‘Shit-ocracy’, Meier (University College, 1986) exclaims late in his interview with QUAD. “Dermo-kratiya” – as the Russian slang neologism has it – for “Demo-kratiya”
That’s a term he has encountered in Putin’s Russia in recent years, that Russians use to describe Western democracy.
Best to ignore a nasty barb or explore more deeply?
Acknowledging that his frankly incredible reporting from Russia in its wild Yeltsin-to-Putin years is now twenty years ago, (Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia after the Fall, 2003) the passage of time has also given Meier perspective.
‘Educated Russians have typically referred to the functioning world west of Russia as ‘the civilized world.’ What I have noticed is that after the end of the Cold War it was meant sincerely and ruefully, more a judgement on Russia’s dysfunction than a critique of anyone else. But more lately it has become a borderline slur. It is contemptuous – of the West.’
Does this say more about Russia or more about the West?
Obviously that’s a huge question eliciting many answers. But New York City-based Meier praises his British contemporary – and friend since their student days in Moscow-- Fiona Hill’s book There is Nothing for you Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century (2021).
Hill, the daughter of a County Durham miner, went on to serve as a senior director for European and Russian affairs on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council in 2017, but was later a witness in his impeachment.
A Russia specialist, her Harvard PhD thesis was titled, In search of great Russia: elites, ideas, power, the state, and the pre-revolutionary past in the new Russia, 1991–1996.
Installed as Chancellor of Durham University in June 2023, her view of Russia and the West has become much more pessimistic, viewing the current conflict in Ukraine not as a regional squabble but as a sort of slowly unfurling World War III.
It’s just that most of Europe’s citizens haven’t woken up to the brutal reality - that this could affect them directly, never mind indirectly.
One of the enduring themes of ‘There is nothing for you here’, part memoir, part analysis, are the parallels between Trump and Putin and Nigel Farage in the UK in the months before the 2016 BREXIT referendum, or as the marketing blurb for the book put it, ‘…how declining opportunity has set America on the grim path of modern Russia…’
Hill goes into remarkable detail about how much Putin tried to cultivate chaos in the US and UK, and how in a sense he succeeded but because the tide was flowing strongly in that direction anyway.
She writes, ‘In circumstances where millions of people feel marginalized and mainstream political parties have no evident solutions, populists fill the vacuum.’
Trump certainly pops up unbidden in the conversation with Meier.
He half jokes about moving to Latvia if Trump is re-elected.
‘There is enormous fear, among centrists of both parties, about Trump returning to office in 2024 and what that would mean for the Republic, and for democracy.’
Our conversation diverts for a while to discussing Ron de Santis, currently a Florida Senator, and whether his star is waning.
‘But Ron won’t openly go after / attack Trump because he doesn’t want to alienate Trump supporters. That’s a difficult posture for any Republican seeking the party’s nomination.”
The subject of a recent film, Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant coincidentally comes up. Released this year, it’s a new take on US involvement in Afghanistan.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a US Army Sergeant who is heroically saved by his Afghan interpreter Ahmed. But then the promised US visa to save Ahmed and his young family gets mired in bureaucracy so Gyllenhaal’s character wades in, all action-hero and guns blazing, to rescue him from gun-toting Taliban.
The film ends by stating that there were as many as 50,000 Afghan interpreters signed up by US forces, and that the vast majority of them have been abandoned to their fates after the abrupt US pull-out in 2021.
‘It is actually a damning indictment,’ says Meier, who has been trying to aid exiled journalists, students, and scholars from Afghanistan and other war-zones of the post-9/11 world.
Certainly the precipitous withdrawal of western coalition forces did nothing for the idea of the West as a civilised and generally honourable, possibly even morally superior place.
Mention of this film leads to an extraordinary anecdote from Meier, who recently found himself in an uber taxi being driven by an Afghan national.
Meier soon learned Ahmad’s 'story': he had commanded 24 Afghan security guards at a perimeter post outside the US Embassy Kabul.
‘Our conversation soon turned into an interview but I couldn’t share any names- given their relatives still in Kabul. I learned, though, Ahmad was the lucky one. Of those 24 men, 23 are now dead. He alone survived.’
This is the basis now for how the West is viewed in some other parts of the world. We have not upheld our own professed values.
