Russia’s Yen to Rebuild a House of Cards

The ability to “read the play” is a quality often ascribed to successful politicians, businessmen and sportsmen. The term refers to the ability to predict events and then to take an advantageous position in expectation of the prediction coming to fruition. In the sporting arena it is best seen in champion tennis players like Lew Hoad whose anticipation allowed him simply to “materialise behind an opponent’s ball” (as my brother Peter once neatly put it), and modern Aboriginal footballers with their uncanny foreknowledge of the way an oblong ball is about to bounce.

I was thinking about reading the play (or if you like, prescience) recently when reading the wonderful  memoir Last Boat to Astrakhan by Robert Haupt (left), an Australian writer and traveller who he died at the age of 49 just before this book was published and who spent five years in Russia between 1990 and 1996. Towards the end of this time, he took a boat trip down the Volga River from Moscow to the ancient trading city of Astrakhan, where the Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. The boat trip provides the backdrop to the book’s observations on Russia and Russians.

I found it especially interesting because I have always been fascinated by Russian history, especially the history of the 20th century. The years covered by Haupt’s book coincided with the demise of the Soviet empire and the start of Russia’s troubled journey towards democracy. ‘The barriers to progress,’ Haupt observed, ‘were as they were when Gogol named them: roads and idiots’. Nikolai Gogol, the 19th century Russian novelist and playwright had asked “Why does a people so blessed with intelligence remain in thrall to fools? Why has a country that spans one-sixth of the world’s land surface remained so short of roads?  Do the idiots rule because the roads aren’t there, or is it the want of roads that put idiots in charge?”

Russian history (not unlike history elsewhere) is replete with examples of fools in charge, but in Russia the fools very often seemed to be exceptionally dangerous and ruthless. Haupt touches on the failures of the Romanovs (who for almost 300 years presided over a country in which the bulk of the population were either serfs or counts), but provides his best insights into the Bolshevik and Communist eras, as well as the tragic consequences for ordinary Russians of the collapse of the USSR. (These include, as we all know now, the advent of Vladimir Putin).

One of the things I like about Haupt’s writing is his wry humour. For example, he notes that the ugliness of Stalinist architecture is fortuitously counterbalanced by the inferiority of Stalinist concrete.

There is also a superb example of “reading the play”. Haupt recounts a conversation between the writer Andrei Sinyavski (right) and a colleague at the Institute for World Literature in Moscow, some time in the early 1960s. Sinyavski believed his colleague was something of a liberal, and this encouraged him to speak freely. In Sinyavski’s words:

…one day I told him how hard I found it to live without freedom, and what a bad effect the lack of freedom had on Russia and Soviet culture. I argued that the Soviet State would not necessarily collapse if it lifted certain restrictions in the cultural sphere. If it allowed abstract art, if it published Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, and so on. If anything, a slight thaw would benefit Russian culture and the Soviet State!           

‘Of course the State won’t founder because of such trifles’ said my colleague. ‘But you are forgetting the effect all this would have on Poland’.

‘What does Poland have to do with it,’ I asked, perplexed, ‘when the point is they should publish Pasternak in Moscow’. 

‘If we ourselves, at the centre, allow a relaxation in the cultural sphere, then in Poland, where it’s freer than here, there will be an even greater drift towards freedom. If a thaw starts in Moscow, Poland will secede from the Eastern Bloc, from the Soviet Union.’ 

“So let Poland secede!” I said flippantly, “Let it live the way it wants!” 

‘But after Poland, Czechoslovakia would secede, and after Czechoslovakia, the entire east bloc would break up.’ 

“So let it break up,” I said “Russia would be only better off”. 

But my interlocutor saw further. “After the East Bloc, the Baltics would go – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia!” 

‘So let them, what do we need these forcible annexations for anyway?’ 

“But after the Baltics, the Caucasus and the Ukraine would go! What do you want? An end to Russian power? For your Pasternak you would let all of Russia crumble, Russia which is now the greatest empire on earth?”

Thirty years before it occurred, Sinyavski’s colleague had read the fall of the dominos (the play) with uncanny accuracy, and he foretold the way in which the ultimate play (the collapse of the USSR) would unfold. It is also possible to read into this story the inevitability of the Putin attempt to rebuild the empire, with Ukraine being the first “reverse domino” as it were.

