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THE BIG QUESTION — September 16, 2009

THE BIG QUESTION is a new multimedia project on the World Policy Blog.

David A. Andelman: Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, by Stephen F. Cohen

Back a quarter century ago, in what today seems a never-never land, during the depths of the time when Communists were running Russia, the KGB was still shipping dissidents to Siberia, when American journalists, including this commentator were playing footsie with the mili-men (really KGB in gray great-coats) who stood guard at the entry to the foreign ghetto at Sadovo Samotechnaya where many of the world’s journalists were penned, Stephen Cohen had already passed through the looking glass and was building his vast network of sources that today enables him to understand what has gone right and oh so wrong in Russia—and especially our perceptions of it. We should all be gratified today for his diligence, plumbing these sources and delivering, finally, this compelling, cautionary tale of good intentions gone so terribly awry—Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, (Columbia University Press: New York, 2009). For, as this brilliant Princeton and New York University professor so meticulously chronicles, we have indeed gone off the rails in our dealing with the realities of today’s Russia, taking us once again to the brink. As we stare into the abyss that over the past two decades we thought we would never again confront, Cohen leads us through the tortuous steps that have taken the world’s two superpowers from the age of Stalin and Bukharin to that of Putin and the oligarchs. Organized by eras, but effectively as a succession of myths and consequences, Cohen leads us vividly through the reign of Stalin and the political show trials he so carefully orchestrated with Nikolai Bukharin as the centerpiece (Cohen and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, became close friends of the widow and descendants of the family of this quintessential Marxist theoretician, Bolshevik revolutionary, and Soviet politico). Then it’s on to the vast dark decades from Khrushchev through Gorbachev, via Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko to the chaos of Boris Yeltsin and the arrival of the archetypical post-communist apparatchik, Vladimir Putin. Cohen’s own career has been embroiled in tracking much of this period. Born, as he points out, the year Bukharin was executed for having posed too clear an intellectual and political challenge to Stalin, “decades later [Cohen] developed a friendship with his widow…and other Gulag survivors.” And he concedes, “I have had friendly relations with Gorbachev for more than twenty years”; there is even an opinion (though not mine) that Cohen’s biography of Bukharin “once influenced him in a significant way.” During his years as director of Russian studies at Princeton, Cohen was a frequent companion of George Kennan at the Institute for Advanced Studies. More than three decades earlier, Kennan had authored the famed 5,300-word “long telegram,” followed by the pseudonymous X article, publicly elaborating on “the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” which, after the Russian Revolution, “became mixed with communist ideology and "Oriental secretiveness and conspiracy.” Cohen’s contention is that America’s failures in the post-communist era spring from a failure of comprehension as profound as the failure that impelled Kennan to write his classified long telegram, and then go public with it. The difference, of course, is that Kennan’s writings led to the Truman Doctrine and the entire concept of containment—“that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Today, alas, Cohen’s warnings are being largely ignored. He is not being summoned by congressional committees, as was Kennan. His alarms are not being heeded. Yet the bottom line of what Cohen so adeptly chronicles is that Russia, and particularly the Russian psyche, have changed little in the post-Kennan decades, and for the purposes of our story here, in the post-communist decades as well. In the course of this work, Cohen explodes a succession of myths— effectively cautionary tales: the end of the Soviet Union was “inevitable,” or as he puts it “doomed by some irremediable genetic or inherent defect”; the Soviet system, undermined by an unworkable economy, fell victim to a popular anti-communist revolution from below; perestroika’s gradualism succumbed to a long Russian tradition of extremism; and finally that the Soviet breakup was an “elite-driven” consequence of excesses of the nomenklatura in the 1980s and early 1990s. The result of the failure to understand these myths has led to a near-catastrophic lapse in dealing with today’s Russia and its people, not to mention its leaders. And this is due largely to a succession of American policies based on denials. First, there is the consummate denial “that a new cold war [is] even possible.” Second, and even more fundamental, there is the widespread belief, originating in Washington and encouraged among the broader American body politic, that as President George W. Bush observed, “America won the Cold War,” which deserves to stand in the pantheon of such declarations alongside “Mission Accomplished.” In the case of the Cold War victory, by contrast, only a small number of voices have been raised in protest—among them, Kennan himself who, shortly before his death in 2005, observed that such a “victory is intrinsically silly and simply childish.”

