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17 August 2012


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Babak Makkinejad

Mr. Sale:

Your questions and the issues that they raise have already been answered by the executive branch of US Government.

I think you are behind the course of events and those events have demostrated the answers...


"Hale wanted to try the czar of Russia, In other words, Hale felt that the U.S. government should become a unilateral agency for the promotion of human rights."

Priceless. Fortunately for us, the promotion of human rights does not include prohibiting water-boarding or funding "destabilization" campaigns.

David Habakkuk

Richard Sale,

A very fine post indeed. You put your finger very precisely on crucial aspects of what has been wrong with American – and British – foreign policy in recent years.

It is interesting to ‘fast forward’ from 1848 to 1905. The attempted revolution in Russia, in that year, prompted Mark Twain to express enthusiasm for the assassination of the Tsar. And, of course, Twain was not a neocon hack, but one of America’s greatest writers, a major figure in world literature – and a very funny man.

However, about Russia, he was talking dangerous nonsense.

The figure who was largely responsible for suppressing the 1905 revolution was the Interior Minister, Peter Durnovo.

In February 1914, Durnovo wrote a memorandum for the Tsar whom Twain had wanted to see assassinated, and was, of course, eventually assassinated, together with his family. The policy conclusions of this memorandum were quite simple – keep out of a war with Germany at all costs, and avoid an alliance with ‘perfidious Albion’.

The memorandum contains one of the most prescient anticipations of the catastrophe which the First World War would bring to Russia, Europe, and the world.

There is a fascinating essay on Durnovo by Dominic Lieven, elder brother of Anatol. The Lieven brothers have a complex ancestry – Baltic German servants of the Tsars on the one side, Catholic Irish servants of the British Raj in India on the other. They both have great insight into the nightmares of European history – and also what I can only call a kind of purged aristocratic pride. They understand, very well, the nightmares which both resentment and frivolous pseudo-idealism can create.

As Dominic Lieven notes, an interesting feature of Durnovo was that he had no principled objections to republican government, as practised in the United States, at all. He simply believed that the conditions for such government to work successfully did not exist in the Russia of his day.

Crucially – drawing on his experience as a veteran secret police official – Durnovo realised that Russia’s historical development had left the small Westernised segment of the population desperately isolated.

The Westernised liberals might think that undermining Tsarism would hand power to them, but they were deluded. For the peasantry who formed the vast bulk of the population, the liberals were even more alien than Tsarist officials. Accordingly, if once a war opened the way for the liberals successfully to attack Tsarism, the end result would be a social revolution, which would destroy the liberal segment of the Westernised classes, as well as the conservative segment.

In the event, the revolution not only destroyed both segments – that segment of the Westernised section of Russian society who had absorbed the ideas of the radical wing of European social democracy, the original Bolsheviks, were themselves destroyed as a result of Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’.

In the context of the ‘Arab Spring’ the Durnovo memorandum seems to me of great interest. It is available on the net at:


Babak Makkinejad

What relationship, if any, obtained between Durnovo and Stolypin?

Do you know?


It's worth remembering that only a decade after the debate, though, people like Hale did go to war to morally judge a nation, his own countrymen, or erstwhile countrymen, however you might characterize the South. One wonders what would have happened if people like him had full and unchecked rein on power in 1860s....


One can make the same argument about France in late 18th century: the "westernized" (deliberately ironic use of the term) aristocracy thought that, by putting pressure on Louis XVI, they would be the beneficiaries of the expected (fairly minor) regime change. But once the revolution broke out, they lost control, many lost their heads, and power ultimately fell to a mad Corsican, who might well have stayed in control indefinitely had he not warred on all Europe. Idealists make for lousy revolutionaries.

Mark Kolmar

After the protests began in Syria, as conflict escalated, I was optimistic that parts of the opposition could remove the top of the Assad regime without complete collapse of the government. The Syrian state and civil society seemed to function reasonably well by modern standards against examples such as hunger and poverty in Egypt, diffuse power centers in Pakistan, or illiteracy and the various shambles in Afghanistan. As with the example of Egypt, the bureaucracy and basic framework that remains might not be much of an improvement over 5 or 10 years.