Haupt refers to the Soviet philosophy of cultural and intellectual repression as “the iron logic of empire”, and recounts how Sinyavski himself suffered from it, being sentenced in 1966 to seven years hard labour for publishing anti-Soviet writings abroad. Times had changed. In the 1930s, the Communists would have got away with this, and no-one would have heard of Sinyavski ever again. In the 1970s Sinyavski became an international emblem of Breshnevian repression following the Krushchevian relaxation. To acute observers this reinforced the famous line of de Tocqueville that ‘there is no more dangerous moment for a repressive regime than the one at which it begins to reform itself’. 

In Haupt’s view, and looking at it from the Soviet perspective, the most significant “error” made by the USSR was that they did not send armoured divisions storming into Poland and crushing Solidarity as once they had stormed into Hungary and Czechoslovakia and crushed the embryo nationalist and socialist movements in those countries. Once Poland had been “allowed to get away with it” the house of cards started its inevitable collapse.  Today, the situation is reversed. Having been allowed to get away with his annexation of the Crimea, Putin was confident he would also be allowed to get away with annexing all of Ukraine. Whether he will remains to be seen.


Turning from politics, one of the saddest stories in the book is about the Volga River itself. Once one of the world’s greatest and busiest commercial and domestic waterways, its management was progressively abandoned during the last years of the USSR. It became so silted up that ferries like the one on which Haupt travelled can no longer navigate its shallows, and the system of lights and markers was allowed to decay beyond the point at which they are fixable.

Returning from Astrakhan on the voyage described in this book, the ferry finds itself on a stretch of river at night and with the navigation lights turned off. It takes the wrong channel and runs aground. The next day a tug is called to tow it off, but fails and the passengers are offloaded. Haupt sees this as a parable for the new Russian State: freed from communism, Russia has taken a dark stream, and has run aground. Tugs struggle to redress the calamity, while the Volga flows on……

Haupt is more of a historian and an observer than a “reader of the play” and he does not go on to predict the advent of the new Russia, with the ex-KGB Colonel Putin firmly in control of the government, the Mafia in control of commerce and the Chechins in revolt. But he does foreshadow the problems with environmental degradation and the failure of the environmental managers, which may well turn out to be one of the greatest legacies of the Soviet era.

Roger Underwood lives in Perth and is a frequent contributor

14 thoughts on “Russia’s Yen to Rebuild a House of Cards

  • brennan1950 says:

    An English friend remarked to me that the waterways of eastern Europe under communist control suffered dreadfully from industrial pollution and neglect.

    By comparison, English waterways which are largely privately owned; the property boundary being the middle of a stream, we very well managed.

  • ianl says:

    Even though the 6-7 years of intermittent project work I did in Russia was under the optimistic umbrella of glasnost and perestroika changes, the hard results of paranoid Soviet rule were everywhere.

    The Soviets had tried to populate Siberia by attempting to develop every mineral deposit that could be found (mines begat villages begat towns) – although not all at once. The voluminous exploration results were classed into “now, tomorrow, next century” categories, which could at least be an arguably sensible way of using capital efficiently. Yet the KGB (literally) implemented this with true messianic paranoia. All drillhole logs, surveys, collated maps, lab assays, sesimic results and results of other exploration techniques were split into infinitely smaller piles and redistributed across offices and file drawers between Moscow and Vladivostock, with records for each individual deposit split into separate, smaller piles and kept in disparate districts away from each other.

    That way, only the KGB could know enough about individual deposits to decide when development could occur. Surveyors, engineers, geologists, chemists who had worked on these deposits were known to disappear.

    Now of course, all those KGB people are dead and no one knows how to re-collate all the records, despite the enormous amounts of blood and treasure expended in making them. A common euphemism upon asking for some map or other was: “Destroyed in an office fire”.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Prior to Covid, and now Ukraine’s nightmare, we were idly contemplating a river cruise in Russia, for some rather interesting ones were appearing on the cruise agencies’ sales brochures. A shame that’s all gone now, for the money in river cruising could probably have helped with some river clean-ups and dredging. And it looked like an easy way to see a bit of the Russian hinterlands for two intrepid backpackers who had got too old for that. I recall Robert Haupt’s writings, and would like to read his book now, so thanks for the review of it.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    @Ianl – Have you read In Search of Soviet Gold by John Littlepage, published in 1923? You will have noted a number of parallels with your experiences in Russia.

