Thursday, July 30, 2009

Russian Ambassador Stigniy on some of our subjects

The above interview was written by Lily Galili and posted on Haaretz Magazine on 24 July 2009. Lily Galili interviewed Piotr Stegniy, the Russian ambassador to Israel at. I’m going to quote the few sections that have been of interest here in the past and then comment:

“. . . [Galili writes] ‘This connection between his personal biography and the historian within him leads the conversation to the resolution passed about three weeks ago by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which likens Stalin to Hitler and imputes to both of them responsibility for the outbreak of World War II. For Stigniy this is not only a resolution which offends him as a Russian diplomat, but also a personal affront to the son of a Soviet pilot.’

"’That comparison is not even worthy of comment, Stigniy says. ‘Any attempt to rewrite history is dangerous. After all, if we do not learn the lessons of history, we will repeat the same mistakes. The attempt to compare Stalin and Hitler is particularly dangerous, because we thereby blur the line between good and bad.’ When I point out that many people will find it difficult to think of Stalin as ‘good,’ he replies, ‘We Russians have our own story with Stalinism, and I will not justify it. But at the same time, the comparison of the Nazis with the Soviet Union is a strategic error that will lead to unexpected consequences in the future.’”
. . .

[Galili says] “I agree there is something of a double standard toward Russia, but Russia invites that. There are countries, such as Israel, that want very much to be loved. Russia wants to be feared.”

[Stigniy’s response] "You are resorting to stereotypes and cliches that were coined in a different era. We are now in a transition era and we are still hostages to our past. We are not making any effort to appear better than we really are. We have no desire to prettify our image, but in truth to improve it. What Russia wants most is to be treated decently. That means we are serious in our efforts to be part of the family of nations. We are open to criticism and to self-criticism."

[Galili again] “Self-criticism? In Russia journalists are killed.”

[Stigniy’s responds] "That is true. It is a dangerous profession. That is a big problem for us and we are investigating every such incident. Still, you have to remember that freedom of the press is not only a right, it is a profession that also imposes a type of obligation."
. . .

[In response to Galili’s asking whether Stigniy defines Russia as a democratic country, Stigniy says] "Russia is a young democracy in a period of transition. We have assumed criteria of democratic values. That is a free and conscious choice by my nation. The transition period will be long and we are still in its midst. Even after the process is completed, we will be a democracy that will not necessarily resemble any of the existing democracies. The basic principles are the same, but Russia will take into account its historic distinctiveness, its social structure and its geopolitical situation. Russia's main conclusion from recent years is to place individual rights above the state. Is that perfect? No. For a fully functioning democracy a middle class is needed, and we do not yet have one. But one thing is clear: Forget about all this talk of Russia's desire to return to being an empire, a superpower. We have neither the will nor the ability to go back to that. Even the foundation does not exist: realization of such ambitions requires a centralized economy, and ours is privatized. It is precisely because we want to focus on these internal matters that we want to reduce and resolve external conflicts. In the 1990s we held extensive discussions in the Foreign Ministry about the possibility of maintaining a low profile in foreign policy, something like Britain's 'splendid isolation' in the 19th century. We reached the conclusion that we cannot and do not want that, but we definitely have an interest in minimizing the number of conflicts."

. . .

[Galili compares Israel’s retention of land captured in her wars with Arab countries to Russia’s retention of the Kuril Islands. Stigniy responds] "It is different. Our role was to set in motion large-scale processes. Did we fight only for territorial expansion? Yes and no. The Baltic states, for example, now describe the period after 1940 as Russian occupation and are demanding compensation of fantastic amounts of money. But the Soviet Union extended the borders of Lithuania and restored its capital, Vilna, which until the war was part of Poland. After 1991 we liberated all the republics and encouraged them to become independent. Maybe this will anger the readers, but we have to ask whether all these states would exist within their borders had it not been for our former policy. We helped those states in their weakness. I know our neighbors are trying to create other versions of their struggle for liberation. Today people tend to remember only Stalin's concentration camps, but we must remember the whole picture."

