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Mar 21, 2014

Follow Friday: @MarkAdomanis, injecting nuance and numbers into Russia debate

There's plenty of myth and misinformation around Russia and the Ukraine. Writer Mark Adomanis wants to move beyond a debate which tends to be black and white.

Matthew Clayfield

Journalist, critic, screenwriter and playwright

On February 28, when reports started coming in that unidentified armed men in combat gear were patrolling outside Crimea’s airport and had occupied the region’s parliament building, Forbes contributor Mark Adomanis (@MarkAdomanis) took to his blog, ‘The Russia Hand’, to condemn what appeared to be a Russian incursion into Ukraine.

“I knew that the Kremlin would react negatively to [Viktor] Yanukovych’s downfall and to the anti-Russian tint of the new Ukrainian government,” he wrote in a piece called ‘Did Russia Just Invade Crimea?’

That Russia would muck around with Ukraine’s economy, by increasing the price or halting deliveries of gas, by withholding loans, and by threatening or imposing trade sanctions, was a given. […] That’s just the way the game is played.

But what’s going on in Crimea is absolutely not normal, and is way outside what is normally considered acceptable behaviour. The Russians have been acting in a manner that is extremely provocative, extremely foolish, and totally unjustified, and it’s worth stating as much.

Coming from someone who has been labelled a Kremlin stooge, a useful idiot and any other number of Cold War-era pejoratives, these were strong words. And they didn’t stop there. Adomanis went on to write blog posts arguing that Crimea would be remembered as Russia’s biggest foreign policy blunder in a generation, that it would decimate the country’s economy and that the West needed to slam the Russian government with every institutional weapon.

 “I judge Russia based purely on what it does,” Adomanis told Crikey. “In general, I think anti- and pro-Kremlin analysts both tend to judge Russia by some sort of different standard, just because it’s Russia. When I look at Russia’s actions, I try to imagine that it’s just random country X and proceed accordingly. All things being equal, I would support random country X if it worked to prevent a massive and pointless war, but I wouldn’t support country X if it invaded its neighbour. Since country X did just invade its neighbour, it’s only logical that I criticise it.”

At the same time, Adomanis has not let up on his project to inject nuance — and numbers — into the often heated debate about the country and its government. While he was advocating that the West play hardball with President Vladimir Putin, he was also pointing out that the president’s approval rating had increased since the invasion and that Kiev’s new government includes a jackboot of fascists.

Perhaps that’s why those who have criticised him in the past haven’t exactly rushed to welcome him back from the dark side. “I’m sure some of them have read a few things I’ve written, but I haven’t gotten any missives from people saying that they were totally wrong about my cringing pro-Putinism,” Adomanis said. One can almost hear his eyes rolling. Adomanis is not pro-Putin at all (his blog posts are usually characterised by their highly-italicised disclaimers to that effect). He’s simply pro-empiricism. But empiricism is often thin on the ground when it comes to Russia. To paraphrase Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, when it comes to discussing Russia, people go temporarily insane.

“Most people are intent on viewing Russia in the narrowest black and white terms,” Adomanis said. “The country is either becoming a part of ‘the modern world’ — whatever that means — or it’s regressing towards the Soviet Union 2.0. When you attempt to cram a country as complicated as Russia into such a narrow and blinkered worldview, anyone who doesn’t totally support the arguments of your side starts to look like an enemy. When I point out — accurately! — that Russian living standards have improved enormously over the past 20 years and that Russians are drinking less, having more children and leading longer and happier lives, this is taken as ‘support’ for the Kremlin.”

A country where things actually are getting worse, Adomanis said, is Ukraine. However cheering it may have been for Western reporters to watch the Ukrainian revolution unfold in the Maidan, Ukraine was, is and will continue to be in the direst of straits. “Pardon my language,” Adomanis said, “but from a long-term economic perspective Ukraine is completely fucked.”

“The single most overlooked fact about Ukraine,” he said, “one that has barely been mentioned in most of the news coverage, is that its population has been in a decades-long freefall that — unlike in Russia — hasn’t show any signs of slowing down. Since it gained its independence from the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s population has declined by almost seven million, the largest amount anywhere on earth.”

“Ukraine doesn’t have natural resources. It doesn’t have advanced manufacturing. It doesn’t have anything that anyone else wants to buy. And the next time I hear about Ukraine’s status as a ‘breadbasket’ I’m going to have an aneurism.”

Adomanis said that if the new Ukrainian government could avoid the petty infighting of those who took over the country in the wake of 2004’s Orange Revolution, “it might be able to modestly improve the efficiency of the state administration and give Ukrainians a slightly better standard of living.