  • rosross says:

    Having spent time in Russia, particularly Moscow but also Ekaterinburg, some 16 years ago and as a student of history I would be cautious about using history to put people into boxes. History provides influences and flavours but people change, evolve, develop constantly.

    Russians today are not the Russians of 50 years ago, let alone 100 or 200 years ago. Having also spent a lot of time in the US I was struck while in Russia how alike these two cultures are: both Russians and Americans are shocked to hear that anyone considers them a threat, convinced as they are of their own benign nature and inherent good and greatness.

    History is a pond into which we can dip our toe more effectively than we can drag its rotting depths to gain an understanding of why and how the ‘pond’ exists or where it might flow, for the rotting depths are the mere residue of long-gone and ancient times.

    Would Russia have acted as it has if the Americans had not kept poking the Russian ‘bear’ in the eye with its Nato stick? We will never know, but that is not the fault of the Russians or Putin. And trying to compare the annexation of Crimea with this invasion of Ukraine simply demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the situation and the recent history.

    And if anyone thinks that the CIA is not instrumental in American political dynamics they are naive. The reference to Putin’s KGB past is about as relevant as toting up how many ex-CIA agents have run for political office in the US – quite a few as it happens, particularly as Democrats.

    Demonising Russia and Putin achieves nothing. Understanding Russia and Putin might achieve something.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    I agree with much of what you say, Rosross. Times change and cultures change with them. I am not so sure about the Nato ‘stick’. Some of that is Russian invention too. To say nothing of US meddling per se. But history is certainly relevant to the Crimea, which is why I wasn’t against Russian annexation there, nor even in the Russian/Ukrainian border territories of Donetz and Luhansk. If only Putin had not developed a grandiosity about his Imperial legacy and had resisted going hard into Ukraine proper. Now a certain die is cast. “Understanding Russia and Putin’ just got that much harder in terms of convincing people that Russia may have some sort of right on their side. And are the KGB and CIA truly eqivalent equal baddies? I don’t really know, but I suspect in the general scheme of things the KGB, as inheritors of some truly vicious and what’s more very generalised past State terror organisations, were/are probably worse; and Putin is definitely an amoral killer, we know that, even though he kisses icons now. I’ve been to Russia twice in recent times and found some things there still rather chilling; a sense of looking over one’s shoulder was still part of a slightly fearful and wild culture. I didn’t feel that even recently in the US although the racial tensions are obvious still. Just how little or how much history do we have to dip our toe in to begin our comprehension? I am not arguing any rights or wrongs in particular, like many I am perplexed and unsure, except when it comes to armed take-overs of a sovereign country.
    Then things seem clearer, no matter what has gone before.

  • John Reid says:

    After all Mr Putin only wants to “Make Russia Great Again”.

  • rosross says:

    @Elizabeth Beare, it is an assumption and projection that – Putin developed a grandiosity about his Imperial legacy, surely? So much effort goes into demonising and ridiculing Putin that it just guarantees mistakes will be made. And we all lose when that happens.

    The evidence from the political analysts, including senior American analysts, is that Russia/Putin went along with the Nato creep but had been saying for decades that Ukraine in Nato would not be tolerated. He was ignored, indeed mocked. Given that Putin has done what he said he would do, and has said more forcefully since the CIA-backed coup in Ukraine in 2014, I fail to see why his actions amount to Imperial Legacy or making Russia great again.

    His actions while brutal, represent simple border logistics and a rational response to US/Nato aggression.

    At the Malta Summit in 1989, George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, persuaded a reluctant Gorbachev to support a unified Germany.. In return, and in very explicit terms, it was agreed upon that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward”.

