalin, Khruschev, the 1917 October Revolution, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and what Stalin did in 1922 with respect to the People’s Commissar of Ethnic Affairs. The need for the earlier Soviet Union to offer concessions to the nationalists is portrayed as one reason why Ukraine was allowed to have some of its identity as Ukraine. Here is a typical passage: “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine.”

By the time you get to the end of Putin’s speech he is still talking about history, and reciting how Ukraine squandered the wonderful inheritance left to them by the Soviet Union. Furthermore, that same Ukraine has become a tool of Western attempts to disrupt Russia.

Putin is full of ideas about history. You can argue how much these remarks reflect Putin’s own concern with ideas, or the Russian public’s concern or that of foreign audiences, but it is probably all of those. Furthermore, Putin has embraced a coterie of Russian intellectuals, marketing what is sometimes called Eurasianism, who parrot and develop the notion of Russia as a power-deserving Eurasian civilization.

If you think the current version of Ukraine was never a valid nation to begin with, a twisted set of mental contortions might bring you around to Russian expansionism. Russia is just taking back what is rightfully theirs, and by the end of this speech Putin is concluding that: “the possible continuation of the bloodshed will lie entirely on the conscience of Ukraine’s ruling regime.”

The obsession with ideas and also with history is a longstanding tradition from earlier leadership. For instance, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin held an extensive library, amounting to about 19,500 books, which he used as a personal, working archive. Stalin was known for his extensive marginalia and for leaving greasy fingerprints on the book pages. Marxist politics, economics and history were prominent in the library, and after Lenin, the most heavily represented authors in the library were Stalin himself, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Marx, Kamenev, Molotov, and Trotsky.

So Putin is hardly breaking from the mold. We also know, from previous documentation, that Putin considered the dismantlement of the former Soviet Union as a great tragedy. That too is an idea, and it further reflects the continuity between Putin’s efforts and those of his predecessors.

If you write books, whether good or bad ones, and wonder whether your work matters, I suggest the answer lies before you on your TV screen each evening. Russia is a nation of ideas, led by people who are obsessed with ideas. The rest of the world, most of all Europe, will need better ideas in turn.

Addendum: Here is Ryan Avent on the power of ideas.