Monday 11 March 2024

(Sort of) Russian literature review: Day of the Oprichnik & War with Russia: An Urgent Warning

day of the oprichnik cover

Day of the Oprichnik 

by Vladimir Sorokin

This was sold to me as a kvass soaked satire of Putin's Russia. I can see some parallels, in the mixture of religion and fascism with an Imperial Czarist face. But it's really more of a parody of General Pyotr Nikolayevich Krasnov (ataman of the Don Cossack Host) 1927 utopian novel Behind the Thistle, in which he posits the return of the Czar.

Everything positive that Krasnov posits is revealed as dysfunctional by Sorokin. The infallible, imperious leader is a petty Machiavellian tyrant. The Oporichniks (based on Ivan the Terrible's secret police) are brutal thugs who rape and murder in the name of both Czar and God. They observe religious rituals and trifles while committing horrific crimes with a clean if twisted conscience. They engage in extensive drug use and sodomy that the church would imprison others for. The book is a litany of hypocrisy, of entitled elites exploiting and oppressing the people in the most amoral fashion while marinating in their own self-aggrandizing piety. 

Technology in this nightmare state is skewed and warped to serve the system, with some extreme high tech and the rest... not so much. Only what is of use to the regime, what keeps it in power, is leveraged. 

It's a good dystopian book, but it's an ugly read, despite the poetic leanings of Sorokin. The florid prose is like dressing on roadkill. 

War with Russia cover

by General Sir Richard Shirreff 

I picked this book up in the wake of all the articles and hand-wringing about a possible Russian attack on the Baltic States after Russia defeats Ukraine. The author, Sir Richard, is a former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO and showed up on a news video I saw which touched on his book, and its prediction of a Russian invasion of Ukraine (followed by an attack on the Baltics). 

Given the current state of the world, that peaked my interest. The Baltics are NATO members, so Article Five would presumably be invoked should the Russians attack, setting off WWIII. 

Surely an insane scenario, yet one being seriously considered now by people in the know. I wanted to understand why.

War with Russia is filled with more military jargon and acronyms than you can shake a stick at. Yes, the author knows his stuff. No, I did not need to know the calibre and specifications of every weapon. 

This sort of thing is to be expected of a book in the Tom Clancy vein (military gear porn!), with loosely sketched characters, mostly out of central military casting. It does include a variety of political figures, and pointed behind-the-scenes machinations, some of which are no doubt culled from the author's personal experiences. Impractical defense spends, budget cuts, fickle leaders in pursuit of approval ratings, and military decisions driven by photo op opportunity all get a spill of ink. 

The plot unfolds briskly, the action scenes have verisimilitude, and the story is disturbingly believable.

And that's the real point: the narrative trappings are just the sugar coating on the policy paper pill. 

An attack on the Baltic states actually is possible. It is unlikely and would be a huge gamble, but then, Putin looks like more of a poker player, than a chess player, by the day.

Shirreff's posits a lightning strike by Russian combined arms into the Baltics, with paratroopers being dropped in from Narva and supported by armoured columns. The Russian plan is to  present the West with a fait accompli: occupy the Baltics, formally annex them, and declare any attack on Russian territory will result in a nuclear response.

The Baltics are small and their armed forces are tiny; they don't have the ability to stop a determined Russian attack. They can make the occupation unpleasant, but by then it will be too late. 

As the Ukrainians have discovered, it's extremely difficult to root out entrenched Russian troops. The US would not have total air superiority here, unlike in Desert Storm. Invading the Baltics would be enormously costly, and Western European governments might not want to spend lives on a (seemingly) lost cause against a foe that thinks nothing of its own combat casualties.

NATO also requires members unanimously agree to activate Article Five; with Hungary practically a Russian vassal, that's not likely. The larger NATO has gotten, the more unwieldy, slow and bureaucratic it has become. Worse, anything they discuss winds up on Putin's desk within a few hours. 

Putin also ascribes to something called 'Nuclear De-escalation'. The term is not what it seems: if NATO were to launch a major ground attack on the Baltics, or Kaliningrad, Putin would drop a nuke on Warsaw or Berlin. This would so shock Western governments that they would completely back off, and the conflict would turn to negotiated settlement on Russian terms. That's the idea, at any rate. 


Only an inveterate gambler would dare to pull a stunt like this. 

Is Putin that guy?

I'm not sure, and neither it seems are the pundits. Some assert this attack is inevitable, others insist it's delusional nonsense. 

Either way, the doomsday clock is closer to striking than ever before: we're now 90 seconds away, 'at a moment of historic danger'. 

Rather sobering.

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