[Galili continues] “And Stigniy does remember. His career is divided almost equally into about 20 years of service as a Soviet diplomat and 20 years as a Russian diplomat. He stayed on after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when many others abandoned the civil service and turned to business. In both eras he served his country, he says. Anyone who expects to hear hints of a rebellious soul always just below the surface has come to the wrong person. He notes that he joined the Communist Party of his own free will and believed in values which he thought resembled those of early Christianity. He says he does not like the people who are now pretending they opposed the regime all along, and is ready to say only that he too was repelled by the primitive propaganda about the end of Communism. ‘That is all I am willing to say about my life in connection with this subject,’ he says almost aggressively.”

. . .

[Galili says] “Surprisingly, you do not seem to be exploiting the current strained relations between Israel and the United States in order to offer yourselves as an alternative.”

[Stigniy responds] "You are again reverting to Cold War concepts. We will not use your problems with America to improve our relations with any of the parties. The Soviet era, in which we fought America over the heads of the region's nations, is over and done with. Every problem there created an opportunity for us. Now we are working together. In the meantime, the problem is not Russia, but the absence of a basis for resuming the negotiations. The situation with your new government is still foggy."

[Galili asks] “You have called the Middle East conflict ‘the mother of all conflicts.’ How will it end?”

[Stigniy responds] "One need not be a historian to know the history of the Middle East is a history of missed opportunities. I have no doubt there will be other opportunities, and the question is how many of them will be missed again. But this conflict, too, is approaching retirement age, and there is a prospect that it will be pensioned off."


There are more things in this interview of interest than I quote. For example, Signiy doesn’t respond to the question of giving the Kurile Islands back to Japan. For another, Galili considers Stigniy an Arabist. I recalled Robert Kaplan’s book, The Arabists, The Romance of an American Elite. American diplomatic Arabists tended to side with the Arab nations they lived in. An American Arabist was not to be trusted (by Israel) to be objective. But Galili, while touching upon that suspicion, does not treat Stigniy as pro-Arab.

I was struck by Stigniy’s defense of Stalin. Stigniy seems to represent the same position in that regard as Michael Kuznetsov did in earlier discussions on this blog; although I don’t recall anyone suggesting that Stalin started the Second World War, I can see how anti-Stalinists in Russia might suggest such a thing. Had Hitler not invaded Poland, Britain would not have declared war upon Germany; which was certainly a milestone in the beginning of World War II. So if Stalin had not joined in a pact with Hitler, Poland probably wouldn’t have been invaded at that time. Hitler planned to invade Russia eventually, and we see that the Hitler-Stalin pact didn’t delay that invasion very long, but Stalin was to some extent playing for time. Also he hoped that as a result of this pact, Hitler would turn his attention toward Britain and leave Russia alone. We notice that Britain declared war on Germany when it invaded Poland, but not on Russia.

I understand what Stigniy means to some extent when he says that “We Russians have our own story with Stalinism,” and understand why he shuts off further discussion by adding “and I will not justify it.” Pro-Stalinist arguments are very hard to justify to the West. But I have no idea what Stigniy means when he further adds, “But at the same time, the comparison of the Nazis with the Soviet Union is a strategic error that will lead to unexpected consequences in the future.” I gather that Galili doesn’t understand this statement either. Perhaps Michael Kuznetsov can explain it to us if he should chance to read this.

It was almost amusing to read Stigniy saying “We are open to criticism and to self-criticism,” and the Galili response of, “Self-criticism? In Russia journalists are killed.”

But Stigniy responds with a comment that justifies his belief. In terms of principle and the position of Moscow, modern Russia is open to criticism and self-criticism,” but not all in Russia share this position. And it isn’t unreasonable to see the modern Russian situation as a work in progress – if only he hadn’t added “Still, you have to remember that freedom of the press is not only a right, it is a profession that also imposes a type of obligation.” What on earth does he mean by that? It is either free or it isn’t. I wish our American press was more objective and less partisan, but I don’t see how anyone could impose that viewpoint without inhibiting freedom. For those of us who want more objectivity, our only recourse is the “market place.” Americans are “buying” bad journalism; so the people who run the Media have no reason to quit selling it. I gather that Stegniy doesn’t have the “market place” in mind to enforce the view that the journalistic profession imposes “a type of obligation.”

