In the Critics this week

John Gray on capitalism's future, Ryan Gilbery on Stoker, Leo Robson on Coetzee and Crace, and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray reviews The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future by Geoff Mulgan. “The assumption underlying Mulgan’s analysis,” Gray writes, “is that … capitalism is the only game in town”. The problem with Mulgan’s thesis, Gray continues, is that his definition of capitalism detaches it from “any particular mode of production”. And we know from recent history that “an elastic understanding of capitalism allows governments to condemn the market’s excesses while continuing to entrench market forces in every corner of society”. Mulgan, argues Gray, has not eluded the logic of market-based thinking. “Where [his] argument is problematic is in accepting that all human relations can be understood as forms of exchange and that we can enjoy the market’s benefits without any of its hazards”.

Also in Books:

Novelist and critic Philippa Stockley reviews Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s biography of former American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (“Vreeland lived out her fantasies and for decades encouraged others to invent and imagine theirs”); David Shariatmadari reviews Revolutionary Iran: a History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy (“Axworthy has confirmed his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment”); Leo Robson reviews new novels by J M Coetzee and Jim Crace (“The Childhood of Jesus, Coetzee’s most freewheeling work so far, might be seen as a homage to Beckett … The most seductive and enthralling of Crace’s novels, Harvest is also likely to be his last … Ending is its theme – or if not ending, then the destructiveness inherent in change”); Olivia Laing reviews The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman (“[T]he true message of the Aids years should have been that a small group of people at the very margins of society succeeded in forcing their nation to change its treatment of them”); and Rachle Bowlby reviews Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier and her sisters (“Daphne du Maurier was one of three sisters but the Brontes they weren’t, however much this book tries to present a picture of collective creative achievement”).

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews Park Chan-wook’s new film, Stoker (“This [film] left me stoked”); Rachel Cooke watches Sue Perkins’s comedy Heading Out and ITV’s Glorious Food, hosted by Carol Vorderman (“Vorderman … appears to be about as interested in cooking as I am in who wins this shameless, muddled rip-off”); Antonia Quirke bemoans the quality of football phone-ins (“programmes such as … Radio 5 Live’s 606 are increasingly hard to listen to”); Jason Cowley reviews Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth, with James McAvoy in the title role (“Jamie Lloyd’s production is as visceral and boisterous as any I have seen”); Alexandra Coghlan hears Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan at the Barbican and Nicholas Daniel and friends at the Wigmore Hall (“The quality of [Vengerov’s] playing … is a rather mixed bag”).

Plus:

Meeting Peter Porter a Year After His Death, a poem by Tim Liardet, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Nicole Kidman at the London premiere of Stoker (2013, Getty Images)
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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