Russian Imperialists and American Narcissists

This week: Scott Reynolds Nelson on Russian empire and Ukrainian grain. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

Here’s something mostly missed in American conversation about the Ukraine war’s causes: it’s something “every Russian schoolchild knows,” by which historian Scott Reynolds Nelson means the reliance of Russian empire on Ukrainian grain and other materials:

Every Russian schoolchild learns about Russia’s expansion and how it takes place. They learn about Odessa and Catherine the Great. Putin’s master thesis was on the materials that are available in Russia and Ukraine . . . not just grain, but also minerals, palladium, gold, all those sorts of things. So he’s obsessed by this. But he’s also obsessed by Russian history, and Russian history is really a story about Russia making its expansion possible by expelling grain.

Nelson explains the connection between Putin’s war strategy and the pursuit of control over Ukraine’s grain:

He takes Kherson first, which is an important grain port. He’s just finished, I think, bombing Mariupol, which is another major grain port. He had left Odessa alone, but he’s just now starting on Odessa. So it’s these ports that are really, I would argue, his principal attraction. And there was recently leaked information about a general who said what the long-term demand of Russia was, and it was basically to control a corridor all around the Black Sea that starts in Crimea and heads all the way west. Just 10 or 15 miles deep, but that is what Russia wants.

Nelson tells us how Russia’s imperial pursuit of Ukraine’s grain goes way back:

It’s not just Catherine the Great, it’s also Peter the Great. It’s also Ivan the Great Ivan the Terrible. All of them had designs on the northern fringe of the Black Sea as a source for Russian empire. But it’s in the 1760s that Catherine, who was influenced by the Physiocrats, these French economists who argue that the source of all wealth is really the soil and from the grain production from the soil, and she has this audacious plan to expand across Ukraine, take it, seize it from the people that are there and produce grain for the rest of the world.

And it’s outrageously successful.

She builds the city of Odessa on that Black Sea port, and Odessa feeds the world during the wars of the French Revolution, as well as the Napoleonic Wars. And this foreign exchange that’s provided by this grain, just as Catherine the Great predicted, provides the wealth, the foreign exchange that Russia needs to expand across Europe and Eurasia. So Russian expansion would have been impossible, really, without this grain. Russia would have been a minor power in Europe—until Catherine opened it up with the control of Odessa.

For Nelson, there’s another lesson here for Americans analyzing the war—for those, too, who see among the war’s leading causes Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” about NATO. Nelson says:

The story about NATO and the story about “legitimate security concerns” is, frankly—partly it’s American narcissism, partly, it’s a belief that Russia cannot be an empire. We’re not conditioned to think of Russia as an empire because the Soviet Union was, of course, anti-imperial for so long. But Russia can be an empire, and a new Russia can expand just the way the old Russian Empire did, which is by annexing territories by violently seizing them. And we need to recognize this.

Read: Oceans of Grain

To continue pondering grain’s imperial history, go straight to Nelson’s thoughtful, clarifying, enlightening book.

Read: Isaac Babel

This isn’t the first time this newsletter has recommended Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories, and for good reason. To feel something of life in a Ukrainian trading hub, a city coveted by empire, a place overloaded with thrills and jokes and crimes and ironies, read basically any of Babel’s Odessa stories. On this week’s show, you’ll hear a quote from “The King.” Here’s a passage from “Justice in Parentheses”:

I became a broker. Becoming an Odessan broker, I sprouted leaves and shoots. Weighed down with leaves and shoots, I felt unhappy. What was the reason? The reason was competition. Otherwise I would not have even wiped my nose on Justice. I never learned a trade. All there is in front of me is air, glittering like the sea beneath the sun, beautiful, empty air. The shoots need to be fed. I have seven of them, and my wife is the eighth shoot. I did not wipe my nose on Justice. No. Justice wiped its nose on me. What was the reason? The reason was competition.

On Tucker, On Prefab Skepticism

The NY Times has published an enormous report on Tucker Carlson. The racism and nationalism of his program are among the focal points, and the report could also encourage more consideration of the mood that characterizes his cable news show and others.

Whether Carlson’s broadcasting the COVID skepticism of Scott Atlas (anti-mask); framing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “border dispute” prompted particularly by NATO; or calling Fauci the “guy who created COVID,” there’s a mood of prefab skepticism that you’ll find throughout cable news (in his case, particularly directed toward liberals, educators, movements for justice). Carlson might represent that mood’s ultimate intensification, scowling and laughing across his hour of questions that assert or imply more than they ask; implications that sustain a furious feeling; and a feeling that sustains ratings.

A study demonstrated that negative feelings increase skepticism and decrease gullibility. How, then, to understand the credulous skepticism of TV audiences’ bad moods? Perhaps those bad moods are closer to a cable host’s scoff, something like a grim kind of glee, committing the viewer to an infinite cycle of gullible jollity and unhappy skepticism.

This week’s ephemeral library

Ed Yong on climate change and the pandemicene. On Elon Musk’s success in a world “structurally committed to stupidity.Is The Russian Military a Paper Tiger? Anatol Lieven at Responsible Statecraft: The Horrible Dangers of Pushing a US Proxy War in Ukraine. A Fish Flopped Its Way onto Land 375 Million Years Ago and Changed Everything.



An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.