I sympathize with Stigniy saying “Forget about all this talk of Russia’s desire to return to being an empire, a superpower. We have neither the will nor the ability to go back to that.” He is doing little more than stating the obvious here. Stalin wished to export Communism, but with the loss of that ideal, there is nothing to export and no desire to combat Liberal Democracy in any serious sense. So the remaining question is whether Russia wants to resume where Tsarist Russia left of, i.e., in pursuit of a nationalistic empire. I don’t believe that Russia intends to expand as the Tsar or Stalin hoped, but the Tsarist-Stalinist pattern is still there in regard to the “near-abroad” nations. Russia doesn’t seem to want to give up having oversight responsibility in regard to these nations.


Michael Kuznetsov said...


The Russia's Ambassador to Israel, Mr Piotr Stegniy, is a very good diplomat, and a patriot of Russia, disregarding what exactly name our country may bear: either the Russian Empire, or the Soviet Union, or the Russian Federation.
One should remember that our Holy Russia has been and is always one and the same country for the last 1021 years.
No particular difference: Russia is our beloved Motherland.

As a diplomat, our Ambassador cannot afford to articulate loudly everything which might come in his mind. He has been bounded to constrain within prescribed diplomatic limits and conventional manners. And he is right in acting this way.

I am not a diplomat, but a free person. So, I can easily explain to you what a diplomat cannot say openly.

There is no doubt that the comparison of the Nazis with the Soviet Union is a strategic error committed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which error will lead to unexpected consequences in the future.

This means that it is a very stupid policy of the OSCE in particular, and of the West in general, to struggle so persistently to transform the already angry Russian Bear into an utterly infuriated Bear.

A very stupid and dangerous policy, indeed!

As you may have known from my website, 8 out of 12 members of my own family were killed by the German invaders during the Great Patriotic War, while only 4 of them saw the Great Victory Day in May 1945, and returned home heroes from the Front.
To equate my heroic forebears with the murderous Nazi pigs is highly insulting.

It is sheer blasphemy! It can hardly ever be forgotten or forgiven by us Russians!

A few words about Stalin. His role in the creation of the State of Israel was absolutely pivotal and really indispensable. Especially taking into account the fierce resistance of the British who did not want to permit the Jewish people to create a state of their own in the Promised Land.

If it weren't for Stalin's strong support, I do believe, the very nascence of Israel at that time could hardly occur.
It's a pity that the present Israel's leadership seem to forget this. Let it be left on their conscience.

You, Lawrence, say, I quote: "Stalin wished to export Communism."
You are wrong.
It was not Stalin, but Trotsky who struggled for the "Permanent Revolution all over the World."
The great Russia's leader Joseph Stalin wanted only one thing: that Russia be strong, free, and independent.
And he succeded in that. Which is why the Russian people remember and esteem him.
No great secret.

Michael Kuznetsov said...


Now a few words about the freedom of speech.
Ambassador Stegniy said: "Still, you have to remember that freedom of the press is not only a right, it is a profession that also imposes a type of obligation."
And you, Lawrence, exclaim: "What on earth does he mean by that? It is either free or it isn't."
The Ambassador means a simple and evident (for us Russians) thing:
The freedom of speech must not harm the people's security, it must not jeopardize their lives.
For example, when, during the anti-terrorist operation in the Moscow Nord-Ost Theater in October 2002, the TV showed live (!) all the manoeuvres of the anti-terror forces outside the premises of the Theater, which TV reportages were watched by the terrorists having got 800 hostages inside, it was not freedom of speech, it was sheer high treason.

As far as I can understand, your American free TV does not show particulars of, say, the Iraq war, which may jeopardize the lives of your Marines. Am I right?

This is what the Ambassador calls "obligation" in this context.

As to the tiny marginal group of "dissidents" in the present-day Russia, I can assure you that they enjoy the right of free speech in full measure.
Even excessively.

For instance, one notorious "writer", whose odious name I do not want even to mention here out of aversion, does host an hour's weekly TV show on one of the main-stream all-Russia's TV channels (Kultura) in the prime time.

What dirty lies and insinuations he pours on Putin and Medvedev every Thursday I cannot repeat. It is most scornful!

Every Thursday. Regularly.
In the prime time!

And what is most remarkable is that the said Kultura all-Russia's TV channel is being state-sponsored!
Imagine only!