In the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Policy, I have a broad-ranging piece on quasi-states — countries that haven’t yet achieved recognition (and in most cases never will).
UPDATE: French speakers can read the same piece at Slate.fr.
Originally appeared in The Barnes & Noble Review.
To stumble into Afghanistan is to stumble into history — or at least to stumble into a trap laid by historians, whereby any foreign occupier of the country is compared, all too tediously, to his failed predecessors. Notice the hierarchy of these comparisons. If the historian draws parallels to the armies of Alexander the Great, he does you an honor: Alexander’s empire had at least conquered the known world before Afghanistan undid it. Analogies to the Anglo-Afghan Wars and Elphinstone’s army in 1842 are less flattering, and more menacing. And if the historian remarks that your unit is “just like the 154th Spetsnaz Detachment,” he is saying not only that you’re doomed to ignominious defeat but also that you’re too historically ignorant to realize when you’re being insulted.
If the phrase “Soviet commissar” has a vaguely old-fashioned ring — like “icebox,” “suffragette,” or “antimacassar” — then “Ottoman foot-soldier” has a near-ancient one. The two deaths this week consign both categories to history, and give an occasion for reflection on the passing of two eras.
Pyotr Kuznetsov has endured crude and unwarranted ridicule — unwarranted not only because he is a troubled man, but also because messiahs do this sort of thing all the time. To entertain self-doubt, to supplicate miserably to the higher power that sent you, to act, in moments of extreme stress, in ways that seem undignified — these are occupational hazards of being the Son or prophet of God. Kuznetsov’s self-battery is a normal stage of religious genesis.
Certainly, failed predictions and erratic behavior should not disqualify him as a prophet or apostle. At least one plausible reading of the New Testament has Christ’s followers incorrectly predicting, and preparing for, an imminent Apocalypse. The Prophet Muhammad may well have experienced auditory and visual hallucinations of the kind that led doctors to commit Kuznetsov. The Donmeh have gone nearly three and a half centuries believing Sabbatai Zevi to be the Jewish Messiah, even after he publicly converted to another religion. None of these stumbling blocks seems to have diminished the capacity of believers to experience transcendence — or, in the case of the True Orthodox Church, shaken their belief that the “Messiah of Siberia” had the right idea when he suggested they barricade themselves in a cave last year to prepare for the end of the world.
To mock Kuznetsov is to misunderstand the nature of religious belief. Thirty-five of his flock (called a “cult” by some) barricaded themselves in; fourteen remain underground and unwilling to leave, even though the cave is starting to collapse. Disconfirmatory evidence — the continued existence of the earth — does not matter to them, and may indeed make them even more avid in their faith. We might condemn Kuznetsov by the standards of normal people, but by the standards of Messiahs, so far so good.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com
The forlorn seaside resort where Soviet rulers once frolicked.
The Republic of Abkhazia is one of the few countries, if you can call it that, where every tourist who shows up gets a handshake and a friendly chat with the deputy foreign minister. Or rather, it would be such a country, if it were a country at all. A wee seaside strip in the Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia hasn’t yet persuaded anyone to recognize its independence, even though it boasts many of the trappings of nationhood — a president, a parliament, and an army that guards the border in case the government in Tbilisi wants to invade again.
The Weekly Standard
Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag
by Nicolas Werth
Translated by Steven Rendall
Princeton, 248 pp., $24.95
As a general rule, a name like “Cannibal Island” spells doom for property values. But Nazino, in western Siberia, is so naturally awful that even the grimmest name can’t make it sound much worse than it really is. An account from the early 1930s described the region as “an immense marshy plain . . . covered with an impenetrable tangle of brush. As for the rare meadows, they are under water until mid-July.” The summers, though a brief deliverance from the subzero winters, brought dense clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies. Malaria was endemic, and among forced settlers in 1932, infants died at a rate of 10 percent per month, compared with 10 percent per year in Somalia today.
The American (online)
Review of Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun.
Two journalists, in their new book, profile a key figure in the global arms trade.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of two Soviet technological triumphs: The maiden flight of the Antonov-12 transport plane in March 1957, and Sputnik’s launch the following October. Sputnik burned up in the atmosphere three months after its launch, but Antonovs—in many cases now patched with duct-tape and scrap metal—are still flying today. As one of the workhorses of the Soviet fleet, the An-12 has carried untold tons of cargo to remote airstrips where a daintier plane would have crunched its landing gear or smashed a propeller. Its wide loading-deck and rear door make it a favorite for carrying cars, passengers, and irregular cargo. But its most notorious payloads have been guns.
The New York Sun
Review of 1945: The War That Never Ended by Gregor Dallas.
“I personally do not know a single Frenchman who can remember the day the war officially ended in Europe,” writes Gregor Dallas. Coming from a resident of the country, this claim sounds odd. What excuse could exist for forgetting May 8, 1945? Paris, after all, marked it in style, with crowded streets, a triumphant address by Charles de Gaulle, and an aerial trick in which an American B-25 Mitchell bomber buzzed the Eiffel Tower and then – in an especially memorable touch – flew under it. Even the French are not so difficult to impress that they could forget a stunt like that.