“But the deck is so absurdly stacked against Ukraine that even a goal as modest as ‘avoiding disaster’ will require some pretty fancy footwork,” he said. “It will also require some very able political leadership. And if there is one thing that Ukraine has lacked in its post-Soviet history, it’s able political leadership.”

Critics of Adomanis say that his brand of demographic analysis is cold and impersonal. “A Moscow-based journalist who will remain nameless once said to me that they didn’t like something I’d written, not because it was wrong, but because I ‘used too many numbers and didn’t take peoples’ feelings into account,'” he said. Others have criticised him for his lack of first-hand, eye-witness experience.

“Not to get all philosophical,” he said, “but things are either true or they aren’t. The accuracy or inaccuracy of a story doesn’t change based on where it’s written, and people in Moscow are as capable of churning out fact-free nonsense as people in Washington are of creating brilliant and penetrating analysis. The reverse is also true: people in Moscow can pen beautiful essays and people in Washington can write clichéd dreck. If I write that ‘Russian life expectancies have increased sharply’, responding with ‘I don’t think that’s right, and I live in Moscow’ isn’t actually a genuine counter-argument.”

“I think far too much journalism is based on asking important people — or, more often, semi-important people — what they think about events that have already happened,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an awful lot of value in that, and the rapidity with which people are abandoning traditional media outlets suggests that many others agree with me. The real value in journalism is combining data with deep historical and practical knowledge of a country and its people. A few outlets, like The New York Times and The Financial Times, still produce work like this, but the roster is getting smaller and smaller. Being on the ground can certainly help create analysis that is nuanced, insightful and well-supported, but it’s neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition.”

In any case, he will be on the ground soon enough. In February, Adomanis was awarded an Alfa Fellowship, which will see him move to Moscow in mid-June to take part in a year-long professional development program from young American and British professionals. “Assuming that World War III doesn’t start in the next few weeks,” he said, “I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to live and work in Moscow.” Where he can ask semi-important people to comment on events that have already happened? “I can’t make any ironclad promises,” he said, “but I suspect that my method will remain the same.”

Between numbers and feelings, in other words, Adomanis is going to stick with the numbers.

 @MarkAdomanis’s #FF:

  • Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock): Kevin provides great analysis of the Russian-language internet and the Russian opposition. He also creates really funny Photoshopped images.
  • Ellen Barry (@EllenBarryNYT): A New York Times writer who (mostly) writes about Russia. Definitely one of the best Western journalists on the Russia beat.


  • Paul Sonne (@PaulSonne): A friend of mine from graduate school who works for the Wall Street Journal. He speaks much better Russian than I do, writes much better than I do, and is generally a lot smarter than I am.
  • Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn): An up-and-coming journalist in Moscow who writes very solid stuff and who has occasionally had positive things to say about my own limited output
  • Olga Kuzmina (@OlgaKuzminaDC): Olga’s a think-tanker who eludes easy classification. She was born in Russia but raised in America, but unlike many Russian transplants she has a genuine affection and appreciation for both Russia and the United States. I can’t think of another person who diagnoses both the good and the bad so fairly.

On Twitter, Russia-watchers and debate…

Twitter is the single best way that I’ve found to quickly and easily get informed about what’s happening in the world. I don’t follow all that many people but the people that I do follow (most of whom work in journalism in some capacity) are very, very clever and are always sending out the latest and greatest bits of analysis, either their own or their colleagues’. Twitter makes my job as a writer much easier than it would be otherwise.

It’s great for fact-checking, too. People will usually let you know pretty quickly if something you’ve written is inaccurate. I’m human and there are times that I’ve published articles that might not represent 100 per cent of my most strenuous intellectual efforts. In those cases, I’ve often been called out by people on Twitter who will very quickly tell me why I’m wrong. And that’s great. I really hate being wrong and strive to be right, and if I’ve genuinely written something that is in accurate I’d like to know about it as quickly as possible.

But it’s not a particularly great forum for back-and-forth discussions or debates. Tweets are incredibly short and that seems to encourage bad intellectual habits, like sensationalism, as well as the overuse of ad hominem insults. There are an awful lot of people with 20 followers who think that the secret to getting 100,000 lies in cursing a lot at random people. There’s an awful lot of name-calling. It’s not as if I break into tears every time someone calls me a nasty name, but after a while it can tiresome. The back-and-forth shouting matches that seem to break out every five minutes aren’t hurtful so much as dreadfully boring. If I’m spending time on Twitter it’s usually because I’m trying to learn something, not because I want to trade insults with some random person from New York.