Jodi Liss: Pakistan — Loosening The Ties That Bind

However vicious, however Frankenstein-ian the Taliban, it doesn’t explain the origins of Pakistan's precarious condition. With Pakistan’s divided and distracted military, the corruption, the poverty, the radical Islamists, the maybe-loose nukes (despite the denials), anybody could be forgiven for thinking this weak country is on the verge of falling apart. The Taliban looks like an opportunistic virus ready to prey on the systemic weakness of its host. For all the shuttle diplomacy, prodding, and nagging by the United States, the only way really to settle Pakistan’s external problems is to deal with its internal problems. To survive, the country must find the political will to strengthen itself as a unified country. To do that, it has to look past its favorite and most populous province of Punjab, with its comfortable business, educational, and military elite, and its rich and corrupt cronies and special interests. Pakistan must deal with Punjab the way it treats its angry and marginalized provinces of Sindh, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the restive and resource-rich Baluchistan. The grievances of Baluchistan, Sindh and the NWFP are longstanding. Both the Baluch people and the Pashtun (of the NWFP) resisted becoming part of Pakistan from the start. These provinces have a much lower per capita income and literacy rate than Punjab, and unequal distribution of tax revenues leaves them stuck in poverty.

Kavitha Rajagopalan: Take Me Down to the Satellite City…

Storm clouds tore open as we shot above ground in the 9 train, the newest branch of the Shanghai metro, bound for the "satellite city" of Songjiang Xicheng. This train line opened in 2007, connecting Shanghai to its new suburbs and exurbs. Both the train line and the satellites reflect dominant urban planning trends in twenty-first-century China: planned urban sprawl to ease overcrowding in the supercities and residential relocation to make room for high-powered development in the city center. The Shanghai municipal government announced in August 2001 that it would begin work on 11 satellite cities and 22 satellite towns, some of which would actually be satellites themselves of the satellite cities. The construction would take place over 20 years. Songjiang Xicheng was the first to be built and was envisioned as a cultural and tourist resort, boasting a foreign-themed district called “ThamesTown” and seven new universities. (Other satellite cities have Scandinavian, Italian, German, or Spanish-themed towns.) The combination of high-tech infrastructure—high-speed metro lines, gated communities, and shopping malls—and foreign architecture was to woo affluent Shanghainese. In addition, I’m told, many middle-class families in substandard housing in the city center received large payments to move to the high-rise apartment complexes in this satellite and others.

THE BIG QUESTION — August 18, 2009

THE BIG QUESTION is a new multimedia project on the World Policy Blog.

Charles Cogan: Former Congo prime minister ousted, not outed, by CIA

On August 12, after a day of visiting rape victims in lovely, lush Kivu Province, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a town meeting of sorts with Congolese students far, far away in the capital, Kinshasa. When one of the students asked her what Mr. Clinton thought, she blew it. It was understandable; she was tired and he is no longer her hierarchical supervisor. Actually, the exchanges had been friendly enough at the beginning but got a little edgy, according to Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, “when several students pushed her on why Congo, whose first prime minister was ousted with the help of the CIA, should now trust the United States. She then became a little prickly.” Mr. Gettleman chose his words wisely. Others have not been so prudent. Prime Minister Lumumba was probably ousted with at least the encouragement of the CIA, but he was not outed. What would you do in the summer of 1960, as Lumumba was bringing in 1,000 Soviets into the country and acting so weird as to persuade Washington officialdom that he was on drugs? What would you do if you were the CIA Chief in the Congo — the late Larry Devlin, a swashbuckling veteran of World War II in Italy, formerly based in Brussels, where he had taken the measure of Lumumba at a conference the year before? What would you do to advise the rival Binza Group, headed by Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, whose life Devlin had saved that summer in warning him of impending attacks. You probably would have encouraged him to oust Lumumba, which the Binza Group did in September 1960.

THE BIG QUESTION — August 13, 2009

THE BIG QUESTION is a new multimedia project on the World Policy Blog.

Medvedev's Warning to Ukraine

With the Sochi Riviera to his back, Dmitri Medvedev chides Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko for his administration's anti-Russia policies in a video posted on the Kremlin's website late Tuesday



Nauru: A Cautionary Tale 


Vlad Sokhin documents life in Nauru, a tiny, once-wealthy Pacific island where land has been stripped bare and the hulking shells of the phosphate mining industry have been left to rust.

Those the Jasmine Revolution Forgot 


Photographer Nicholas Linn and writer Sam Kimball capture the struggles of the Tunisian underclass following the 2011 Revolution. 

Tough Love: Las Amorasas Más Bravas 


Bénédicte Desrus and Celia Gómez Ramos explore Casa Xochiquetzal, a shelter in Mexico City that allows sex workers to age with dignity.

Iran's House of Strength 


Jeremy Suyker penetrates the tight-knit community of zurkhanehs, traditional rooms for training warriors dating back to the Persian Empire, and the modern efforts to preserve this Iranian cultural heritage. 


Bolshoi Babylon 


Director Nick Read examines the dysfunction that led to an attack on Sergei Filin, artistic director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, before Russian President Putin stepped in to restructure the Bolshoi’s leadership.



When the Senate Worked for Us:
New book offers untold stories of how activist staffers countered corporate lobbies in the U.S.

Are the U.S. and China on a collision course?
Get the facts from Amitai Etzioni in “Avoiding War with China.”


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