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Storyboard18 | Bootstrapping: ‘Russia Upside Down’ by Joe Weisberg

A takeaway from reading ‘Russia Upside Down’ - The culture of focusing on the individual persona - whether ‘idolising’ or ‘demonising’ them - as against a nation’s history, may often not be accurate.

February 26, 2022 / 03:16 PM IST
Cover art for 'Russia Upside Down' by Joseph Weisberg.

Cover art for 'Russia Upside Down' by Joseph Weisberg.

Unless you've been living under a rock this past week, you want to read this book. Granted that this is one man’s personal exploration. But Russia Upside Down, by Joe Weisberg, is not academically heavy and might be a good start for a sprinkling of Cold War history.

bookstrapping 280x198Chances are that you remember the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev, but not too many details. The first half of the book offers a quick revision of those times. It also unpacks some deeply embedded biases; since we have gleefully and copiously consumed Hollywood’s entertainment based on American righteousness! Most of us probably haven't read enough about Russia. Even our vacation plans are more likely to include Grand Canyon and Disneyland than St Petersburg. Uncomfortable but true, isn't it?

Perhaps that’s why, the best response to this book came from James M. Olson, former chief of CIA Counterintelligence, “How dare you, Joe Weisberg, make me rethink my comfortable loathing of the Russians?”

Onto the big lessons in the book:

Surrogate branding is powerful: Propaganda is powerful. As mentioned earlier, the image of the supposedly conscientious American and the allegedly conscienceless Russian has been reinforced through pop culture. We have grown up on a cerebral diet of America, the free capitalist good guys, fighting Russia, the repressive communist bad guys.

Soul searching is needed, once in a while: The book asserts that “Russia isn't the literal devil, and Russians are people, too, and patriots… Think how America would react if another country was doing to it what America does to Russia.” Think about it.

Accept when something is not working: The book suggests that the US must adopt ‘a less self-righteous and smug tone when conducting diplomacy with Russia, and focus on areas such as fighting terrorism, protecting the environment, and drawing down nuclear arsenals where we can plausibly find common ground with Russia’.

Try a new approach: No one can say this better than Darrell Blocker, former Deputy Director of the Counterterrorism Centre, CIA and now head of private intelligence company Mosaic Security, “I spent twenty-eight years as a CIA officer, working to understand and operate effectively in the world. Russia Upside Down hit and intrigued me intellectually and made me look at foreign affairs through a different lens.”

Russia Upside Down book

Look beyond the person: The culture of focussing on the individual persona - whether ‘idolising’ or ‘demonising’ them - as against a nation’s history may often not be accurate. Even though there is no guarantee that the Russian head of state will change every four or eight years, it is a nation with multiple power-brokers and conscience-keepers on the inside. It has a past and a future independent of a figurehead.

Critics of Russia Upside Down have pointed out that the book lacks rigorous analysis and historical grounding. The book received bouquets and brickbats both because it has been around for a while (published in September 2021 by Public Affairs.) But the comments from Olson and Blocker above, imply that peers are not dismissing it. Remember that the author is basing this on his stint in the CIA and his time at St Petersburg learning Russian.

Are the solutions offered in the book oversimplified? For Russia, Weisberg suggests lowering the volume of its paranoia, dissociating from far right-wing leaders in other countries and opening channels across internal political parties.

Weinberg also adds that both countries must agree to stop spying on each other. That sounds pretty improbable! But let that not obfuscate the book’s importance. However, it might be useful to also read this book in conjunction with other books such as Mark Galeotti’s We Need to Talk About Putin, Tony Wood’s Russia Without Putin (2018) or The New Autocracy: Information, Politics and Policy in Putin’s Russia (2018), edited by Daniel Treisman.

To put it mildly, Russia Upside Down is a pretty straightforward book!
Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta is an independent columnist, biographer and bibliophile. She is credited with the Red Dot Experiment, a decadal six-nation study on how ‘culture impacts communication.’