The other real drawback of the Russia debate on Twitter is that, for whatever reason, there are a lot of people writing under pseudonyms. I don’t really care what people say provided they’re at least willing to put their real name to it. People who hide beyond anonymity do drive me a little batty because of the sheer cowardice of it all. And just so I’m clear, I’m not talking about Russians in Russia doing this (that would unfortunately be totally justified given the current climate) but Americans in America. If you live in a free society, like the United States, you should be willing to put your name next to your arguments. Period.

On the importance of demographics…

As a political science major in college, one of my liberal arts requirements was that I had to take a quantitative reasoning class. I took a course on healthcare economics. As part of the course we read a few articles about the collapse in Russian health during the 1990s. If you look at most Western countries, even a place like the US with a thoroughly screwed up healthcare system, the story just isn’t very exciting, because for the most part things get a little better each year: people live a little longer, survive diseases a little better, and are genuinely slightly healthier.

In Russia during the 1990s, things on the health front got so bad so quickly that the initial impulse was for researchers to guess that the numbers were wrong. In fact there were a bunch of published articles talking about the “artefact” of mortality rates and all sorts of plausible sounding theories about why the headline mortality figures had to be inaccurate. But, sadly, it turned out that the numbers were right and that Russia really had suffered a totally unprecedented collapse in public health. For whatever reason I found this whole story about utter collapse and catastrophe absolutely fascinating and have continued to be fascinated by Russia’s long, unsteady and still uncertain climb back. Demography matters because it is intimately connected with every other aspect of a society. Demography impacts the military, the economy, the political system, everything. This impact isn’t always felt immediately, but there’s no avoiding it in the end.

Demography also matters from a policy perspective. If Russia really is a “dying nation” that is rapidly collapsing towards extinction, then the logical policy for the West is simply to wait until it’s so weak that it has no choice but to accede to its full list of demands. But if Russia isn’t a “dying nation,” if its long-term demographic trends are actually slightly better than the rest of Eastern Europe’s, then following a policy of “wait until Russia collapses” isn’t going to work because Russia isn’t going to collapse. You’d be amazed at the number of “serious” people in Washington who “know” things that have no basis in reality, like the fact that Russia’s population is shrinking by “a million people a year” or the fact that the Chinese are taking over Eastern Siberia.

The other point is that it’s important to get demography right because it’s going to be a huge challenge in the West itself. Purely as a factual matter, Russia has a long-term demographic outlook that is very much in line with the rest of Europe’s (and is in many cases actually more positive). So if Russia actually is “dying” and if this is going to have any number of horrific consequences for its citizens, then pretty much everywhere in Europe outside of France and the UK is similarly doomed. Now that doesn’t automatically make the argument wrong (maybe the entire European continent really is screwed!) but 99 per cent of the time the people saying, “Ha! Look at Russia’s population numbers! It’s a collapsing hellhole!” have no idea whatsoever that their argument is equally applicable to Germany, Italy, Spain or Poland. For better or worse, Europe is in the same demographic boat as Russia and I think it’s important to point that out.

On Russian opinion polls…

Polls are never perfect, even in the most free and transparent societies. In a society like Russia’s, polls have an even larger number of downsides. But if the choice is between looking at data from polls or, as many media outlets do, interviewing a few random passers-by on the street, the choice is an easy one.

And while polls are certainly not perfect, if you look at polls you will rarely be shocked by what happens in Russia. The failure of the 2011-12 protests often appeared bizarre and incomprehensible to Westerners: “Why aren’t the protests spreading? Don’t Russians know this is their best chance to change their country?” But if you looked at the polls, where support for the demonstrations never spread beyond a small and vocal minority, it made total sense: the protests weren’t spreading because the protests weren’t actually very popular to begin with. I don’t think we should be slaves to the polls, but they’re probably the best guide we have about what Russians actually want.

Crikey’s Follow Friday series:


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2 thoughts on “Follow Friday: @MarkAdomanis, injecting nuance and numbers into Russia debate

  1. David Crosswell

    The bloke’s an idiot.
    The attraction for the EU, even though NATO can’t afford the investment in the continued U.S. expansion programme, is the fact that the Ukraine has some of the richest agricultural land on the planet and substantial mineral wealth. This is an extremely attractive proposition to an all but bankrupt EU. This is why they are endorsing the U.S. sanctions with sanctions of their own, even though this places Germany, for one example, in a sensitive position, with Russia supplying Europe with one third of it’s gas supply through the pipelines that run through the Ukraine. You know, those pipes one of the rabid right wingers, Yarosh, was suggesting be destroyed.

    This just one aspect of the situation.

    If this bloke is rated as a knowledgeable narrator on the situation, he’s an extremely badly informed one.

  2. The_roth

    @David Crosswell for all I know you may be right but you don’t back up any of your statements of fact with any evidence.

    So that I can confirm your great and superior knowledge to Mark Adomanis please link the empirical data that supports your suppositions.

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