eXile on Simes on Russia

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Sun Nov 28 10:13:55 PST 1999

[from Johnson's Russia List]

the eXile - November 18-December 2, 1999

Sovietology Without Soviets By John Dolan

After the Collapse: Russia Seeks Its Place as A Great Power Dmitri K. Simes Simon & Schuster 1999 $25.00

What's a poor astrologer to do when the stars go out? In other words: what's a Sovietologist supposed to do once there's no Soviet Union? If the Sovietologist in question is Dmitri K. Simes, he lands a cushy job at the Nixon Center, "a prominent foreign-policy think tank in Washington, D.C.," and pops out the odd book like this one, in which he pursues the avocation of all former Sovietologists: making incompetent predictions about what Russia is going to do.

The Sovietologists had an uncanny track record: in the seventy years that their object of study existed, they never once guessed right about its future course. Every single step the USSR took was news to them. And yet they managed to keep the money coming in by the same means that other soothsayers use: persuading everyone to ignore their past failures by making ever-more-lurid new predictions. Like astrologers, they made a living by persuading frightened, dim clients that there was a supernatural shortcut to understanding complex phenomena.

Their profession has shrunk recently, because no one in the US fears Russia as they did the USSR. Who needs an astrologer when you own the world? But there is always a place for a man like Simes, who possesses a trait even more valuable than predicting the future: the ability to flatter powerful people shamelessly and at length in print. Simes is a born toady. He just goes all gooey when he describes the big players, above all his hero Nixon, who apparently adopted Simes as his lapdog in the latter years of his exile. Simes' unctuous, bearded face is shown on the back cover of this book leaning deferentially toward Nixon, brushing Mister President's jacket for lint like the good little lackey he is.

There are those who claim that Mr. Simes supplements his income from the Nixon Center with a regular stipend from another would-be scary employer: the CIA. This view was advanced by Limonov himself in a recent eXile column, which described Limonov's dinner with a drunken Simes and wife, in which Simes broadly hinted that he worked for the CIA and considered himself far superior to the yokels in the FBI. Ah for the old days, when GRU and KGB spent most of the working week slagging each other! No wonder Simes made such a wonderful adjustment to his new home on the Potomac. One of the features of this book is the easy way that Simes equates his former life inside the Soviet bureaucracy with his present job at the Nixon Center. He repeatedly refers to "the Moscow Beltway" when describing the HQ of the Old Regime. Clearly, he sees DC and Moscow as twin towers; he's just stepped across the elevated walkway for a while.

This book is written in the language of those gray Soviet-style journals for which Simes writes: Foreign Policy, U. S. News & World Report. He mentions former Secretaries of Defense as if their names would be remembered, and invokes the living dead (like Kissinger) with outright reverence. Much of this book consists of Simes' reconstruction of his trips to Russia with Nixon, in which Nixon appears as a noble figure, compassionate and profound. It's an odd story, most of all because Simes, for all his claim to Americanism, still thinks and writes in a very Soviet way. He longs to find some Great Helmsman who can tell him what to think about everything, and in whom he can invest his talent for sycophancy, and it's no accident that he found it in Nixon--because Nixon, for good or ill, was a very Soviet figure. That's why Philip K. Dick made the Nixon-character in Radio Free Albemuth into a Soviet agent; as always, Dick saw more clearly than the rest, realizing that Nixon's basic characteristics--servility, sentimentality and ruthlessness, intermittent nihilism in unstable suspension with provincial moralism, deep self-loathing and desperate pride--were Soviet traits. They made Nixon feel utterly at home in Moscow. He never looked more relaxed than on his detente trips. He was home and he knew it.

In Simes' story, it's Nixon who sees clearly that America shouldn't try to run post-Soviet Russia and who warns the Russians to pursue their own path. Nixon is contrasted with Reagan and Clinton, who come across as arrogant and uninterested in Russia. (Nixon, by contrast, claims that, having briefly studied Russian in 1959, he's able, in 1991, to understand spoken Russian. If it's true, he was a linguistic genius. Or--and much likelier--he was just a sad little guy who needed to lie to sycophants like Simes in order to feel OK for a few minutes.)

But Simes doesn't keep Nixon around for sentimental reasons. Simes is involved in palace intrigue: a Byzantine secret war within the Sovietology world. Nixon is the banner identifying his faction. Against Simes and Nixon are other presidents and their own little viziers, Simes' rivals: Brzezinski the hated Pole and his Methodist owner, Jimmy the Carter; Bush and his Master of Assassins, James Baker; the evil Strobe Talbott, Russian viceroy of that overage Student-Body president, Clinton. Simes writes about the tyrants and their little gray eminences with the deep hatred of a courtier out of power who has the chance to smear the character of more successful rivals. His topic, of course, is the inevitable one: Who Lost Russia? His conclusion: everybody but me and Nixon.

Half of the story seems absolutely true: the bad half. The whole "How We Fucked Up Our Dealings with Russia throughout the Nineties" part. Talbott's an arrogant fool...sounds right to me. Clinton knows nothing about Russia and cares less...yup, wouldn't doubt it. It's the good half that's so doubtful, above all the idea that a groveller like Simes would have done any better. The most interesting thing about Simes' tale of American incompetence in handling aid to Russia isn't his self-serving claims but the fact that he's willing, in the cause of embarrassing rival apparatchiks, to disclose many trade secrets of US "aid." There are times when this book reads almost like a beige-ified synopsis of eXile articles from 1997, attacking the Oligarchs and "predicting" the fall of the inflated Russian economy. But the eXile predicted the economic collapse BEFORE it happened; In this book, which didn't come out til 1999, Simes is "predicting" only in the way Sovietologists always have: after the fact. His book is in fact a prophecy in the past tense: he "predicts" the fall of the Russian market in the late nineties. The only thing which prevents this from being quite in Nostradamus territory is the fact that he is predicting something that already happened--not a terribly impressive feat, but no worse than Sovietologists' past predictions. They were very good at predicting Kruschev's speech--five years after he made it--and Brezhnev's victory over Kosygin--ten years after it was over.

These brave predictions of past disasters do enable Simes to play the role of virtuous outsider, one not easily accessible to a Nixon crony with some dubious intelligence-community connections. Simes tells all, when it comes to the "Young Reformers" and particularly Chubais. He clearly hates Chubais above all, and for the most basic of reasons: the hatred of one unprincipled courtier for another who has done far better. Here's a sample of Simes, criticizing the American media whitewash of Chubais:

"...American journalists described the Davos deal as a "Faustian bargain" for the reformist politician [Chubais] and suggested that Chubais nobly held his nose while cutting a deal with the [Oligarchs]...This description misses the mark, however. First, there is simply no evidence that an arrangement with the tycoons was distasteful to Chubais in the slightest. He was, if anything, the mastermind...Second, the magnates were hardly strangers to him. They were, if anything, creations of his own privatization policies,...Chubais' own manufactured political base..."

All absolutely true, and nobly said--three years late. It ain't just what you say, it's when you say, how you say it, and why you say it. Snitching on fellow con-men who have already been busted to the whole world just to keep your hand into the sleazy game...not quite the done thing, Dmitri old boy. Not quite the straight bat, eh?

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