    At the time NATO numbered 13 member nations (today there are 30) Fast forward to 1996, when, during the closing months of Bill Clinton’s Presidency, he expressed support for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join NATO. The US first expressed interest in Ukraine as a possible NATO candidate in 2008.
    At the time Sergei Lavrov made it clear in no uncertain terms that Russia would never allow that.

    I spent a lot of time in Russia 15 years ago and it was clear the Russians felt ashamed at what had happened to the Soviet Union. And frightened as well because the Soviet era offered a security they had never known before.

    Putin to his credit has dragged Russia back from that depression pit and Russians, from what I sensed, like and want a strong leader. They have that in Putin.

    I also have absolutely no doubt that if Canada or Mexico tried to do what Ukraine was doing, with Russia or China, the US would do exactly what Putin has done – invade them in a nanosecond. Look at American hysteria over Bay of Pigs? Look at their constant meddling in South America – not even on their border and they cannot accept it. Yet, when Putin made a solid and valid case for Russian borders they laughed at him. The Hypocrisy is breathtaking and dangerous.

  • abrogard says:

    Yes, I think Rosros is right. I don’t know what Putin intends and I doubt anyone else does. All is conjecture.
    What is fact is the duplicity of the West regarding its promises re NATO to Putin

    What is fact is that Ukraine is not one good, simple, peaceful nation being overrun by a mad horde.

    What is fact is that ‘war’ was being waged with guns and bullets on Russia all the time from the Ukraine.

    And things are quoted as though they prove a point – like above, ‘Putin is an amoral killer’. Well I don’t know how that proven but it’s definitely put forward to make a point about Putin.

    He is an ‘amoral killer’ whereas he shouldn’t be, others are not.

    Yet here we are after two years of amoral killing all around the world and principally in the USA and UK.

    Herded off to contaminate and kill in old folks’ homes.

    Refused life saving Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine.

    Medical system crippled so’s much diagnosis and treatment is omitted leading to death and disease.

    Killed with Remdesivir.

    Killed with invasive intubation when postural treatment (and monoclonals, etc) would have done.

    And so on.

    ‘Amoral killer’ is the norm for holders of authority and power simply because they ‘nobly’ consider only the ‘greater good’ and the ‘overall picture’ etc.

    Where ever was the rationale in truth for denying people access to their aged relatives being murdered in hospitals so’s they died alone? Nowhere except in hysteria and authoritarian brutality.

    Yes, the Americans and the Russians, I quite believe, would both be astounded to find they are considered as dangerous threats.

    For the truth is they are not dangerous threats of themselves. They are tools, pawns in the hands of their masters. Fools to be so manipulated. True. But not threatening of themselves.

    But the narrative constantly conflates the two: the leaders, inciting and creating tensions and injustices and wars, and the people, dying and suffering from them.

    One minute it is ‘Putin’ is doing this or that. Fair enough.

    But the next minute it is: “Russia is invading’, ‘Russia will do..’ carrying the implication that every single Russian person is doing this or that, will invade etc.

    Of course there’s tacit complicity and even more, when the populace does not resist Putin’s or any overlords dictates to make war but there’s millenia of history and the whole structure of our society which depends utterly on blind obedience dictates that behaviour.

    Despite that it remains wrong to characterise a nation’s people as ‘invading’, ‘making war’, ‘coveting these lands, those riches’ etc.

    We need to clearly distinguish between what is done in our name and what is done by us.

    We simply try to live and avoid pain and punishment.
    Our overlords create all the drama and injustice and killing.

    And we are not yet sufficiently educated in basic civics to understand we have an obligation to constantly monitor our elected representatives and to interact with them and guide what they do. It seems.

    We apparently still live at the level of peasant underclass to dictator overlord and can think of nothing to do when under strain but march in the streets and pray for ‘someone to do something’.

    An unsophisticated mob mentality reminiscent of the Roman slave’s uprising. And usually doomed to the same fate.

    But nevertheless totally indicative of what I say: the divorce between the ‘nation’, the legal fiction, manifest and ‘guided’ by the overlords and the people, the real fact, nothing but a docile mass pushed here and there.

    But as said the people today are not the people of 50 or 100 years ago.

    They are not even the people of 20 years ago.

    They are all now interconnected.

    And can instantly communicate with each other.

