"L'affaire Botul" continues

Bernard Henri-Lévy, Balkany and Ségolène Royal.

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the delight of the French intellectual class at the ridicule to which Bernard-Henri Lévy (aka "BHL") had exposed himself when he was caught quoting the "work" of a fictitious philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, in one of his two newly published books. BHL's extraordinary media profile in France (think Alain de Botton attracting Katie Price-style column acreage) has ensured that l'affaire Botul won't be expiring any time soon.

A week after BHL's working practices were first impugned by Aude Lancelin in the weekly Nouvel Observateur, Delefeil de Ton, who writes a column in the magazine every Monday, compared BHL to Patrick Balkany, mayor of the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, and an intimate of Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed in a recent book to have slept with Brigitte Bardot when he was 18 -- a boast that attracted a furious rebuttal from Bardot herself.

At the same time, Le Nouvel Observateur issued a communiqué congratulating itself -- with some justification, it must be said -- for its "independence" during the whole affair, which contrasted favourably, it claimed, with the "servility that most of the French press had displayed towards Bernard-Henri Lévy".

BHL's reaction was immediate and ferocious: in an appearance on the France Inter radio station (a video of which you can watch here), he expressed his dismay at such an august journal ("the paper of Foucault and of Sartre") engaging in a "manhunt".

And, in the latest twist in the tale, one of BHL's powerful friends, the former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, has come to his aid. In a piece in Le Monde entitled "BHL, François Mitterrand, the mob and me", Royal complains about the "incredible manhunt" launched against Lévy, deplores the tone of the debate, and points out that the newspaper Libération was forced to close the comment facility on its website after it was polluted by the ravings of anti-Semites (BHL is Jewish).

She ends by quoting something Mitterrand said about the book that made Lévy's name in the late 1970s, Barbarism With a Human Face: "It is, in the image of its author," the former president wrote, "a book at once superb and naive." Royal concludes with this extraordinary paean to a man whose lack of professionalism ought to have made him persona non grata in polite circles:

The Bernard-Henri Lévy I know, whose advice I have sought, the upright and engaged man whom I admire profoundly, is, at bottom, exactly the one François Mitterrand had sensed. That surprises you? It doesn't surprise me.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times