Even if we only want to consider the Arab Spring in terms of U.S. interests, my sense is that in the long term it is better to manage instability while the decks are reshuffled than to stick with (arguably) secular, autocratic regimes, military dictatorships, or any of the other formalized graft and thievery on offer.

Do many of the Arab and North African cultures need to work through Islamic governments in different forms before they can reconcile with classically liberal notions of self-determination, etc., as we like to try to practice in the West? Granted, it could take decades to get beyond Islamist experiments with regression and nostalgia. I would gamble that these societies, in the long run, would move toward more democratic and representative governments with Islamist characteristics (whatever that might come to mean), more closely aligned but not exactly parallel to the future interests of western governments and global business. When people are better able to determine their own futures, it should affect the futures they desire for themselves. The attitudes of more urbanized Iranians today (what I can infer, anyway) point to an instructive direction, very much despite their so-called leaders. Turkey has one obvious template.


Another winner article, but then I'm partial towards Sale's POV. It's as if he stands a few coordinates away from me in a 3D sphere of all points looking at the world from the same perspective; it's just he's a much better writer and thinker than I am.

The list of questions show, within the internals of part of a paragraph, his brilliant facility to assess consequences, without which the future can be neither determined nor designed.

I have one question, which underscores why I am the lesser here. "Brave words." Were you being sarcastic?

David Habakkuk

Babak Makkinejad,

They cordially disliked each other – but I think this was more to do with personal antipathy than ideological difference.

The rulers of Russia were trapped in a familiar dilemma – that survival without ‘modernisation’ was impossible, but ‘modernisation’ threatened to exacerbate all kinds of latent tensions in the polity. If there was a non-catastrophic resolution, the key was not political reform but economic – in particular the break-up of the commune, whose great champion was Stolypin.

Historians argue over whether his programme might have worked – Lenin thought it might. As you of course know, a significant body of Russian opinion agreed with Mark Twain, and Stolypin was assassinated in 1911.

Of the Tsarist statesmen who are central points of reference for Putin, Stolypin is one – Gorchakov, who played a weak foreign policy hand deftly after the Crimean War exposed Russia’s weakness, another. Another important influence is Ivan Il’in, a leading figure among the émigré intellectuals who were concerned with how Russian might find a way out from communism.


Mr. Kolmar,

You might like to consider the possibility that secular humanism, and the liberal democracy it has spawned in the West, is the exception to the established order of human affairs.

Three hundred years of American democracy is but a momentary aberration in the glorious history of the Catholic Church - or Islam - or the Russian Orthodox Church. That is how Conservatives think and the prisons into which they want to drag you, mentally and physically, are very very old.

To put that another way, America and the West had a far better understanding of its real interests during the cold war than it does today. The threat of nuclear annihilation had a certain clarifying effect on political thought.

So what do we have today? Torture, Murder and indefinite detention without trial as Government policy. The entire "debate" about Syria rests on a foundation of quicksand while we fail to apply the very rules we would foist on others to ourselves.

Babak Makkinejad

The alternatives to the (Catholic) Church or Islam are not liberal democracy but ethno-racial tribalism of NAZIs and assorted others.

FB Ali

I'm not sure if you mean that the West's "far better understanding of its real interests during the cold war" resulted in it promoting "secular humanism and liberal democracy". Because that is not what I can recall.

At home there was the McCarthy era and similar witch-hunts. Abroad there was the courting of dictators (mostly with military aid) and the clandestine overthrowing of regimes that were friendly to the Soviets.

With the jihadi menace having replaced the Communist one, there isn't much difference to be found.


David Habakkuk-

This memorandum is very interesting. How do we get from this February memorandum to the "Period Preparatory to War" decided on 24 July . . . ?

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