    Have all the information of the world available to them.
    They are, willy-nilly, becoming part of one ‘mass mind’, a global ‘brain’ each neuron of which is a computer (or smartphone) with a human intelligence (or not) behind it.

    That ‘brain’ IS in the process of becoming and no one knows which way it will go. How it will think. How it will manifest.

    The overlords, I think, desperately seek to take command of it now before it matures.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    ” it is an assumption and projection that – Putin developed a grandiosity about his Imperial legacy, surely? ”
    More a view founded on quite a bit of backgrounding via Putin’s own 5000 word essay though if you read the Quadrant articles about Aleksandr Dugin and other aspects of the humiliation suffered by Russia during the break up of the Soviet Union. I fully understand why Putin is regarded by many Russians as a strong-man saviour who provides reassurance and a return of pride.
    As for the current realpolitik, others commenting on Quadrant articles have not seen the Bay of Pigs analogy as one that applies readily to the present parlous situation between Ukraine and Russia and I do see some sense in that viewpoint, for that was a Cold War confrontation of nuclear brinksmanship (I remember it well as a genuine near-catastrophe), fairly black and white in its elements. Now the waters are very muddied regarding what intentions and ambitions supporting players have as well as the main two. For myself, I’ll await more details from both sides, a deeper time frame, and the judgement of history on todays realpolitik, and on Putin’s role; knowing too that historians will differ in emphasis, just as we do here. I still hold that an intent and then exercise of a total invasion has been a Russian mistake, for it unbalances any sense of an international rule of law based on notions of sovereignty and of negotiation between disputants as a means of conflict resolution. I hope Russia takes Crimea, Donhetz and Luhansk as its bat and ball and goes home. That would seem fair enough; Crimea has always been essentially Russian historically and the other two have been fought over enough now. They’re Russian.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    I suspect a negotiation re Ukraine never joining NATO would also be part of any war settlement.

  • Sirocco says:

    For Rosross. You write:
    His actions while brutal, represent simple border logistics and a rational response to US/Nato aggression.
    At the Malta Summit in 1989, George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, persuaded a reluctant Gorbachev to support a unified Germany.. In return, and in very explicit terms, it was agreed upon that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward”.

    Yet from other sources comes this observation:

    There were discussions aimed at securing Soviet agreement that a unified Germany would remain in NATO, as then US secretary of state James Baker has reported.
    But when Gorbachev was asked in October 2014 whether NATO enlargement beyond eastern Germany had been raised, his response was unequivocal: “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all (in 1990), and it wasn’t brought up in those years.”
    And Gorbachev’s statement fully accords with the recollections of then Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who wrote that the “question never came up”.

    It is therefore unsurprising that Mark Kramer, the director of Cold War studies at Harvard, concludes his forensic review of the Western and Soviet archives by dismissing the contention as “spurious”.

    It seems that reliable sources dismiss the NATO creep argument.

  • Michael Waugh says:

    I’ve made similar comments to the following on earlier articles, and apologise for repeating myself, but, in addition to what Sirocco says above, isn’t there the fundamental issue that Ukraine is either a sovereign nation or it is not. If it is, how can the West or Russia veto its legitimate treaties and arrangements with other countries ?
    Further, why should Russia have any concern about which countries join the NATO treaty, unless it intends to attack or invade those countries (like it has in respect of both Georgia and Ukraine) ?
    I think it’s worth also saying that asserting that the US and Russia are similar is a stretch beyond breaking point. I readily accept that the US has entered wars it shouldn’t have, or arguably it shouldn’t have ,and that immense power is nearly necessarily misused at times (power being a corrupting influence), but US Presidents are not installed for life and are subject to powerful controls of their legislatures and courts and are frequently relentlessly criticised by their free media. The totalitarian nature of Putin’s control could not be more different. One obvious manifestation of the differences is the way countless non-Americans attempt to flood into the US, while many in Russia wish to flee Russia, and another manifestation is the way the old iron curtain countries have run into the arms of the free world (rather than extolling the great virtues of the brotherly love of the old communist regimes). I have no doubt that the total rejection of the government Putin served is humiliating for Putin and his cronies.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    Thank you again, Michael Waugh, and well put.

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