But that’s not to say that things have gone better in Russia, anything but.
In Black Earth, Meier wrote hopefully about a grassroots history and remembrance organisation called Memorial and the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee, the latter he says ‘one of the great hopes for holding Putin to account for his actions.’
Well, Memorial was shut down completely, while he says that the Kremlin has been incredibly effective at creating ‘mirror groups’ and appropriating the narrative to their own skewered version of the past.
So, for example, Putin has built up Defender of the Fatherland Day (February 23 – 'Red Army Day' during Soviet times) to be the officially sanctioned way of celebrating World War 2 and other wars since. Ukraine abolished the event in 1992, an early indication of their determination to go in a different direction.
Meier offers another instance of State usurpation: The ‘Immortal Regiment’ – now a quasi-state organization, but which first emerged as a genuinely civic groundswell of unofficial veterans’ and survivors’ May 9 ('Victory Day'), marches across Russia.
The more astonishing thing about Black Earth is how relevant it still seems despite being a portrait of Russia published in 2003.
Coincidentally, however, QUAD also recently interviewed Princeton-based Professor Ekaterina Pravilova about her just-published history of the rouble, the Russian currency, only to encounter the same sense of the past being hot on the heels of the present.
She spoke about a perennial sense of deja vu, judging current events against the deep history of Russia.
Meier wrote eloquently about the past as a toxic riddle the Russian’s just can’t solve and more often than not refuse to visit at all.
He said, ‘…people [Russians] do not fear for the future, they fear – with good reason – the past.’
Meier partly meant the unquiet ghost of Stalin (there’s a point in the book where he asks an ordinary Russian woman what the difference was between Stalin and Hitler, and without pause she replies, ‘Hitler only killed his enemies.’), while Pravilova was partly referring to the repeated devaluation of the rouble over history, not just in 2023.
But the point about Ukraine in 2023, held up to the mirror of Black Earth, we agree, is that it strongly evokes Chechnya twenty years ago.
This is a highly valuable insight because media pundits and even historians have been quick to link Ukrainian trench warfare to the Western Front of the First World War, to scoop up the numerous parallels of World War Two, and even to explore Russia’s first annexation of Crimea in 1783 under Catherine the Great.
But the immediate and more instructive context of 2023 is Chechnya, which was also conducted as a ‘special military operation’ wrapped around a ‘counter-terrorism’ narrative that the West fell for at a time when Islamic extremism was its main preoccupation following 9/11.
Unfortunately for Chechnya, there was a tiny kernel of truth to this narrative because once Russia had committed mass atrocities in Chechnya, some splinter groups there did radicalise. Meier got right up close to it, taking personal risks that now seem crazy in retrospect.
Fortunately for Ukraine the ‘terrorist’ label has been seen by most observers for what it is, nothing more than shrill Kremlin propaganda.
Meier says that what’s changed in twenty years is also how journalism has changed – and he teaches journalism in New York even while he keeps writing and broadcasting, noting how his agenda has swung ‘150 per cent towards Ukraine since last year’ despite also launching a very well-reviewed biography of the American, Morgenthau family dynasty.
Meier last travelled to Russia before the pandemic, in late 2019, but he speaks regularly with Russians he’s known for decades: from journalists to historians to Kremlin officials.
Yet, he says, the expulsion of almost all journalists except Kremlin-backed ones, means that the West ‘is flying blind now, [concerning what’s going on inside Russia] more than at any point since the 1930s,’ another sideways reference to Stalin’s purges of 1937-8.
He then introduces two parlour games, as he refers to them: one is whether the oligarchs could overthrow Putin (‘there is no mechanism…’); the second is how many ordinary Russian citizens protesting across Russia would it take to unravel the current leadership?
‘Possibly not as much as we assume, given the recent Wagner mutiny,’ he says.
‘Perceived reality counts for more in Russia than objective reality,’ he continues. Russia is a country of 140 million people but 5,000 people protesting each in five cities. It could be fatal.’
There is no sign of such protest yet and it would unlikely be caused by the Ukraine invasion so much as high food prices caused by a weakening rouble.
At that moment Meier begs his leave to continue writing a piece about former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, once a Western hope for democracy in Georgia, now gravely unwell and in prison in the country he once hoped to lead into NATO’s embrace.