N & P: Suburban Outdoorsman Edition

Saturday, January 30, 2021

On top of everything else these last few months, we've had relatively little snow this year in the Bozone. This is bad news for a number of reasons--we need a good snow pack, for one thing, to mitigate summer dryness and forest fires. The lack of snow, moreover, has bitten into the ski season, with Bridger Bowl, our local ski hill, starting its (socially-distanced) services quite late into the season. 

When I first moved up here twelve years ago, I did a lot of downhill skiing. I bought a Bridger ski pass and remember a number of occasions when I skied in the morning and taught in the afternoon--even teaching in my ski pants on one occasion when I didn't have enough time to go home and change. In recent years, however, I've gotten more into cross-country skiing, especially since buying my own gear 4-5 years ago. I like the fact that I can go and cross-country somewhere for an hour or two in the afternoon and then get home to do something else--it doesn't take up the whole day the way a trip to Bridger does. 

There are a bunch of places to cross-country around Bozeman, but I just usually go to the golf course up the street from me. The more remote trails are definitely more interesting, but frankly I shy away from wandering off too deeply into the woods on my own. So, in a time of social distancing, suburban outdoorsmanship rules the day. 

The snow has been pretty crunchy on the golf course these past few days--and not only when you inadvertently ski over deer droppings. This morning, however, we got a nice dumping of snow. Nothing clears the mind of screen-time like an hour or so gliding through snow. 

Now that we've covered the Bozeman ski report, what's going on in the Eurasian Borderlands? Well, I'm glad that you asked...


There's been a lot of talk this past week about the protests that took place across Russia last weekend. More big demonstrations are scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday). People have been asking a lot of questions about Alexei Navalny, whose obvious courage I find truly striking. American correspondents not with disappointment that Navalny was a supporter of Russia's annexation of the Crimea--as if the fact that Navalny is anti-Putin would somehow mean that he would naturally see the world through Washington's eyes. 

Of more concern is a video that Navalny made years ago in which he compared Muslim jihadists to cockroaches. This, coupled with the fact that he's called for illegal aliens from Central Asia to be deported has contributed to hand-wringing over the fact that Navalny might not represent the gentle westernized liberal political force that foreign Russia-watchers have been hoping for since Boris Yeltsin stumbled off into the sunset. 

I don't think we know enough about Navalny to really say what his attitudes are toward Muslims or immigrants more generally--but I'm not sure his personal opinions are all that important. What matters more, I think, are the values and views of the people going out into the streets right now to protest. 

What are they protesting for? Navalny's release, for sure, but they're also fighting for the bigger picture. Navalny's brilliance stems from his lack of interest in trafficking in discredited slogans like "democratization," a term that, thanks to the incompetence and corruption of the Yeltsin regime, continues to carry a terrible stench in Russia. Instead, Navalny is fighting corruption--something that everyone in Russia has personal experience with and--when they're on the losing end of it--despises. Corruption is also something that no one is going to stand up and publicly defend--whereas a concept like "democracy" can easily be portrayed as a western import that somehow doesn't make sense for Russia. 

"Democracy" might be a bad brand in Russia right now, but people in Russia--like people everywhere--still would prefer to have accountability. Putin remains personally popular in Russia for many reasons--the lack of an opposition media is one important factor, but not the only one. The fact that people's living standards--at least in cities--have improved considerably over the past decade is also important. After having survived a string of leaders like Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev et al, having a president who seems genuinely competent and able to accomplish things must have seemed like a refreshing change, even if you know he's enriching himself and his friends/cronies in the process. 

Anyone who's spent any amount of time talking politics with folks in Russia has probably heard this refrain: yes, he steals, but everybody steals. Americans and other westerners, I've often heard, are just being naive when we refuse to recognize that our own leaders are just as bad, etc. 

There's obviously some truth to this, but at the same time this kind of reasoning always struck me as the kind of explanation one provides when there's no possibility of changing the system in the first place. And, for most of the Putin era, that's how it's appeared. It's not as if elections were going to make a difference. I remember watching the presidential "debate" in 2004--which Putin, the incumbent, refused to attend. The debate, if I remember correctly, was held at 9:30 in the morning on a weekday, and the three other candidates did not mention his name once--they spent the entire time criticizing one another. 

So, not so great from a democratic perspective--but what if people don't want democracy in the first place, even if they do want accountability? What would it mean to force an authoritarian leader to step down in a context in which the concept of democracy has a terrible reputation? 

No matter how bad things get, they can always get worse. As I mentioned in my post last week, Putin would hardly be the first ruler of Russia to be swept away unexpectedly and suddenly. But if that were to happen, I don't think we should necessarily assume that he would be replaced by Jeffersonian democrats. 

One area in which I think Putin is vulnerable relates to the kind of ethnic intolerance/nationalism/Islamophobia/anti-immigrant politics that Navalny appears to have been touching upon in some of his statements over the years. Whether or not these are important elements of Navalny's worldview is unclear but, as I stated above, I don't think this really matters. What does matter is the receptivity to these politics of the people marching in the streets tomorrow in Russia. 

For a country with Russia's ethnic and religious diversity--officially 14% of the country is Muslim--a self-styled "populist" movement that preached Russian nationalism and Islamophobia would be disastrous. But I think a movement like this could find a real audience in Russia, especially if there were to develop a major movement against Putin--who is most definitely not a "populist" in any stretch of the imagination and not an Islamophobe or ethnic nationalist either. Putin's understanding of "friendship among peoples" is a reflection of the USSR in which he was raised and is a particularly "Soviet" aspect of his approach to governing. 

So for those Americans cheering on the passing of the Putin era in Russia, my advice is: the democratization of Russia could theoretically end up being a very good thing, but be careful what you wish for. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.   

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